BEIRUT — Lebanon’s top Christian cleric took a swipe at leaders of the Shia Muslim community on Sunday for making demands he said were blocking the formation of a new government and causing political paralysis in a nation in deep crisis.
Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, leader of the Maronite church, did not mention Shias directly but asked how one sect can demand “a certain ministry.” Shia politicians say they must name the finance minister.
Sunday’s sermon adds to tensions in a nation facing its worst crisis since a civil war ended in 1990 and where power is traditionally shared out between Muslims and Christians.
Responding to the patriarch without naming him, a Shia religious council said comments by a “major religious leader” distorted the truth.
France has been pushing Lebanon to form a new cabinet fast. But a deadline of September 15 that politicians told Paris they would meet has been missed amid a row over appointments, notably the finance minister, a post Shias controlled for years.
Shia politicians say they must choose some posts because rivals are trying to use “foreign leverage” to push them aside.
“In what capacity does a sect demand a certain ministry as if it is its own, and obstruct the formation of the government, until it achieves its goals, and so causes political paralysis?” the patriarch of Lebanon’s biggest Christian community said.
He said the Taif agreement, a pact that ended the 1975-1990 civil war, did not hand specific ministries to specific sects.
Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, a Sunni, wants to appoint specialists and shake up the leadership of ministries.
The main Shia groups – the Amal Movement and the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah – want to pick figures for several posts, including the finance minister, a vital position as Lebanon navigates through its economic crisis.
Hezbollah is being accused by anti-government protesters of siphoning off government funds to finance its presence in Syria, where, together with its patron Iran, it has been supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in his civil war.
Hezbollah – the only Lebanese group outside the military allowed to arm itself – is also accused of massing tens of thousands of rockets in the South for use against Israel.
Now, the Iran-backed group also sees control over the finance ministry as one way of blocking foreign demands that Lebanon enact far-reaching reforms to solve a staggering debt and reset its collapsing economy if other countries are to come to its aid.
A French roadmap for Lebanon includes the swift resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as a first step for a new government to deal with a mountain of debt and fix the broken Lebanese banking sector.