After Maronite archbishop detained in Lebanon, U.S. bishops voice solidarity

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA


A scene from a papal visit to Lebanon, Sept. 14, 2012. / Vatican Media

Denver Newsroom, Aug 15, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

A Maronite Catholic archbishop was bringing aid back to Lebanon when he was wrongly detained by Lebanese authorities at the Israeli border, his supporters say. The U.S. bishops have spoken in his defense, objecting to the confiscation of medical aid and hundreds of thousands of dollars in monetary aid.

“The arbitrary detention and interrogation of Archbishop Moussa El-Hage, the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, by Lebanese security, is cause for alarm,” Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said Aug. 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 family members in Lebanon,” Malloy said. “All this was confiscated by Lebanese security forces, along with his cell phone and passport.”

The U.S. bishops favorably cited the statement from the Permanent Synod of Maronite Bishops which condemned their fellow bishop’s detention. The bishops issued the statement after a July 20 meeting convened by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai.

According to the Maronite bishops, the incident “brought us back to the times of occupation and rulers in the previous centuries, when the invaders and occupiers were trying to undermine the role of the Church in Lebanon and the East and its brotherhood between religions.”

Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, said the detention was “a dangerous precedent,” the U.S. bishops noted.

Cardinal Rai had denounced the detention of the archbishop as a fabrication and said that the confiscated money was intended for charitable purposes.

The Maronite Catholic Church is the largest Christian group in Lebanon, where Christians make up almost 35% of the country’s 7 million people. An estimated 60% of Lebanese are Muslim and are about evenly split between Shiite and Sunni adherents.

Criticism has intensified between the Maronite Church and Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group, which is backed by Iran, the Associated Press reports. Lebanon’s religious power-sharing constitution means that its president must always be a Maronite. The incumbent president, President Michel Aoun, is an ally of Hezbollah. In the country’s parliament, Hezbollah and its allies are now roughly tied with its foes.

In general, foes of Hezbollah criticize its influence over Lebanese institutions and security agencies and argue it uses this influence to target the Maronite Church.

Other backers of Archbishop El-Hage include the religious advisory board for the U.S.-based group In Defense of Christians. In a July 20 statement, the board alleged the archbishop’s detention “occurred in flagrant contempt of his pastoral duty” and threatened Lebanon’s tradition of religious freedom.

The board, which includes the two U.S.-based Maronite bishops, characterized the arrest as “an apparent attempt to intimidate Maronite Patriarch Rai for his opposition to Hezbollah’s political coercion.” It noted the patriarch’s call for full sovereignty and neutrality in Lebanon and the “unconditional enforcement” of U.N. resolutions for the disarmament of Hezbollah.

On July 19 El-Hage was detained by Lebanese border agents. The agents confiscated 20 suitcases filled with medicine and $460,000 in cash, citing laws against normalization with Israel, the Associated Press reports. The archbishop said he was delivering 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 formally at war since 1948, when Israel was founded. In the year 2000, thousands of Lebanese moved to Israel after it ended its occupation of some regions in southern Lebanon. Many of these Lebanese had links to the South Lebanon Army, a pro-Israeli militia which collapsed when the Israelis withdrew.

The Jerusalem Post reported July 22 that Justice Fadi Akiki, who is in charge of 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 that enters Lebanon from Israel, he added. According to the judge, the archbishop was not arrested but only subject to the same inspection rules for all those crossing the border.

“I respect the church, but there is a law that is the boycott of Israel and it is my duty as a judge to implement it,” the judge said.

The U.S. bishops’ conference voiced support for the Maronite Church.

“As Lebanon goes through difficult times and crises, we renew our stand in solidarity with Cardinal Rai and the Synod of Bishops,” Bishop Malloy said Aug. 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 the call of Patriarch Rai for the ‘active neutrality’ of Lebanon, so that it will remain a place of conviviality between Christians and Muslims and a beacon of hope for all Christians of the Middle East. May Lebanon prosper again and enjoy total sovereignty and lasting peace.”

There are two Maronite eparchies in the U.S. Both Maronite bishops, in a July 29 letter to Cardinal Rai, said they were “deeply saddened” to hear of Archbishop 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 voiced solidarity with the cardinal, the Synod of Bishops, and with “all our brothers and sisters suffering in Lebanon.”

“Lebanon is a beautiful country, where religious beliefs are a bridge, not a hindrance, to conviviality and cooperation,” they said, voicing support for the “active neutrality” of Lebanon.

“If we do not stand united as one people working together for the future of our country, we are liable to fall victim to outside influence,” the two bishops said, voicing 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 voiced solidarity with the detained Lebanese archbishop, speaking in their roles as honorary chairs of the religious advisory board for In Defense of Christians.

“Archbishop El-Hage is the spiritual shepherd of many peoples and he travels between those lands regularly. 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 applaud Cardinal Rai and the Maronite Synod for their firm support of Archbishop El-Hage. In the interest of regional stability and human rights, we further support calls for positive action to protect Church leadership, their charitable work, and lay Christians in the Middle East,” the three cardinals said.

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