Last week's meeting between exiled members of the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army (SLA) and Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai has evoked a storm of protest from Hizballah and aligned media outlets such as Al-Akhbar, who labeled the ex-SLA members "collaborators."
The SLA was a Maronite Christian militia supported by Israel prior to the Jewish state's withdrawal from its Lebanese security zone in 2000. Lebanon prohibits travel to Israel, however, religious leaders are exempt. Many SLA members fled with their families into Israel after the pullout, fearing reprisals from Hizballah or vengeful mobs.
The Lebanese media portrayed the visit as a "historic sin."
"We never wanted to leave our country, and the patriarch knows that," said Henry al-Ghafri, a SLA exile who attended Rai's mass last week in Capernum, Israel in comments to Agence France Presse (AFP). "Israel is not our country, I want to return to Lebanon [but] a lot of people in Lebanon … have disowned us now."
The patriarch preached peace and reconciliation during his trip to Israel, promising the SLA exiles he would intercede on their behalf with Lebanon's leaders to let them return home.
Rai has been preaching about the need for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in recent months, saying it is "the core of the Lebanese experience."
The Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Nahar reported Monday that the meeting had triggered an "organized campaign" against the patriarch because of the meeting. Shiite scholar Sayyed Ali Fadlallah, son of a late Shiite cleric, described in Western circles as the mentor of Hizballah, attacked Rai for the meeting, denouncing the exiles as "tools of the enemy" and "traitors."
Hizballah MP Ali Mekdad denounced the SLA exiles on Saturday, saying that he did not want to see "Israeli agents" returning to Lebanon.
"We tell those who are preparing a draft law or a proposal to bring back those agents who betrayed the country ... We do not want Israeli agents among us here in Lebanon," Mekdad said. "We suffered enough from them during the occupation. They are not even proud of their Lebanese citizenship and we are not proud to call them Lebanese."
Followers of the Hizballah-aligned Maronite Christian politician Michel Aoun have declined to come to the patriarch's defense.
MP Ziad Aswad, a member of Aoun's party, expressed sentiments similar to those expressed by Hizballah about the SLA exiles, saying that many of them were "criminals" who had direct contacts with Israeli intelligence.
Rai rejected the characterization of the SLA exiles as "traitors" or "collaborators," saying they had not fought against the Lebanese state and that the time had come for "reconciliation" during an interview with Lebanon's LBCI TV last week.
Lebanese MP Sami Gemayel, the son of Lebanon's former President Amine Gemayel and a leader in the right-wing Kataeb Party, defended the patriarch, saying that the campaign against Bkirki evoked reminders of Lebanon's bloody 15-year civil war.
"This campaign is unjustified and it indicates that the files of the civil war have not been shelved yet and that some parties are still insisting on evoking files that prevent the Lebanese from closing ranks," Gemayel said, according to a statement from his party. "Media campaigns against Bkirki (the Maronite patriarchate) will not resolve the problem of the Lebanese who were forcibly exiled to Israel."