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Lottery, bags of cash spark new sectarian feud in Lebanon

A Lebanese archbishop who transferred more than $460,000 from Israel to Lebanon is at the center of the latest sectarian showdown in crisis-hit Lebanon, and the case could even spill over into presidential politics.

The situation has intensified the rift between two powerful political camps: Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and the Maronite Church.

The cleric was briefly detained last month by Lebanese border agents who seized 20 suitcases filled with cash and medicine, claiming he violated Lebanon’s strict laws against normalization with Israel.

Hezbollah’s opponents say the Iran-backed group influences Lebanese institutions and security services and has used them to target the Maronite Church. The archbishop, Moussa el-Hajj, is a senior figure in the Maronite Church, whose patriarch has become increasingly critical of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its growing influence in Lebanon.

Much of the Christian community saw the archbishop’s detention as an attack on the church.

In a sermon late last month, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai denounced the legal proceedings against el-Hajj as a fabrication, claiming the money was for charity. He called for the charges to be dropped and the military judge presiding over the case to resign.

Al-Rai was met with a standing ovation and protesters gathered the following week at his summer home to demonstrate in favor of the church.

The dispute lies behind decades of hostile relations between Israel and Lebanon. The two countries have been officially at war since Israel’s founding in 1948, and Lebanon has harsh anti-normalization laws. The border remains closed, although several top Lebanese Christian officials are allowed to cross occasionally to visit their flock in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

On July 20, Lebanese border agents detained el-Hajj for eight hours after he returned from Israel with 20 suitcases of medicine and cash. El-Haj said he was delivering money and aid from Lebanese Christians in northern Israel to their relatives in the cash-strapped country. Agents confiscated el-Hajj’s money, medicine, mobile phone and passport.

Hezbollah officials saw el-Hajj’s act as normalization with Israel and accused him of handing over money from Lebanese linked to a militia that once fought on Israel’s side.

Thousands of Lebanese moved to Israel after the 18-year occupation of parts of southern Lebanon ended in 2000. Many of those who fled to Israel were associated with the main pro-Israel militia in the region, the South Lebanon Army, which collapsed after Israeli troops withdrew.

The case could have wider political implications.

The country has been without a fully functioning government for months and presidential elections are expected to be held before the end of October.

Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, its president must always be a Maronite. Current President Michel Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah, but the Maronite patriarch’s increasingly vocal criticism of Hezbollah suggests there is no guarantee the next president will continue an alliance with the militia.

Lebanon’s parliament once had a clear majority for Hezbollah and its allies, but since May’s election it is now tied with some of its staunchest opponents, notably the Christian Lebanese Forces party.

Most Christian MPs and lawmakers from other sects opposed to Hezbollah rallied to support the archbishop and the Maronite church.

“We agree with everything they’ve said, whether it’s their calls for the judge’s removal, or the selectivity in how the archbishop was treated,” said Elias Hankas, a Christian lawmaker from the Kataeb Party. “They (Hezbollah officials) should not just vent their anger on a religious official to send their message to the patriarch.”

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said the stakes are high for Hezbollah.

“We are coming to a presidential election and after that we have to form a new government and set a government policy to negotiate with the IMF,” he said. “I think Hezbollah wants to send all kinds of messages right now and she is determined to show that she continues to be the most important player among them all.”

Hezbollah’s leadership did not comment. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah in a recent interview denied the group’s influence on the security services and the judiciary. “In Lebanon there are laws and the security services take action against any collaborator or potential collaborator,” he said.

The head of Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament Mohammad Raad was clearer, saying the archbishop’s handing over of money and medicine was normalization, which he called “national treason and a crime.”

A person close to el-Hajj’s case told The Associated Press that authorities offered al-Rai to return the archbishop’s seized passport and phone but keep the bags of cash and medicine. Al Rai reportedly refused and the archbishop will not attend any hearings

Meanwhile, poverty deepens for millions of Lebanese, about three-quarters of its population. Rampant blackouts, bread limits and inflation plague households across the country’s mosaic of 18 religious sects after decades of abject economic mismanagement and corruption by Lebanon’s ruling parties.

People are demanding accountability and reform, so divisive political tension could be a good smokescreen, said Mohanad Hage Ali, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“The political class is resorting to the old method of sectarian polarization,” Hage Ali said. “It’s been effective and I think it will continue to be effective.”

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