The July 18 arrest and interrogation of a Maronite bishop
Bishop El-Hage photographed at the convent of St. Nohra Church in Kornet el-Hamra, Lebanon, on July 21, the Thursday after his Monday, July 18 arrest and detention. [Source: Jeanine Jalkh/L’Orient-Le Jour]
Bishop Moussa El-Hage, 68, the Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and Jerusalem (the Holy Land) was detained for 12 hours on July 18 by agents of the General Directorate of General Security in the southern Lebanese city of Nakoura.
According to reports (see link and link), the archbishop had crossed the border from Israel to Palestine at the Ras Naqoura border station, which is reserved for clerics and the diplomatic corps.
After the incident, the Vatican’s envoy to Lebanon, Maltese Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, made comments to a local television station calling El-Hage’s arrest a “dangerous” precedent.
The detention and questioning of the bishop seemed to be a way of sending a message to the Maronite Church, and specifically to Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, who over the past few months has been taking an increasingly public position on key issues related to the neutrality and territorial integrity of Lebanon.
The Patriarch’s calls to respect Lebanon’s neutrality and territorial integrity are widely seen as a rebuke to Hezbollah, a political party and paramilitary force that wields enormous influence at all levels of Lebanese society, including inside the government. Hezbollah functions essentially as a “state within a state” throughout much of southern Lebanon and remains locked in a decades-long conflict with Israel.
Reports also stated that Bishop El-Hage had his passport and cell phone confiscated, as well as medications and food supplies. The archbishop had been given these food supplies by Lebanese living in Israel, who wished them to be delivered to their family members living across the border in Lebanon. (Many Lebanese, and especially Christian Lebanese, have been living in Israel since the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, which left the territory open to occupation by Hezbollah forces. Reluctant to live in Hezbollah-controlled territory, many of the people living in this southern region instead sought refuge in Israel after the Israeli forces withdrew, and have been living in Israel since then. Of an estimated population of 6,000 Lebanese who fled to Israel, it is estimated that currently about 3,000 individuals remain in Israel, while Bishop El-Hage has spoken of “nearly 4,000 individuals”.)
Bishop El-Hage was also carrying roughly $460,000 — this was financial support from the Lebanese Christian communities living in Israel intended for their relatives in Lebanon. These funds were also confiscated.
It should be noted that, according to many sources including the Maronite Patriarchate, it is customary for Bishop El-Hage to make a monthly trip from Lebanon to Israel and back. So the archbishop had likely crossed the border at Ras Naqoura many times, but he had never been detained until now.
In an interview given several days after his detention, Bishop El-Hage stated that those responsible for his arrest wanted to “send a strong message to the Patriarch.” He also affirmed that he had been making regular trips between Lebanon and Israel for many years.
The text of the interview with the archbishop (translated from the original interview in French from Lebanese news service L’Orient-Le Jour) is given below in full.
“Those who arrested me did not act on their own; there is certainly a political party behind them”
Interview with Maronite Catholic Bishop Moussa El-Hage on his arrest and questioning on July 14 on the border between Lebanon and Israel
The original interview with the archbishop, published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour on July 22, can be found here.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the good they do. Saint Nohra was arrested and tortured for his good works and his faith. A bit like how it happens nowadays,” began Moussa El-Hage, in a playful tone, in reference to the incident he had just experienced with the SG [General Security]. “You should know, however, that my suffering is nothing in comparison with that of the Lebanese,” he added. The Maronite dignitary agreed to answer our questions and to return at length to his arrest and its consequences.
How do you explain the timing of your arrest?
Maronite Bishop of Haifa and Jerusalem Moussa El-Hage: It seems that these new developments are intended to make the patriarch bend. The objective is clearly to send a strong message to the patriarch. This is a very dangerous precedent. Those who arrested me did not act on their own. There is certainly a political party behind them that pushed them in this direction.
What are the rules governing your travel between Israel and Lebanon?
Bishop El-Hage: The armistice agreement with Israel in 1949 includes a clause which stipulates that the bishops of the Holy Land can cross the border. Bishops of parishes in the [Israeli-controlled] occupied territories can also come to Lebanon, but they do not. Bishops of the Holy Land have always crossed the border, sometimes in a car, and have never been bothered. After the civil war, Bishop Boulos Sayyah made this same trip for sixteen years. Then I came to replace him. I have been crossing this border on a regular basis for ten years, once a month, with the exception of the pandemic period.
How do you explain your arrest then?
Bishop El-Hage: We must bear in mind the visit made by Hezbollah officials to the Patriarch in 2014. They clearly told him that he was forbidden to go to the occupied territories. He told them that no one could tell him what he can or cannot do. Since then, relations between Bkerké [the seat of the Maronite Patriarch] and Hezbollah have been strained. Even more so since the head of the Church raised his voice and expressed very clear-cut positions about the presidential term and the profile of the future president. So now they are trying to harm him through me.
What do you think could be the consequences of this incident?
Bishop El-Hage: The Patriarchate covered everything in its statement. The situation has become untenable from all perspectives. Abuses have multiplied; moral, psychological and physical aggressions, too, against certain parts of society, coming from a certain camp. Now they are attacking the Maronite Church. They know perfectly well that it is a fundamental pillar in Lebanon and that the Patriarch expresses himself as freely as possible and they seek to subdue him. His words bother them.
Could this affair take on a diplomatic dimension, with a possible intervention by the Vatican?
Bishop El-Hage: Of course. If the case is not settled, it could go further. They confiscated my passport and my cell phone, and all of the aid that I was transporting. The Vatican has been updated on the situation. For the time being, they are giving the local ecclesiastical authorities room to maneuver and supporting them. But if necessary, they will intervene. If they are going to be stubborn and refuse to give me back my passport, the Patriarch will not be silent.
Bkerké has asked for the dismissal of Judge Fadi Akiki. Why?
Bishop El-Hage: Judge Fadi Akiki summoned me at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, but I did not go to the court. During my interrogation at the border, Judge Akiki was calling the officer in charge every five minutes and following the process closely. He was the one who was almost dictating the report to the officer, the report that the officer then sent to the court.
How did the interrogation go?
Bishop El-Hage: I was not mistreated, but I was mainly disturbed by the length of the interrogation – for twelve hours straight, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. I was especially saddened by what they did with the medications I was carrying. Some medicines had writing in Hebrew. They took everything except some medications that weren’t written on.
You were carrying $460,000 with you. Why?
Bishop El-Hage: This is aid that I have been sending to families for months, and it is never to the same people. I have been carrying out this service for ten years. Since the explosion of the port on August 4, 2020 and the economic collapse, the sums have increased because the need has become greater.
Who was this aid for?
Bishop El-Hage: I had on me a list of individuals with their names and phone numbers. Every person in the occupied territories who wants to send money to their family in Lebanon comes to their parish to give me the envelope. Those who arrested me claim that this money is intended for the families of the agents of Israel and seek to punish me.
These are not agents; they are Lebanese who fled to Israel (Editor’s note: after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000). There are also many Palestinians among them. This is certainly not the first time that I have made this trip, bringing aid with me. There are currently nearly 4,000 Lebanese sending aid, including 30 Shia families. General Security began yesterday to summon the recipients of this aid one by one in order to question them – including the Shias among them, who are marked as traitors in the eyes of their community. They despise them much more than the Christians.
Is it legal to transport money and medicine between Lebanon and Israel?
Bishop El-Hage: They consider it not to be. I don’t know what will happen to the money they confiscated. They claim the funds will be withheld, but the patriarch has filed a complaint and is asking for the money to be returned.
Do you plan to return to Israel?
Bishop El-Hage: Of course. As soon as I can get my passport back. They have no right to forbid me to do so. I follow the procedure to the letter each time by sending a travel request to UNIFIL [the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, a U.N. peacekeeping force established in 1978, with its headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon]. Moreover, the UNIFIL soldiers did not leave me alone during the interrogation.
[End, interview with Bishop El-Hage]
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi speaks to a crowd protesting the arrest of Bishop El-Hage in Dimane, northern Lebanon, on Sunday, July 24