Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai (C) blesses Arab Israeli followers of the Maronite community during his visit to the Our Lady of Rosary Parish in the Old city of Acre in northern Israel on May 29, 2014. The Lebanese cleric was condemned by media close to Hezbollah, which said travelling to arch-enemy Israel would be a "sin". AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA Image Credit: AFP

Montreal: Now that Hezbollah’s most recent target, former President Michel Sulaiman, has vacated the Baabda Presidential Palace, the group has launched a fresh campaign against the Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, ostensibly because the latter visited the Holy Land, and consoled some of the hundreds of his exiled countrymen who fled to Israel in 2000 when the latter withdrew from Lebanon.

The usually well-informed Al Nahar daily reported on Monday that an “organised campaign” was under way against the Cardinal because the cleric met with the former members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and assured the exiles that he would intercede on their behalf, and otherwise prepared for their eventual returns.

Already controversial, these commitments enraged March 8 politicians who opposed the trip in the first place and, when they could not prevent it, vented against the Patriarch by labelling the visit as a “sin.”

Although the Cardinal refused to add fire to the fuel and opted to remain silent after his return to Beirut a few days ago, leading Hezbollah officials rejected the presence of “Israeli agents … who went to the Palestinian occupied territories to convince them to return.”

In an unveiled attack on the Christian cleric, Hezbollah Deputy Ali Mekdad harangued a crowd on Saturday when he declared: “Someone went to occupied Palestine to convince some agents who withdrew with the enemy’s soldiers in May 2000 to return to Lebanon. They have become Israelis and do not want to regain the Lebanese and Arab identity” that, in his educated view, settled matters.

For his part, Syed Ali Fadlallah, a Shiite cleric, went out of his way to identify SLA members as traitors, sermonising: “If we don’t call those who were tools of the enemy ... traitors, then whom should we use this description for?”

Neither of these two speakers were as eloquent as the head of Hezbollah’s Juristic Committee Shaikh Mohammad Yazbiq, who stressed that only the Lebanese State was empowered to condemn or acquit a citizen who fled the country, and that it was not up to the Cardinal or any other religious official to offer their services of advocate for a particular preference.

Of course, the Maronite Patriarch only offered to intercede on behalf of his lost flock, presumably with Lebanese authorities, although that aspect of this proposition fell on deaf ears.

Remarkably, no Christian politician rushed to the Cardinal’s defence, including Hezbollah’s putative stealthy presidential candidate General Michel Aoun who frequently champions the Christian cause.

Others were far more subdued, preferring to let the storm pass, even if dangerous precedents were not established that could blowback.

Indeed, several “red lines” were crossed this weekend, because unwritten but widely respected rules prevented attacks on leading clerics.

Christians and Muslims alike frowned upon such behavior and it remained to be determined whether a fresh chapter was opened after June 1, 2014.

Observers wondered whether this particular offensive on the Cardinal was a calculated move to further weaken Bkirki [the Seat of the Maronite Patriarchate], perceived by many as the last bulwark of freedom in a country that was gradually loosing its quest for liberty, as Hezbollah emasculated foes after successfully taming its allies.