The latest wrinkle in Lebanon’s political crisis is a meeting on Tuesday between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Maronite Christian patriarch of Lebanon, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.
According to Reuters, the meeting was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shortly after Rahi spoke with both King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the former prime minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri. Hariri’s sudden resignation and decision to stay at his house in Riyadh last week sparked a major political crisis in Lebanon.
Reuters describes the Maronite patriarch’s visit to Saudi Arabia as “historic,” noting that an official visit to the kingdom by a non-Muslim cleric is a “rare act of religious openness.” He is the first Catholic cardinal ever to visit Saudi Arabia and also the first senior Lebanese official to visit Riyadh since Hariri’s resignation.
“Certainly his resignation surprised the Lebanese and saddened them and created a type of deadlock. We hope that with this visit we can speak about this topic,” Rahi told reporters during his visit.
The Maronite patriarch has been involved in regional political issues before, including a trip he made to Israel to rendezvous with Pope Francis in 2014, which Lebanese media denounced as a “dangerous precedent” that might inspire other Christians from Lebanon to visit Israel.
Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel, so there are strict travel restrictions with exceptions made for VIPs. Hezbollah, the extremist “state within a state” of Lebanon, disapproves of travel to Israel even more strongly. Rahi was the first Lebanese religious leader to visit the Jewish state since its inception in 1948.
Rahi also generated controversy by supporting Hezbollah’s right to bear arms and warning early in the Syrian civil war that Islamist extremists would take over the country if President Bashar Assad was overthrown. This prompted President Barack Obama to snub Rahi when he made his first visit to the United States as patriarch, although they eventually did have a meeting in Washington at which Rahi asked for more American protection for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
The patriarch’s opinion of Hezbollah and its arms seems to have declined considerably over the years, although as recently as two weeks ago, he said solutions to the Hezbollah problem should be developed internally, rather than being imposed on Lebanon by outside forces, pointedly including Saudi Arabia.
“The Patriarch represents all the Patriarchs and Christians of the East. He is carrying a message of love and openness to Saudi Arabia, which is now witnessing further openness and positive changes,” a spokesman for Rahi said of his visit. “We thank the Kingdom for inviting the Patriarch on this momentous visit, especially since it complements and activates historical relations between the two countries.”
Even more momentous is the rumor that Saudi Arabia may soon allow a church to be built in the kingdom or, more accurately, permit an ancient church to be renovated and opened in honor of Patriarch Rahi. Until now, non-Muslim houses of worship have been forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
“If confirmed, this move by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman would create a historic precedent. The cascade of reforms taking place in the Kingdom is yielding domestic changes. But the opening of a historic church will be an unparalleled benchmark,” Lebanese-American analyst Dr. Walid Phares, a former Middle East adviser to President Trump who studied law under Patriarch Rahi, said of the report.