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article imageIn Saudi visit, Lebanese patriarch backs PM Hariri over resignation

By Anuj Chopra (AFP)     Nov 14, 2017 in Politics

The head of Lebanon's Maronite church, in a historic visit to Saudi Arabia, voiced support Tuesday for prime minister Saad Hariri over his resignation, which tipped his country into crisis.

Beshara Rai arrived in Riyadh on Monday in the first trip to the kingdom by a senior Lebanese figure since Hariri quit on November 4 in a shock announcement from the Saudi capital.

Hariri had cited fears for his life and accused Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite movement that is part of his government but close to Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran, of controlling Lebanon.

"I am convinced by the reasons for his resignation," Rai said. "He will return to Lebanon as soon as possible."

Many observers suspected Riyadh had ordered him to resign, and senior Lebanese politicians have alleged he is under de facto house arrest in the capital.

Lebanon's resigned prime minister Saad Hariri meets the country's Christian Maronite patri...
Lebanon's resigned prime minister Saad Hariri meets the country's Christian Maronite patriarch Beshara Rai in the Saudi capital Riyadh on November 14, 2017, in a handout picture released by the press office of Lebanon's Maronite Patriarchate
HO, Lebanon's Maronite Patriarchate press office/AFP

But in his first tweet in several days on Tuesday, Hariri brushed aside those allegations.

"Everybody, I'm totally fine. God willing, I'll be back in these two days. Let's calm down," he wrote.

He added that his family would stay in Saudi Arabia, calling it "their country".

Hariri's resignation came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in conflicts and power struggles from Syria to Yemen.

Rai's trip to Saudi Arabia, though overshadowed by Hariri's resignation, is significant as it symbolises a rare inter-religious exchange in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom, home to the holiest sites in Islam.

Rai is the top cleric in Lebanon's powerful Maronite community, and is regularly consulted by both Christian and non-Christian political figures as well as receiving foreign dignitaries when they visit the country.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, he met King Salman and powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday.

The patriarch and the king "reviewed fraternal relations between the kingdom and Lebanon and confirmed the importance of the role of different religions and cultures in promoting tolerance, renouncing violence, extremism and terrorism," the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.

Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch Bechara Rai with King Salman on November 14  2017 in Riy...
Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch Bechara Rai with King Salman on November 14, 2017 in Riyadh
Fayez Nureldine, AFP

Separately, Saudi Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan said the Maronite patriarch's visit "stresses the kingdom's approach for peaceful coexistence, closeness and openness for all sections of Arabic people."

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said France was "worried by the situation in Lebanon" and wanted to see the government there "stabilise as quickly as possible".

Le Drian is set to visit Riyadh on Thursday.

France joined Germany on Monday in calling for an end to external interference in Lebanon -- buffeted for decades by conflicts between bigger players in the region such as Iran and Syria.

Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also warned other countries against using Lebanon for "proxy conflicts", adding that he had no evidence that Hariri was being held against his will in the oil-rich kingdom.


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