Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, the top Christian cleric, said on Sunday the country’s judiciary should be free of political interference and sectarian “activism” amid rising tensions over a probe into last year’s blast at Beirut port.
Rai also said that it was unacceptable for any party to resort to threats or violence after last week’s deadly unrest around the investigation - which was Lebanon’s worst street bloodshed in more than a decade and stirred memories of the ruinous 1975-1990 civil war.
“We must free the judiciary from political interference, sectarian and partisan political activism and respect its independence according to the principle of separation of powers,” he said in his sermon.
“No one is above the law and judiciary.”
Rai, head of the Maronite church, has an influential role as religious leader of the biggest Christian community in Lebanon, where political power is divided between its main Christian, Muslim and Druze sects.
The inquiry into the Aug. 4, 2020 explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut, has made little headway amid pushback from powerful political factions, with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah saying Judge Tarek Bitar -- the lead investigator -- is biased and politicized.
Seven Shia Muslims were killed on Thursday as crowds were on their way to a protest against Bitar in a demonstration called by the Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah group and its Shia ally Amal.
The violence added to concerns over the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with an economic meltdown.
“The democratic system has afforded us peaceful means for freedom of expression whether in support or opposition so it’s not acceptable that any party should resort to threats or violence and setting up party checkpoints or tribal ones to get what they want through force,” said Rai.
“We refuse to put vengeance in the place of justice?” he said.
He added that Lebanon’s Council of Ministers must meet, take decisions and respect authority.
Hezbollah blamed the Christian Lebanese Forces party for the deaths on Thursday, an accusation the head of that party, Samir Geagea, denied.
On Thursday, the army initially said rounds were fired on at protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shia Muslim neighborhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
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