The courage of a cardinal: Patriarch Rai stares down those who hold Lebanon hostage
“We are Christians. We want peace with everyone.” These words were recently uttered by the highest ranking Catholic in the Middle East, Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, in response to a question about whether he favored peace with Israel. An otherwise innocuous public utterance such as this might not merit attention but for the context. In Lebanon, Hezbollah murders for far less. It was not the first time Cardinal Rai challenged Hezbollah or Lebanon’s corrupt political class, though he is the most prominent figure to do so and to stand with the millions of Lebanese who long to be free of the grip of Hezbollah, Iran and Lebanon’s elites.
There was a time decades ago when young people traveled from Beirut to Jerusalem to play soccer, when poets and scholars and sojourners moved freely from Lebanon to present-day Israel – a land sacred to all the Abrahamic peoples – and back.
All of this seems a distant memory now. Lebanon is perhaps the Arab country that most resembles the West — indeed, that most resembles Israel. Yet as much of the Middle East moves toward normalization of relations with Israel – and ultimately the many benefits, including economic, that will follow – Lebanon moves in the opposite direction.
Lebanon’s venal political class is hostage to Hezbollah, to Iran and to corruption. They have betrayed the youth of Lebanon, who for nearly 18 months have taken to the streets to call for reform. On Feb. 27, thousands of Lebanese – not only Christian but also Sunni, Shia and Druze – gathered to hear Patriarch Rai speak with a courage that they cannot hear elsewhere in Lebanon.
From the balcony of the patriarchal residence at Bkerke, Cardinal Rai’s call for “neutrality, sovereignty and stability,” a clear refutation of Hezbollah and Lebanon’s principal captor, Iran. Iran’s illegal missile buildup through its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, by some estimates is 150,000. This is not only a violation of United Nations Resolutions 1701 and 1559, which call for the sovereignty of Lebanon and the disarmament of militia groups; it threatens Lebanon’s very survival.
For the Iranian regime, Lebanon is a pawn to be sacrificed if there is war with Israel. Hezbollah’s missiles, now reportedly equipped with precision-guided weapons, can inflict significant harm in Israel, mostly to civilians. Israel has clearly stated that it will respond by destroying Hezbollah and, unavoidably, much of Lebanon with it. It is this crisis that looms over all the crises of Lebanon: the financial collapse, the failure of the central government, over a million Syrian refugees. Still, the most urgent demands of the people are to avoid “chaos, hunger and oppression,” as Rai put it — and the voice of Cardinal Rai is the strongest in Lebanon.
Religious leaders delving into political matters might cause westerners to bristle, though it calls to mind Hungary’s primate, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, or even Pope John Paul II, who traveled behind the Iron Curtain to his native Poland — an act of nonviolent defiance that nonetheless exposed the weakness of Soviet-bloc communism. Like those two before him, Cardinal Rai is not only an advocate for his flock – one of the last substantial Christian presences in the Middle East – but also an advocate for all who oppose Iran’s dark hegemony.
Nor is it the first time Rai has ventured onto a perilous limb for Lebanon and peace. In 2017, he traveled to Washington, D.C., and publicly implored the U.S. government to help Lebanon “negotiate permanent peace,” adding that Lebanon seeks “friendship with those on our border and beyond.” The Biden administration has an opportunity to answer his call for peace, however challenging it might be.
There is a sense that the U.S. will eventually undertake negotiations to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). No deal with Iran can be comprehensive if it ignores Iran’s illegal missile buildup on Israel’s border. The Biden administration has vowed to resume U.S. engagement with the international community. This should begin with the United Nations and the enforcement of UN Resolutions 1559 and 1701, as Iran’s violations of both risks sparking a wider regional war, the consequences of which are certain to be terrible. The Biden administration should also work with allies and partners in the West and Middle East to address the untenable status quo.
The state of war with Israel provides justification for Hezbollah’s illegal weapons. Self-defense, they argue, is needed against “the Zionist entity.” But Israelis are about as keen to renew war in Lebanon as Americans are to expand the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, which are thousands of miles away; for Israel, the threat from Iran’s terrorist proxy is immediately on their border. It is a seemingly intractable problem. Perhaps, as with the Soviet Union, the solution will begin not with weapons but with the voice of a Catholic prelate without any divisions at his command.
Cardinal Rai surely knows the risks of confronting Iran with his calls for neutrality and peace. His recent speech underscores the urgency for U.S. diplomatic engagement at the highest levels and that of its partners and allies, as well as the international community.
Few countries perplex policymakers more than Lebanon, riddled as it is with paradoxes. Nowhere in the Middle East (outside Israel) will one see the level of gender equality, religious and cultural diversity, and higher education opportunities that exist in Lebanon. Lebanon’s children are educated in Arabic, French and English and grow up to excel in business, academia, the professions and the arts.
At the same time, it is hostage to Iran and Hezbollah, to illegal missile buildups and corruption and a state governed by incompetent kleptocrats. There is freedom of thought and speech — unless one crosses Hezbollah and Iran. Everyone knows the price.
Andrew Doran served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State from 2018-21. He is currently a senior research fellow with the Philos Project.
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