BEIRUT (AP) — The head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic community arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday in the first public visit by a Lebanese official since Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his sudden resignation nine days ago.
Cardinal Bechara el-Rai’s visit, the first ever by a Maronite patriarch to the kingdom according to the cardinal, has taken on special significance since Hariri announced his resignation in a surprise statement broadcast from Riyadh on Nov. 4. The prime minister has not returned to Lebanon since.
El-Rai is expected to meet with Hariri, as well as Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad, during his two-day visit.
Hariri’s shock resignation after less than a year as premier mystified Lebanon and led to speculation by some media outlets and politicians that he was forced into it by the Gulf kingdom.
Hariri said on Sunday he would return to Lebanon “within days” to resolve issues with the militant group Hezbollah, his rivals in a coalition government formed last year.
The comments came in Hariri’s first TV interview since his resignation announcement, in which he lashed out harshly at Hezbollah and its patron Iran. He struck a more conciliatory tone in the Sunday interview, denying that he was being held against his will in the kingdom and repeating that he feared for his safety in Lebanon. Lebanon’s top security agencies say they have no information to share about possible plots against the premier’s life.
Hariri acknowledged in the interview that his resignation was unconventional, adding that he was ready to return to Lebanon to formally submit it and seek a settlement with Hezbollah.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun welcomed Hariri’s statements and said he hoped the prime minister would return to Lebanon soon. Once he returns, Aoun tweeted, “we will listen to him about all circumstances, topics and concerns that need addressing.”
A statement released by Aoun’s office later said that the national and diplomatic campaign in the country over the past days demanding Hariri’s return “has produced positive results.”
El-Rai told reporters at Beirut’s international airport that Hariri’s return would restore normalcy in Lebanon.
El-Rai heads the Maronite sect, Lebanon’s largest Christian community and the Middle East’s largest Catholic church, which enjoys wide influence in the country.
“The Lebanese people have been waiting for him (Hariri) to return because the situation has come to a stop and the Lebanese people have been unsettled,” el-Rai…