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BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun sparked Christian anger by defending Hezbollah during his visit to the Vatican.
In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Aoun said that Hezbollah’s weapons had “no influence” on the Lebanese security situation and that “resisting the (Israeli) occupation” was not terrorism.
His words led Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi to reiterate his position on the importance of Lebanon’s neutrality.
Lebanon’s Christian cleric told MTV on Wednesday that the country was not a land of conflict and that his interest lay in neutrality, which he said maintained his sovereignty and preserved it from Israel and other other hostile elements.
There was anger online, with activists sharing photos of dates and events when Hezbollah weapons had been “directed against Christians and not in their defence”.
These include the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, pilot Samer Hanna and Hezbollah opponents Hashem Suleiman and Luqman Slim.
Activists cited a May 7, 2008 military conflict between Hezbollah militias and pro-government Sunnis after an 18-month political crisis spiraling out of control.
They also mentioned the clashes that erupted in Beirut’s Tayouneh neighborhood last October between Hezbollah and the Amal movement, unidentified gunmen and armed forces.
Activists said the president’s position at the Vatican did not represent them and reminded him that Hezbollah was “listed as a terrorist organization by nations of the world, including the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council”.
On Wednesday morning, several young people in Tripoli, mostly Sunnis, wrote anti-Iranian slogans on the walls of the city rejecting “Iranian occupation”. Their actions were documented on video and posted on social media.
Aoun visited the Vatican earlier this week under the slogan “Christians are fine”, causing astonishment, particularly in the Maronite Church, with one of its officials noting that the patriarch had “constantly warned in his sermons against the migration of young Christians and the breakdown of sectors and institutions established by Christians.
The Vatican statement was limited to the meeting of Pope Francis and Aoun highlighting “the serious socio-economic problems facing the country and the situation of refugees”.
He expressed the hope that global aid will reach Lebanon, the organization of the next legislative elections and that “the necessary reforms can contribute to strengthening peaceful coexistence between the different religious communities” who lived in the land of the cedars.
The statement also highlighted the “demand for justice” in the Beirut port explosion case.
Posts on the platforms of Hezbollah and its supporters tried to imply that there was a disagreement “between the Vatican and Patriarch Al-Rahi vis-à-vis Hezbollah”.
Former parliamentarian Fadi Karam, secretary of the Strong Republic parliamentary bloc, said: “Through his visit to the Vatican and his statements, Aoun tried to acquit Hezbollah, claiming that he protects Christians in Lebanon, and that it is the embodiment of fabrication and offense to Lebanon and completely contradicts the truth.
He told Arab News: “Hezbollah and Aoun are the ones who led Lebanon to its collapse and hell, and it is necessary to correct Aoun’s speech because he is wrong.
He denied there was any disagreement between the Vatican and Al-Rahi, and said the Vatican did not approve of Aoun’s speech and that he “focused in his final statement on the ‘identity of Lebanon’.
He added: “Aoun tried to exonerate Hezbollah to allow his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, to become the next president in the upcoming legislative elections on May 15.
“That’s the purpose of the visit. However, Aoun failed to acquit Hezbollah, which cannot be done in the first place. His discourse is no longer heard either in the East or in the West, or in political and financial circles.