Clergy, sacks of cash spark new sectarian spat in Lebanon

A Lebanese archbishop who carried more than $460,000 from Israel to Lebanon is at the center of the latest sectarian showdown in crisis-hit Lebanon, and the case could even spill over into presidential politics.

The situation has exacerbated discord between two powerful political camps: Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and the Maronite Church.

The cleric was briefly detained last month by Lebanese border agents who confiscated 20 suitcases full of cash and medicines, saying he violated Lebanon’s strict laws prohibiting normalization with Israel.

Opponents of Hezbollah say the Iranian-backed group has taken control of Lebanese institutions and security establishments and used them to attack the Maronite church. Archbishop Moussa el-Hajj is a senior member of the Maronite church, whose patriarch is increasingly critical of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its growing influence in Lebanon.

Many Christian communities see the archbishop’s detention as an attack on the church.

In a sermon late last month, Maronite patriarch Beshara al-Rai denounced the legal proceedings against el-Hajj as fabricated, arguing that the money was for charity. He asked for the charges to be dropped and for the military judge presiding over the case to resign.

Al-Rai received a standing ovation, and the following week protesters gathered at his summer residence to rally in support of the church.

The dispute is based on decades of hostile relations between Israel and Lebanon. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the two countries have been formally at war, and Lebanon has enacted draconian anti-normalization laws. The borders remain closed, although several senior Lebanese Christian officials are sometimes allowed to travel through Israel, Palestinian territories and Jordan to visit their flocks.

On July 20, Lebanese border guards held him for Hajj for eight hours after returning from Israel with 20 boxes of medicine and cash. El-Hajj said he was sending money and aid from Lebanese Christians in northern Israel to their relatives in the cash-strapped country. Agents confiscated money, medicine, cellphones and passports for Hajj.

Hezbollah officials see the act of Hajj as a normalization with Israel and accuse him of funding from Lebanese who belong to a militia group that has fought alongside Israel.

Thousands of Lebanese moved to Israel after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of parts of southern Lebanon in 2000. Many of those fleeing to Israel were linked to the region’s main pro-Israel militia, the South Lebanese Army, which retreated after Israeli forces.

The case could have wider political ramifications.

The country has not had a fully functioning government for months and is expected to hold presidential elections before the end of October.

Under Lebanon’s sectarian decentralization system, its president must always be a Maronite. The current president, Michel Aoun, is an ally of Hezbollah, but the Maronite patriarch’s growing criticism of Hezbollah shows there is no guarantee that the next president will continue to ally with the militia.

Lebanon’s parliament, which once held an outright majority among Hezbollah and its allies, is now neck and neck with some of its staunchest opponents, most notably the Christian Lebanese Forces party, since elections in May.

Most of the anti-Hezbollah Christian parliamentarians and other denominational lawmakers rallied in support of the archbishop and the Maronite church.

“We agree with everything they say, whether it’s their call to remove judges or their selectivity about how to treat the archbishop,” said Elias Hankash, a Christian lawmaker with the Katab party. “They (Hezbollah officials) should not just take their anger out on a religious official in order to convey their message to the patriarch.”

Hezbollah faces many risks, said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

“We have a presidential election coming up, and then we have to form a new government and develop government policies that are negotiated with the IMF (International Monetary Fund),” he said. “I think Hezbollah wants to send all kinds of messages at the moment and is determined to show that it is still all the major players.”

The Hezbollah leadership had no comment. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, denied in a recent interview the group’s influence on security agencies and the judiciary. “Lebanon has laws and security agencies will take action against any collaborator or potential collaborator,” he said.

Hezbollah’s head in parliament, Mohammad Raad, was more explicit, saying the money and medicines provided by the archbishop were normalized, which he called “state betrayal and crime”.

A person close to el-Hajj’s case told The Associated Press that authorities proposed that al-Rai return the passport and phone confiscated by the archbishop, but keep the cash and medicine bags.Al-Rai reportedly refused and the archbishop will not be present at any hearings

At the same time, poverty has increased for millions of Lebanese, about three-quarters of its population. After decades of nefarious economic mismanagement and corruption by Lebanon’s ruling party, rampant blackouts, breadwinners and inflation have plagued families across the country’s 18 religious denominations.

Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said divisive political tensions could be a good smokescreen as people demand accountability and reform.

“The political class is resorting to the old ways of sectarian polarization,” Hag Ali said. “It has worked well and I think it will continue to work.”

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