Lebanon’s top Christian cleric called on Sunday for all parties in the country to respect the independence of the judiciary, and condemned as “unacceptable” violence of the sort that erupted in Beirut last week.

“We must free the judiciary from political interference, sectarian and partisan political activism and respect its independence according to the principle of separation of powers,” said Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, according to Reuters. “No one is above the law and judiciary.”

Rai’s remarks came in the context of rising tensions in Lebanon surrounding the ongoing inquiry into the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut Port disaster, which came to a head on Thursday in a fatal street battle in the capital.

The Beirut Port blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killed more than 200 people and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage. The explosion was caused by the ignition of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the port since 2014. More than a year after the catastrophe, no one has yet been held accountable.

The inquiry has been bogged down by resistance from various political factions, and in particular those associated with the Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah. Lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar has charged a number of former high-level officials, including Hezbollah allies, of criminal negligence, according to the Financial Times. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, for his part, has accused Bitar of political bias.

On Thursday, at least seven people were killed when unidentified gunmen opened fire on supporters of Hezbollah and the Shi’ite Amal Party who had been dispatched by the two groups to demonstrate against Bitar and call for his removal. Funerals were held for the dead on Friday, including one woman who was reportedly shot on her balcony, according to the Times.

Hezbollah blamed the Christian Lebanese Forces Party for the deaths on Thursday, an accusation the head of that party, Samir Geagea, denied.

The violence comes against the backdrop of Lebanon’s worst-ever financial crisis, adding to concerns about the country’s future.

In his sermon on Sunday, Patriarch Al-Rai called on the Lebanese people not to replace justice with vengeance.

“The democratic system has afforded us peaceful means for freedom of expression, whether in support or opposition, so it’s not acceptable that any party should resort to threats or violence and setting up party checkpoints or tribal ones to get what they want through force,” he said.

He added that Lebanon’s Council of Ministers must meet, take decisions and respect authority, according to Reuters.


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