Lebanon’s Aoun Shields Patriarch After Urging Halt to Rockets

BEIRUT (Reuters) -
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun. (Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS)

President Michel Aoun on Tuesday condemned criticism of Lebanon’s Christian Maronite patriarch after he expressed opposition to the Iran-backed Shiite terror group Hezbollah, warning that insults must be avoided to safeguard national unity.

Following a cross-border salvo between Israel and Hezbollah, Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai was sharply critical of Hezbollah on Sunday, saying no group should decide on war and peace and urging the army to halt rocket fire from the south.

The border flare-up on Friday drew criticism from Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon, where hardship is mounting due to a crippling financial meltdown, widely blamed on the terrorist organization, which wields extensive power in the government.

Aoun – a Maronite ally of Hezbollah – condemned the campaigns to which he said Rai was being subjected and emphasized that freedom of expression was protected by the constitution during a phone call between the two, the presidency said.

Other views should “remain in the political frame and should not tend to insult or offend, to safeguard national unity and guarantee general stability in the country,” Aoun said.

Rai said that while Lebanon had not decided to make peace with Israel, neither had it decided to go to war and Lebanon did not want to be embroiled in military actions that would “draw destructive Israeli responses.”

Israel this week issued a warning that it holds the government of Lebanon responsible for hostile actions originating in its territory.

Without naming Hezbollah, Rai urged the army to halt rocket attacks from Lebanon “not out of concern for Israel’s safety, but out of concern for Lebanon’s safety.”

While Hezbollah has not commented on Rai’s comments, its supporters accused him of surrender and supporting Zionism on social media.