Lebanese cleric and Hezbollah critic mourned after body found

BEIRUT: The body of Lebanese cleric Sheikh Ahmed Al-Rifai, a vocal critic of Hezbollah and Iran, was found on Saturday, a week after he went missing in Tripoli.

At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, a website in the town of Qarqaf in northern Lebanon mourned Al-Rifai’s death.

The religious leader, who was affiliated with Dar Al-Fatwa, hailed from Al-Qarqaf, Akkar, where he was the imam of the mosque.

Lebanese army forces entered the area on Saturday to maintain security and prevent any retaliatory action.

Information circulating in the town said that a suspect arrested in the case provided information on the location of the cleric’s body.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said earlier: “We are currently following up with the competent judicial and security references; New data has emerged and we are following up on it for full disclosure in this case.”

Al-Rifai disappeared on Monday after his car was blocked by two vehicles, according to eye-witnesses. Masked men then forced him to go behind the Beirut Arab University building in Tripoli.

Four days after the incident, security forces found Al-Rifai’s four-wheel drive near Haykel Hospital at the entrance to Koura, south of Tripoli. Kidnappers are believed to have driven the vehicle there and parked it.

The cleric’s phone lost signal minutes after he arrived at Tripoli’s southern entrance. Earlier he had performed evening prayers in a mosque in Beddaoui on the city’s northern side.

Security forces searched the area and confiscated security cameras for analysis.

A security source speculated that Al-Rifai “was lured to the kidnapping site.”

A close friend of the family told Arab News that the cleric opposed Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, and had been active on Twitter, where he spoke out against the “axis of resistance.”

Security agencies, from General Security to State Security and Security Forces, all denied having arrested the cleric.

First Investigative Judge for Northern Lebanon Judge Samaranda Nassar took over the case and began her investigations by inspecting his car in Koura.

A close friend of the family said earlier: “Security agencies raided Qarqaf on Friday night and arrested Yahya Al-Rifai’s sons and cousins, and speculated their involvement in the kidnapping of the cleric, as a result of the political dispute in the family.”

Sheikh Zaid Zakaria, mufti of Akkar, called on Qarqaf’s townspeople to “be impervious to the spreading rumors.”

A source from Dar Al-Fatwa denied the presence of “conclusive evidence about Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the cleric’s disappearance.”

Sheikh Khaldoun Oreimat, who was tasked by Dar Al-Fatwa to follow up on the case, told Arab News that Dar Al-Fatwa had not communicated with Hezbollah to find out whether the party had any involvement, “as it is not its (Dar Al-Fatwa’s) job.”

“That was done by the official security forces that often contact relevant entities that have information, and the security agencies are taking the file in a serious manner.”

Sheikh Zaid Zakaria commended “the role of Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian, his wisdom and directives to be prudent and wise, not to be impervious to rumors or make accusations arbitrarily, to prevent a strife.”

He urged that the security investigation be allowed to take its course and said that it is within the context of a normal investigation to summon or arrest a person.

“We must not give an opportunity to those who wish to create division and conflict,” he said.