Lebanon must stay neutral to stave off poverty, patriarch says
BEIRUT, July 15 (Reuters) - Lebanon needs to stay neutral to be saved from hunger and poverty, its senior Christian cleric said on Wednesday, urging Lebanese to keep out of conflicts in Arab countries but denying he was referring specifically to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai spoke after meeting President Michel Aoun, an ally of the heavily armed Hezbollah, which has supported Iran in its power struggle with Sunni-led Arab Gulf states in the region.
Lebanon is in the throes of an acute financial crisis seen as the worst threat to its stability since the 1975-90 civil war. The crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and bad governance by the sectarian ruling elite.
Hezbollah's opponents say it is to blame because its alliance with Iran has led Gulf Arabs who once supported Lebanon to steer clear, closing off an important source of aid.
In his last two sermons, Rai made comments that were widely interpreted as criticism of both Hezbollah and its ally Aoun. On Wednesday, Rai said his comments had been misunderstood
Rai holds sway in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church, from which the head of state must be drawn under sectarian power-sharing arrangements.
"We will not be saved from the state we are in today - the economic problem, poverty and hunger - other than through neutrality," Rai said told reporters after the meeting.
Lebanon should not get into "political or military struggles or alliances" in the Arab world.
Asked if he was speaking about Hezbollah, he said: "On the contrary, I told the president I mean everyone".
Rai also warned that poverty and unemployment were leaving the door open for foreign interference in Lebanon, without giving details.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam/Tom Perry;)
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