Thousands in Lebanon rally in support of Maronite patriarch

Bkerke (Lebanon) (AFP) –


Thousands of Lebanese rallied Saturday in support of the Maronite patriarch following powerful Shiite group Hezbollah's recent criticism of the Christian leader's positions.

Earlier this month, Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi had called for a UN-sponsored "international conference" in the face of Lebanon's economic collapse and political impasse.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last week slammed the proposal, saying it would open the door to foreign interference or even to an "occupation".

In a show of support for the patriarch, thousands rallied at the patriarchate in Bkerke, north of the capital Beirut, carrying Lebanese flags and portraits of Rahi.

Lebanon is locked in its worst economic crisis in decades and desperately needs international aid, but donors have conditioned financial help on an independent cabinet enacting sweeping reforms.

Prime minister Hassan Diab resigned after a massive blast at Beirut's port in August that killed more than 200 people, but the divided political class has failed to name a new government to help lift the country out of the economic crisis.

In a speech to the crowd on Saturday, Rahi repeated the call for an international conference, saying that "all we propose is to revitalise the Lebanese state, which is in disarray, broken".

"The state is collapsing, people are starving," he said, calling on Lebanese to react to the "failure" of the political class.

Rahi is an ardent supporter of Lebanon's official policy of dissociation from regional conflicts, a position that clashes with Iran-backed Hezbollah's involvement in the war in Syria.

For years, Hezbollah's fighters have been fighting alongside the Syrian regime in the neighbouring country's civil war.

The group is the only side not to have disarmed following Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and is also a powerful player in Lebanese politics, with seats in parliament.

The demonstrators on Saturday shouted slogans in support of the Lebanese army and denounced Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group, an AFP photographer said.

"Neutrality, sovereignty, stability," read one banner hanging on a church facade.

"We came to support the patriarch in his call for neutrality," Olga Abu Merei told AFP from the rally.

"We want stability, we want our country to stay away from problems and wars."

In his speech, Rahi urged neutrality so that Lebanon "will no longer be the victim of conflicts".

Among the objectives of an international conference, Rahi said would be "support for the Lebanese army, so it is the only defender of Lebanon".

Maronites are the biggest Christian group in Lebanon.