Around this time last year, His Beatitude Patriarch al-Rai embarked on his tours of Lebanese regions, from Sidon and Jezzine to the Bekaa, and reached the south in September. In mid-August this year, the patriarch will begin his visit to the North in Akkar.
The Maronite patriarch’s visits, particularly the three days he spent in South Lebanon, carried many connotations and allusions that were deep in both form and content, as though truly heralding a new approach that the Maronite Church has adopted under the new patriarch.
Indeed, immediately following his election to the post, Rai declared that he will be a patriarch for all of Lebanon. Among the top highlights of this new approach is the Maronite church’s engagement of the south that resisted Israeli occupation and which had felt somewhat neglected during the tenure of His Eminence Cardinal Sfeir.
In his previous tours of Lebanese regions, Rai identified and emphasized two main headlines for his approach.
The first one involves national unity, or what is known in the prevailing political lexicon as coexistence. On the first day of his tour of the South, he made a symbolic visit to the tombs of the victims of the Israeli assault on Qana. After he placed a wreath at the tombs, he said, “As Christians, our existence here has no meaning without the Muslims, and the existence of Muslims has no meaning without the Christians.”
Rai reiterated this on the second day of his tour, in Marjayoun, where he said, “Lebanon faces today the challenge of reuniting [its people] and rebuilding its social fabric, so that we may live amid the beauty of love and partnership.” The Maronite patriarch also described Bint Jbeil as being the capital of coexistence, given the fact that there, “The Lebanese triumphed over the attempt to break up their country, and knew how to shed their own blood to preserve it.”
The other main headline of Rai’s approach revolves around the resistance. Since the first day of his visit, the patriarch tackled the topic of the resistance in the South with pride and appreciation, by identifying the resistance as the main motive for his visit to the South. Rai said, “My visit to the South was meant to congratulate its people for their victory and their steadfastness, [since] they have given everything for Lebanon’s sake…I salute the people of the South who resisted and held their ground so that Lebanon can remain sovereign, free and independent.”
On the third day of his southern excursion, Rai addressed the president from the home of the speaker of parliament, and bade him to endorse his message to the people of South Lebanon.
This was the gist of the messages carried by Rai during his previous pastoral visits. Yet it seems that the patriarch, through all his statements and the salutes he has made, has forgotten to address a broad Lebanese segment that was leading and pioneering when it comes to both coexistence and resistance against Israeli aggression. So one question here is this: Will his visit to Akkar bring anything new to do justice to this broad segment of the Lebanese people?
Bear in mind that this segment includes many Muslim and Christian Akkaris, who were wounded or martyred defending the South. Some of these people remain buried to this day in the South, such as Ahmad Hussain from the village of Beit Ayoub in Akkar.
Furthermore, will His Beatitude’s visit to Akkar do justice to dozens of victims who perished for the sake of coexistence in Akkar? Here, we mean in particular the Akkari Christian victims (who number in the dozens), who perished in the intra-Christian bloodshed that was condemned by the Apostolic Exhortation entitled “A New Hope for Lebanon”.
Nor can we forget the many victims killed at the hands of Christian and Muslim sectarian factions. So will Patriarch Rai choose to overlook the credit that must go to those pioneers of coexistence and resistance, given their political attitudes and practices that rejected sectarianism and sectarian parties?
Your Beatitude, you have argued for “the unambiguous civil state” and “proportional representation in the electoral law”, as staple elements of your reformist approach. But there is no one more entrenched in this position than the Lebanese segment that is active in non-sectarian parties and institutions. Therefore, you owe it to this segment to express your support for it, and give it credit where it is due.
This segment is also closest to your position that rejects Western (American and European) policies, in particular your response to the statements of French former FM Alain Juppe, when you said, “We, the Lebanese, and the Christians of the Orient, reject all tendencies to partition the Middle East into sectarian entities, as a result of the ongoing and open dispute between the Sunnis and the Shiites, because we believe that pluralism where minorities integrate in harmony and accord, is a guarantor of our existence [here], and our dignity and freedom.”
Your Beatitude, there are pioneers in Kobayat-Andaket (the Christian heartland and in other villages in Akkar of course,) who, before the Apostolic Exhortation and before your call for coexistence and salutes to the resistance at the beginning of your tenure, were already practicing the essence of the Apostolic Exhortation, and rejected Western colonial policies. For this, they paid a lofty price, both with their lives and their freedoms.
Your predecessor Cardinal Sfeir renounced the Lebanese and Christian identity of some of these pioneers, in response to their political positions which your approach and the Apostolic Exhortation have since espoused. So will they find with Your Beatitude the same justice and recognition you have given, rightly, to the heroes of the South?
The prisoner George Abdallah, who hails from Kobayat, has been sitting for 28 years in French prisons, in defense of the values you proclaim and which the Apostolic Exhortation has called for. Abdallah fought against the Israeli invaders in the South in 1978, and was twice wounded there. His family was denied the honor of presenting his case to Your Beatitude, despite making a written request to do so, on 24 September 2011, through the Archbishop of the Maronite Archdiocese of Tripoli, His Eminence Bishop George Abou Jaoude.
In the request, we implored His Beatitude Patriarch Rai to support the prisoner George Abdallah and extend to him his compassion and his wisdom. George Abdallah was only taken prisoner because he once believed in what you are calling for today.
The pioneers of coexistence in Kobayat-Andaket (and other Christian towns and villages, and in Akkar in general) were mainly members of nationalist and socialist political parties that all rejected sectarianism and called for an end to the strong confessional system that relies on bitter sectarian affiliations – which are far removed from the essence of religion and Christianity in particular.
This group of people suffered from an intellectual and political blockade by the Maronite church, and persecution, murder and displacement at the hands of sectarian Christian factions. Some were assassinated in what was once known as East Beirut, such as Raghdan Sami Khouri from the town of Andaket. Others had their properties and businesses destroyed at the behest of major Maronite leaders in Kobayat who conspired against them, despite the differences among them, under Syrian tutelage.
Who will do justice by this pioneering Christian segment that was ahead of even the Apostolic Exhortation?
Your Beatitude, in your previous visits, you have proclaimed that you are proud of the resistance fighters in the South, who defended their homes, families and livelihoods. How great, then, will your pride be in the sons and daughters of Akkar who were martyred defending the South and its people? You have paid tribute to the coexistence promoted by the resistance in the south. So do the pioneers of coexistence in Akkar, be they Muslim or Christian, not merit for Your Beatitude to salute them, during your visit to Akkar?
Joseph Abdallah is a Lebanese university professor and the brother of the Lebanese political prisoner held in a French jail, George Ibrahim Abdallah and a member of the International Campaign to Free Georges Abdallah.