Syria uprising lays siege to leading religious figures

By Hussein Dakroub
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: The yearlong crisis in Syria which has deepened divisions among Lebanon’s rival political leaders is now spreading to Lebanese religious authorities on both sides of the sectarian fence.

With the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the opposition March 14 coalition taking diametrically opposed sides on the unrest in Syria, the government is striving to prevent the repercussions of the Syrian crisis from destabilizing the country.

However, the government’s disassociation policy on Syria, designed to insulate the country from the chaos next door, comes amid mounting fears voiced by political and religious leaders that Lebanon faces a real threat to its security and stability should Syria slide into all-out civil war.

Worse still, the turmoil in Syria, which has entered its second year with no end in sight, has seen top Christian and Muslim religious leaders entering the fray by voicing their opinions on the ongoing confrontation between Syrian government troops and anti-regime protesters, who are vowing to oust President Bashar Assad.

Rarely in Lebanon’s modern history have top spiritual leaders been targeted by politicians from within their own communities over their political stances on domestic and regional issues. One incident that saw a religious leader targeted by a political party was in 1989, when supporters of Free Patriotic Movement head Michel Aoun went to Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate, and physically assaulted Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who was at odds with Aoun at the time.

The crisis in Syria has provided ammunition for politicians to fire away at their supposed religious leaders. The ongoing war of words is targeting figures on both sides of the confessional spectrum: Patriarch Beshara Rai – head of the Maronite Church – and Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani – the top religious leader of the Sunni community.

Both Rai and Qabbani have come under fire in recent weeks from politicians from within their own communities over their political opinions, deepening divisions at a time when officials urge the highest levels of “national unity” to survive the ramifications of the unrest in Syria.

Rai, who this month marked the first anniversary of his election as Maronite patriarch, is at the center of the latest in a series of controversies over his stances on the uprising in Syria. Last year, Rai’s controversial statements on the unrest in Syria and Hezbollah’s arms caused a new rift within the Maronite community, a rift which has not yet been healed.

The harshest broadside has come from Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who accused the patriarch of defending the Syrian regime and endangering Christians in the region. Geagea’s attack came after Rai warned that violence and bloodshed are turning the Arab Spring into winter, threatening Christians and Muslims alike across the Middle East.

“Practically speaking, the patriarch is defending the regime in Syria while we are against it,” Geagea told MTV earlier this month. “Is Syria [in fact] the closest to democracy?” Geagea asked, responding to Rai’s statement that Syria is the closest country to democracy in the region.

Rai struck back at Geagea, accusing him of adopting selective and “ignorant” readings of his statements

Rai, whose Maronite Church also has a presence in Syria, said change could not be brought to the Arab world by force and that Christians feared the turmoil was helping extremist Muslim groups. “All regimes in the Arab world have Islam as a state religion, except for Syria. It stands out for not saying it is an Islamic state … The closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world] is Syria,” Rai said in an interview with Reuters this month.

Walid Ghayyad, Rai’s media adviser, said the patriarch would not change course under pressure from the LF.

“Definitely, the patriarch will not change his stances because these stances emanated from his conviction and from his faith in his message and the role of the Maronite Church,” Ghayyad told The Daily Star.

“The patriarch bases his stances on internal, regional and international developments, rather than on a personal analysis.

“The patriarch’s stances are clear but there are some people who do not want to understand them. Instead, they want to exploit them for their own interests,” Ghayyad added.

Saturday will provide the next test for the relationship between Bkirki and Maarab, Geagea’s residence, as sources close to Bkirki said it was unclear whether the patriarch would send a representative to the annual LF Mass marking the government’s decision to dissolve the party in 1994.

Meanwhile, since last year Qabbani has been the target of a fierce verbal campaign by members of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc mainly for receiving a delegation of Hezbollah lawmakers and the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali.

The campaign reached a new crescendo earlier this month with some Future MPs calling for a boycott of prayers led by Qabbani.

“Sheikh Qabbani will face a situation when worshipers will leave the mosque if he is to lead prayers,” Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara threatened earlier this month.

“At a time when world states expel Assad’s ambassadors in protest of his criminality, Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani is opposing the sentiment of his sect, his people, the Arabs in general and human rights by hosting Assad’s ambassador to Lebanon.”

Kabbara’s statement came a day after Qabbani received Ali. During the meeting, the mufti conveyed to Ali his condemnation of the killing of thousands of innocent people in Syria, including women, children and the elderly.

The meeting’s location was moved from Dar al-Fatwa to the mufti’s nearby residence in Tallet al-Khayyat after roughly 100 supporters of the uprising against Assad demonstrated to protest Ali’s visit.

However, a source close to Dar al-Fatwa said Qabbani was unmoved by the escalating campaign against him.

“Dar al-Fatwa’s stances are firm and will not be influenced by any campaign. The mufti has taken clear and frank stances out of conviction,” the source told The Daily Star.

The sources said Qabbani was also adamant on his decision in December not to renew the term of Akkar Mufti Sheikh Osama Rifai. “Mufti Qabbani has refused to renew the term of the Akkar mufti for internal administrative reasons relating to the Akkar mufti’s job,” the sources said.

Qabbani’s rift with the Future Movement has its roots in the mufti’s meeting last year with a Hezbollah delegation on the day that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted four Hezbollah members in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Ties between the two sides worsened with Qabbani’s meeting with the Syrian ambassador at a time when Saad Hariri has escalated his campaign against the Assad regime.

Qabbani is also at odds with the Future Movement over how to reform Dar al-Fatwa. The mufti has come under increasing pressure by Future MPs to overhaul Dar al-Fatwa and its affiliated institutions amid allegations of financial wrongdoings.