BEIRUT: Lebanon's top Christian cleric, Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, said on Sunday that the judiciary should be free of political interference and sectarian "activism" amid tensions over a probe into last year's blast at Beirut port.
The Maronite patriarch also said it was unacceptable for anyone to resort to threats or violence. In Lebanon's worst street violence in over a decade, seven people were shot dead last week as protesters headed to a rally opposing the inquiry.
"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," he said in his sermon.
Rai has an influential role as leader of the biggest Christian community in Lebanon, where political power is divided between the main Christian, Muslim and Druze sects.
The inquiry into the Aug. 4, 2020 explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut, has made little headway amid pushback from political factions. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has called Judge Tarek Bitar -- the lead investigator -- biased and politicised.
"The rise in doubts over the (integrity of the) judiciary that has been going for a while has not only undermined the judiciary but also the reputation of Lebanon," said Rai.
Seven Shi'ite Muslims were shot dead on Thursday as crowds headed for a protest against Bitar called by the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Hezbollah group and its Shi'ite ally Amal.
The violence added to fears for the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and suffering an economic meltdown.
"What happened last week reminds the Lebanese of the start of the cursed civil war and they are not ready to relive it again," Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elias Audi said in a Sunday sermon, local media reported.
Hezbollah blamed the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party for the deaths, an accusation that LF head Samir Geagea denied. The LF condemned Thursday's events and blamed the violence on Hezbollah's "incitement" against Bitar.
Hezbollah member of parliament Hassan Fadallah called the killings a "massacre".
"Those who incited, planned ... and opened fire should be held to account all the way up to the top," he was quoted on Sunday as saying by the pro-Iranian al-Mayadeen TV channel.
For many Lebanese, the port blast highlighted what they say is the political class's neglect of the population.
Broadcasters on Sunday showed a few hundred people gathering in Beirut's Martyrs' Square to mark the second anniversary of anti-government protests in 2019.
Some carried placards denouncing the ruling elite. One read: "We are for the independence of the judiciary".
(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi Writing by Michael Georgy Editing by Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +971 52 503 5332; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))