The Maronite patriarch's statement did not go unnoticed in the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar. The Arabic-language newspaper did not hesitate to respond on behalf of the pro-Iranian party, as some would say, accusing the Maronite dignitary of "promoting peace with the Israeli enemy." This accusation earned the newspaper a scathing response from the Episcopal Commission for Social Communication under Bkerki, which not only confirmed the security information revealed by el-Rahi, but invited the daily to carry out the necessary investigations "instead of abusively accusing the patriarch."
The tense exchange on both sides did not stop at this point. On Tuesday, it was the turn of former minister Mahmoud Qmati, who is close to Hezbollah, to return to the issue. In a statement that was seen as a sarcastic reaction to Bkerki, Qmati, who is also a member of the mediation committee between the Maronite Church and Hezbollah, welcomed the patriarch's call to search for the arms caches, stressing that this would indeed help "reassure citizens who will feel more secure."
According to sources familiar with the matter, this statement, "which is fundamentally ironic and can only have been dictated by the party's high command," is not to be taken literally. It means: "Let them go and search. We'll see if they can find any weapons." It is also a way of discrediting the information on alleged arms caches conveyed by the patriarch, which according to several concordant sources "is based on verified information obtained from reliable sources."
In short, so many signals have been sent over the past few weeks by both sides leading us to believe that the bridges are now cut between Bkerki and the Shiite party.
"Hezbollah considers that the patriarch has gone too far," our correspondent Mounir Rabih said. "It doesn't work anymore. It must not pass. Hezbollah presents itself as an altar boy, but that doesn't work anymore," an episcopal source told L’Orient-Le Jour, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A source close to the matter gave even a more powerful image when asked if the abscess has finally burst, so to speak, after Bkerki's call for neutrality. "It's no longer an abscess that must be lanced but a gaping wound that must be treated," the source replied.
Moreover, many believe that communication channels have been frozen between the head of the Maronite Church and the Hezbollah command, each of whom seem to be entrenched in their positions. A source following the matter closely said that both sides "take a principled position that doesn't tolerate any compromise or mincing of words. For Bkerki, it's faith in the principles of freedom, democracy and sovereignty." This is a perspective that is probably not shared by the Shiite party, which refuses to make concessions and take a step to end the crisis as suggested by the patriarch, who, it is said, will not back down either.
Hezbollah, which has not uttered a word since the call for neutrality, is adhering to tactical silence which serves its interests, notably so as not to embarrass its Aounist Christian allies, but also to keep its back covered and not to alienate the Maronite Church at such a critical moment for the party. Moreover, in circles close to the party, people refuse to talk about interrupted channels of communication or divorce and prefer to resort to euphemisms.
"Hezbollah remains very committed to preserving the strong relationship with the patriarchate. Communication will never be interrupted," said Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to Hezbollah. Moreover, he said that Qmati's statement, which seem "to approve the patriarch's position, is none other than an outstretched hand by the party to Bkerki."
This is as statement that the patriarchal vicar of Jebbeh and Zghorta-Ehden, Bishop Joseph Naffah, who is closely following this matter, approves of but with a few nuances. According to Naffah, one can speak neither of an impasse nor of divorce, but of a process that takes time to mature. "We can't say that we've moved forward or backward," he said in response to reports about the suspension of meetings of the Islamic-Christian Mediation Committee. For the vicar, Bkerki is not annoyed at all by Hezbollah which, he said, "hasn't published any communiqué that bothers us to this day." What Naffah does not say is that the pro-Iranian party has instructed its supporters to orchestrate a campaign against the Maronite patriarch.
The patriarchal vicar said he wished to rectify a perception widely held in political and media circles where el-Rahi is considered the godfather par excellence of the neutrality proposal. This, according to Naffah, is not entirely correct. "It's a demand made by a large majority of the Lebanese who have come to express their grievances to the patriarch whose door is open to everyone. It's the voice of the people that the patriarch has tried to echo," Naffah said. He then insisted that the issue of neutrality has never been raised as a weapon brandished against Hezbollah.
"The Maronite patriarch even told the Iranian ambassador whom he recently met that the position of neutrality is the only honorable outcome for Hezbollah and Lebanon," Naffah said. "Let those who don't agree with this concept propose another. We need a solution. We need to stop point scoring."
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 26th of August)
Since he launched the campaign to support Lebanon's "active neutrality," Maronite Patriarch Bechara el-Rahi no longer seems to be in the favor of Hezbollah, highly shaken by this proposal, which fundamentally calls into question its military arsenal. Things have soured a little more since Cardinal el-Rahi evoked in his sermon on Sunday "arms caches illegally installed in the heart of residential...