Denver Newsroom, Aug. 15, 2022 / 6:00 p.m. (CNA).
A Maronite Catholic archbishop was bringing aid back to Lebanon when he was wrongfully detained by Lebanese authorities at the Israeli border, according to his supporters. The American bishops came to his defense, opposing the confiscation of medical aid and hundreds of thousands of dollars in monetary aid.
“The arbitrary detention and interrogation of Archbishop Moussa El-Hage, Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, by Lebanese security is alarming,” said Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Committee. of the United States on International Justice and Peace, said on August 12.
“The Archbishop was returning from one of his regular visits to the Holy Land and bringing much-needed aid that the Lebanese diaspora in Israel wanted to send to his family members in Lebanon,” Malloy said. “All of this was confiscated by Lebanese security forces, along with his mobile phone and passport.”
The US bishops favorably quoted the statement of the Permanent Synod of Maronite Bishops which condemned the detention of their fellow bishop. The bishops released the statement after a July 20 meeting convened by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai.
According to the Maronite bishops, the incident “took us back to the times of occupation and rulers of previous centuries, when invaders and occupiers tried to undermine the role of the Church in Lebanon and the East and its brotherhood between religions”.
Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, said the detention was “a dangerous precedent,” the U.S. bishops noted.
Cardinal Rai had denounced the archbishop’s detention as a fabrication and said the confiscated money was intended for charitable purposes.
The Maronite Catholic Church is the largest Christian group in Lebanon, where Christians make up nearly 35% of the country’s 7 million people. It is estimated that 60% of Lebanese are Muslims and are roughly evenly split between Shia and Sunni adherents.
Criticism has intensified between the Maronite Church and the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, reports the Associated Press. Lebanon’s religious power-sharing constitution means its president must always be a Maronite. The outgoing president, President Michel Aoun, is an ally of Hezbollah. In the country’s parliament, Hezbollah and its allies are now pretty much tied to its enemies.
In general, Hezbollah’s enemies criticize its influence over Lebanese institutions and security agencies and claim that it uses this influence to target the Maronite Church.
Other backers of Bishop El-Hage include the religious advisory board of the American group In Defense of Christians. In a July 20 statement, the council alleged that the archbishop’s detention “occurred in flagrant disregard of his pastoral duty” and threatened the Lebanese tradition of religious freedom.
The council, which includes the two US-based Maronite bishops, called the arrest “an apparent attempt to intimidate Maronite Patriarch Rai for his opposition to Hezbollah’s political coercion.” He noted the Patriarch’s call for full sovereignty and neutrality in Lebanon and the “unconditional implementation” of UN resolutions for the disarmament of Hezbollah.
On July 19, El-Hage was arrested by Lebanese border agents. Officers confiscated 20 suitcases full of drugs and $460,000 in cash, citing laws against normalization with Israel, reports the Associated Press. The archbishop said he was distributing money and aid from Lebanese Christians in northern Israel to their relatives in Lebanon, which is suffering from a major economic crisis.
Israel and Lebanon have been officially at war since 1948, when Israel was founded. In the year 2000, thousands of Lebanese settled in Israel after the end of its occupation of parts of southern Lebanon. Many of these Lebanese had ties to the South Lebanon Army, a pro-Israel militia that collapsed when the Israelis withdrew.
The Jerusalem Post reported on July 22 that Judge Fadi Akiki, who is handling the case, told the Lebanese newspaper Annahar that the funds came from Israeli residents, “the majority of whom work in the interest of the enemy. “.
The money is subject to laws regulating everything entering Lebanon from Israel, he added. According to the judge, the archbishop was not arrested but only subjected to the same rules of inspection for all those who cross the border.
“I respect the church, but there is a law which is the boycott of Israel and it is my duty as a judge to enforce it,” the judge said.
The American Episcopal Conference has expressed its support for the Maronite Church.
“As Lebanon goes through difficult times and crises, we renew our solidarity with Cardinal Rai and the Synod of Bishops,” Bishop Malloy said August 12. “We also pray for the protection of the Church in Lebanon and its charitable work as it comes under increasing pressure. We further support Patriarch Raï’s call for the ‘active neutrality’ of Lebanon, so that it remains a place of fellowship between Christians and Muslims and a beacon of hope for all Christians in the Middle East.May Lebanon once again prosper and enjoy full sovereignty and lasting peace.
There are two Maronite eparchies in the United States. The two Maronite bishops, in a July 29 letter to Cardinal Rai, said they were “deeply saddened” to learn of Bishop El-Hage’s arrest and detention.
Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn and Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles expressed their solidarity with the Cardinal, the Synod of Bishops, and with “all our brothers and sisters who suffer in Lebanon.”
“Lebanon is a beautiful country, where religious beliefs are a bridge, not an obstacle, to conviviality and cooperation,” they said, expressing their support for Lebanon’s “active neutrality”.
“If we do not remain united as a people working together for the future of our country, we risk falling victim to outside influences,” the two bishops say, expressing prayers for a peaceful, sovereign and prosperous Lebanon .
In a July 31 statement, Cardinals Wilton Gregory of Washington, Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and Timothy Dolan of New York expressed solidarity with the detained Lebanese archbishop, speaking as honorary chairs of the advisory council. religious for the defense of Christians. .
“Bishop El-Hage is the spiritual shepherd of many peoples and he regularly travels between these lands. His recent arrest, detention and interrogation by Lebanese authorities upon his return from his episcopal see in Haifa – as well as the confiscation of medical and financial aid intended for the needy in Lebanon – are most disturbing,” they said. .
“We congratulate Cardinal Rai and the Maronite Synod for their strong support for Bishop El-Hage. In the interest of regional stability and human rights, we further support calls for affirmative action to protect Church leaders, their charitable work and lay Christians in the Middle East,” said the three cardinals.
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