First Published: 2017-11-14

Saudi king hosts head of Lebanese Maronite church in first
King Salman welcomes Rai in rare inter-religious exchange aimed at reviewing ‘fraternal relations’ at time when Saudi is stepping up pressure on Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Middle East Online

Rai is also set to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Tuesday hosted the head of the Lebanese Maronite church, a historic first at a time when Riyadh is stepping up pressure on Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Beshara Rai arrived in Riyadh on Monday, in the first trip to the kingdom by a senior Lebanese figure since a crisis sparked by the shock resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri, which was announced from the Saudi capital.

The patriarch and the king "reviewed fraternal relations between the kingdom and Lebanon and confirmed the importance of the role of different religions and cultures in promoting tolerance, renouncing violence, extremism and terrorism," the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.

Rai also met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a trip that symbolises a rare inter-religious exchange in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which is home to the holiest sites in Islam.

The Maronite patriarch's visit "stresses the kingdom's approach for peaceful coexistence, closeness and openness for all sections of Arabic people," Saudi Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan said on Twitter.

Rai also held talks with Hariri, who stepped down during a televised address on November 4 from Riyadh, in which he accused Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite movement that is part of his government but also close to Iran, of controlling Lebanon.

Many observers saw his stepping down as being ordered by Saudi Arabia, a key rival of Iran in the region.

Lebanese senior politicians allege Hariri is under de facto house arrest in Riyadh, though he vowed in an interview on Sunday to return to Lebanon in "two or three days".

Hariri's resignation came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in power struggles in hotspots such as Syria and Yemen.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said France was "worried by the situation in Lebanon" and wanted to see the government there "stabilise as quickly as possible".

He is set to visit Riyadh on Thursday.

France joined Germany on Monday in calling for an end to external interference in Lebanon -- buffeted for decades by conflicts between bigger players in the region such as Iran and Syria.

Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also warned other countries against using Lebanon for "proxy conflicts", adding he had no indication that Hariri was being held against his will in the oil-rich kingdom.

 

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