First trip of a Catholic leader to the Kingdom comes during political crisis
A previously planned visit of Lebanon’s Catholic leader to Saudi Arabia has taken on added significance in the midst of a political crisis involving Lebanon’s prime minister.
Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the Lebanon-based patriarch of the Maronite Church, arrived in Riyadh Monday evening, marking the first visit of a Maronite Christian leader to the Wahhabi kingdom. Interfaith dialogue and regional non-alignment of Lebanon will be two of the main topics of discussion in the Saudi capital, according to patriarchal spokesman Walid Ghayad, reported the Lebanese daily L’Orient le Jour.
Visiting at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has announced several changes to modernize Saudi Arabia, the patriarch’s two-day trip aims to “establish a policy of dialogue between Christianity and Islam,” said former Lebanese Member of Parliament Farès Souhaid, who helped to organize the visit. Cardinal Rai is expected to meet with Prince Mohammad and his father, King Salman.
Souhaid said that while the Muslim world accuses Christians of not supporting its causes, particularly in regards to the Palestinians, Christians, because of the rise of radicalism, consider Muslims a source of concern, L’Orient le Jour said.
The patriarch is also expected to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has not returned to his country since announcing his resignation Nov. 4 in a statement broadcast from Riyadh. Hariri has dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship, but many observers have suggested that the prime minister may have been forced by Saudi leaders to step down and is being held against his will.
Reuters on Saturday quoted “sources close to Hariri” saying that Saudi Arabia sees the prime minister as unwilling to confront Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that is Lebanon’s main political power and part of the ruling coalition.
Multiple Lebanese sources say Riyadh hopes to replace Saad Hariri with his older brother Bahaa as Lebanon’s top Sunni politician. Bahaa is believed to be in Saudi Arabia and members of the Hariri family have been asked to travel there to pledge allegiance to him, but have refused, the sources say.
Hariri has said that he resigned because he feared for his safety while in Lebanon, though some suggested his statement was put in his mouth by his Saudi “hosts.” Though Hezbollah is suspected in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces denied knowledge of any plot against the current prime minister.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he would not accept the younger Hariri’s resignation unless the prime minister returned to Lebanon and presented it personally to Aoun.
Cardinal Rai told reporters at Beirut’s international airport that Hariri’s return would restore normalcy in Lebanon, AP reported.
“The Lebanese people have been waiting for him to return because the situation has come to a stop and the Lebanese people have been unsettled,” the patriarch said. “They (the Lebanese) will not rest until he returns so that life returns to normal.”
“We will carry these concerns to the king and crown prince and wish well,” he added.
AP said that Saudi Arabia has been demanding that Hezbollah play no role in a “future government, accusing the group of supporting anti-Saudi Yemen rebels known as Houthis. Hezbollah and the Houthis deny that the Lebanese group is carrying out anti-Saudi activities in Yemen.”
The fighting in Yemen is viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Separately, Saudi Arabia announced Monday that it would lift its blockade against Yemen’s ports, which had been imposed since a missile was fired from Yemen at Riyadh’s airport last week. The UN warned that such a blockade could lead to a massive famine.
Fides news agency last week reported that Cardinal Rai’s trip to Saudi Arabia, which had been in doubt, was confirmed after the patriarch met with President Aoun Thursday. According to the report, the religious and political leaders discussed the need to guarantee national unity and prevent Lebanon from being devastated by a regional struggle for influence in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni, and Shi’ite Iran. According to statements from the patriarchate, the cardinal will impress upon Saudi officials that “Lebanon should not become a battle-field” among regional powers.
“Lebanon must keep out of conflicts and regional axes, and try to be an oasis of peace, stability and dialogue, where different cultures and religions coexist and interact with civil society,” the statement said.
After an official welcome Monday, Cardinal Rai made his way to the Lebanese embassy to meet with fellow countrymen who live in Saudi Arabia. At the end of his visit, Cardinal Rai is expected to fly to the Vatican.