A top Lebanese Christian religious figure was heading to Saudi Arabia on Monday afternoon with the hope of meeting Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri whose surprise resignation in Riyadh has raised many questions.
The visit by Cardinal Bechara el-Rai, who heads the Maronite sect, is the latest in Lebanon’s efforts to allay fears about the circumstances surrounding Hariri’s fate in Saudi Arabia.
The Maronite sect is Lebanon’s largest Christian community and the Middle East’s largest Catholic church, to which President President Michel Aoun also belongs.
On Sunday, Aoun said Hariri was living in “mysterious circumstances” with restricted freedom in Riyadh as he cast doubt on what the Lebanese prime minister has said about his situation.
His remarks came shortly before Hariri said he would return to Lebanon “within days” and resolve issues with Hezbollah, which is a partner in his government.
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry on Monday pledged to keep up pressure on Saudi Arabia not to impede Hariri’s return, the Al Akhbar paper reported, citing sources within the ministry.
Aoun has said Hariri has been “kidnapped” by Saudi Arabia. According to sources close to Hariri, cited by Reuters, Saudi Arabia “has concluded that the prime minister had to go because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah.”
The Lebanese resistance movement enjoys significant military and political clout in Lebanon after helping the country fight off several Israeli wars.
Government sources said Hariri’s announcement to return to Beirut soon showed Saudi Arabia had backed down on its stances.
Lebanon however could not lend any credence to his claims until he was back, and that it was not yet clear whether Riyadh would allow his return, they added.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is also said to begin a foreign tour soon to lobby for Hariri’s return with European countries, starting with Russia, adding the country would seek recourse to other means if the efforts did not yield results.
French President Emanuel Macron visited Saudi Arabia but unconfirmed media reports said he had not been granted a meeting with Hariri. Also on Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for “non-interference” in Lebanon.
“For there to be a political solution in Lebanon, it is necessary that all of the political leaders have total freedom of movement and that non-interference is a fundamental principle,” Le Drian said as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
He said France was “worried by the situation in Lebanon” and wanted to see the government there “stabilize as quickly as possible.”