Lebanon faces 'biggest danger', needs elections, says patriarch

Reuters , Sunday 16 Aug 2020

'We will not allow for Lebanon to become a compromise card between nations that want to rebuild ties amongst themselves,' Al-Rai said in a Sunday sermon

Bechara Boutros Al-Rai
Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai. REUTERS

Lebanon's top Christian cleric called on Sunday for early parliamentary elections and a government formed to rescue the country rather than the ruling "political class" after the vast explosion in Beirut's port threw the nation into turmoil.

The now-caretaker cabinet resigned amid angry protests over the Aug. 4 blast that killed more than 172 people, injured 6,000, left 300,000 homeless and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean city, compounding a deep financial crisis.

Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who holds sway in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church from which the head of state must be drawn under sectarian power-sharing, warned that Lebanon was today facing "its biggest danger".

"We will not allow for Lebanon to become a compromise card between nations that want to rebuild ties amongst themselves," Al-Rai said in a Sunday sermon, without naming any countries.

"We must start immediately with change and quickly hold early parliamentary elections without the distraction of discussing a new election law and to form a new government.

Several MPs submitted their resignations over the port explosion but not in the number needed to dissolve parliament.

Under the constitution, President Michel Aoun is required to designate a candidate for prime minister with the most support from parliamentary blocs. The presidency has yet to say when consultations will take place.

There has been a flurry of Western and regional diplomacy after the blast that pitched Lebanon into a political vacuum and fuelled anger at politicians already accused of corruption and mismanagement. A financial meltdown had already ravaged the currency and froze depositors out of their savings.

Senior visiting French and U.S. officials have linked any foreign financial aid with implementation of long-demanded reforms, including state control over the port and Lebanese borders.

Iran, seen as a major player in Lebanon through backing the powerful Shi'ite movement Hezbollah that helped form the outgoing cabinet, has said the international community should not take advantage of Lebanon's pain to exert its will.

Al-Rai said the Lebanese people want a government that would reverse years of "national, moral and material" corruption, enact reforms and "rescue Lebanon, not the leadership and political class".

Aoun has said the investigation is looking into whether negligence, an accident or "external interference" caused more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate warehoused for years without safety measures to detonate in a mushroom cloud.

Aoun told French news channel BFM TV on Saturday that the probe would take time because "the truth is spread out among several branches, more than judges had imagined". He did not elaborate.

He said Beirut had asked France and the United States' FBI to assist in the investigation. A senior U.S. diplomat has said FBI agents were due to arrive this weekend.

Lebanon's prosecutor general has pressed charges against 25 people, including senior port and customs officials and security officers.

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