By Joe Bukuras
A Lebanese Hezbollah-aligned group is calling for an investigation into two Catholic bishops for allegedly committing treason by meeting with the president of Israel.
The two bishops, who oversee dioceses in Israel, were said to have attended a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog that is held annually by the president for Christian leaders in the Holy Land just before Christmas.
It is a crime in Lebanon for any Lebanese citizen to have contact with Israel, under the country’s 1955 anti-normalization laws. There is, however, an exception for religious leaders to minister to congregations living in Israel. Those freedoms, however, have been challenged in past years.
The crime of treason carries severe penalties ranging from a fine and up to life in prison, and death in cases involving armed conflict, Walid Phares, a Lebanese-American author and expert on the Middle East, told CNA.
Maronite Archbishop Moussa El-Hage of Haifa and the Holy Land, and Syriac Bishop Mar Yacoub Ephrem Semaan, the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, Holy Land, and Jordan, are the two prelates named in the complaint.
The patriarchates of both the bishops’ Churches are based in Lebanon. Both bishops have attended the meeting with the Israeli president several times in past years, according to the Lebanon Archives Twitter account.
The website L’Orient Today reported that a group called “Committee of Representatives of Former Lebanese Prisoners in Israel” submitted a request to the Lebanese judiciary, calling for an investigation of the two bishops because of alleged “contact with the Zionist [Israeli] enemy.”
Phares told CNA Wednesday that the group that called for the investigation is “formed, funded, and advised by Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim militant political party that has been designated by the United States and several other nations as a terrorist group.
Israel and Hezbollah have been trading rocket strikes amid the war in Gaza that started in October. Hezbollah was engaged in a 34-day military conflict with Israel in 2006, which was set off by the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers by the terrorist group.
Lebanon’s Minister of Information Ziad Makari has reportedly requested documentation related to the meeting with the Israeli president.
“I was bothered by the image of the two bishops with the Israeli president, and I definitely do not agree to it, and I contacted the military court judges, which has the texts related to contact with the Israeli enemy,” LBCI Lebanon reported, according to the Middle East Christian Committee.
For his part, Archbishop El-Hage denied taking part in the meeting, denouncing “fabricated information involving him,” according to the news website This Is Beirut.
He said in an interview with Nidaa al-Watan that the Christian leaders who met with the Israeli president “denounced the military actions in Palestine,” according to the outlet.
In that interview, he emphasized “the need not [to] give in to the campaigns of betrayal and intimidation of which he is the target, and to proceed instead with initiatives that serve the Church, the diocese, and the Christians in the Holy Land.”
He also said that the Vatican and his local See “express opinions on what he is or is not allowed to undertake” and said that he has “absolute freedom of action as long as he acts by the teachings and instructions of Pope Francis and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai.”
Bishop Semaan did not respond to a request for comment about whether he attended the meeting and his reaction to the complaint filed against the bishops. Neither Archbishop El-Hage nor the Maronite patriarch’s office responded to a request for comment.
John Hajjar, director of the advocacy group Middle East Christian Committee, told CNA Dec. 29 that whether or not the bishops met with the Israeli president, they should not be penalized.
The bishops have “every right” to meet with the Israeli president “to make sure that the Christians of the Holy Land are safeguarded and to look out for their best interests,” he said.
“Hezbollah is trying to politicize or Islamize the whole of Lebanese society and brand anyone a traitor who has any connection at all with Israel,” he said.
Sign of a crackdown on Christian leaders?
Phares, the foreign policy expert, said that the Christian leaders in Israel have been meeting with the Israeli president annually for decades.
“No one, including Hezbollah, has complained in the past,” he said.
Pointing to Hezbollah’s backing by Iran, Phares said that “it looks like the orders came from Tehran” in an attempt to cut off Middle Eastern Christians from Israel.
“If it indicates anything, the threatening of Maronite bishops is a prelude to a campaign by Hezbollah to intimidate and marginalize the Christians of Lebanon, in the midst of a regional war. Hezbollah wants to sideline the community by cracking down on its leaders, including the Maronite patriarch,” he said.
Asked if the government will investigate the two bishops, Phares said: “It is a hard call for the ‘Lebanese judiciary’ though under Hezbollah influence.”
“The Christian community of Lebanon remains a large, strong, and resisting community, and represented by two important offices, the presidency and the commander of the army. However its politicians seem to have mellowed their opposition to Iran’s militia,” he said.
He said that any legal action taken against the bishops would trigger “massive reactions” by the Christian communities, which remain “large, strong, and resisting.”
“These are uncharted waters,” Phares said. “Legally the group can ask the authorities to investigate and arrest the bishops, but what may happen after could isolate Hezbollah in the midst of its war with Israel. [It’s an] explosive situation,” he said.