Thursday, May 22, 2008

Patriarch in the Oval

At the tail-end of his Stateside swing-through -- just one leg of his monthlong overseas tour -- the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir held talks yesterday with President Bush on the uncertain political situation in Lebanon:
The U.S. President, according to An Nahar, told Sfeir that only Lebanon's armed forces should be responsible for keeping security in the country. Bush stressed that the U.S., along with other European countries, will help the army in this regard.

Sfeir delivered to Bush the same memorandum that he had given to U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon and the permanent members of the Security Council in New York.

The memorandum includes a demand for an end to Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian border along with the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beirut and Damascus, the return of Palestinian refugees to their land, finding a solution to the Israeli-occupied Shabaa farms area, and urging countries of influence to support Lebanon.

Bush told Sfeir during their talks that he is working on establishing a Palestinian state which will allow Palestinians to move freely.
Earlier in the week, during his stop in Houston to visit his Texan flock of 500 or so families, Sfeir -- global head of the 9 million Maronite Catholic fold -- detailed the situation at home, with a special hope for the welfare of Lebanon's Christian community:
"We need to be assured that neighboring countries will not attack, invade, undermine or compromise the sovereignty of Lebanon," said Sfeir, during the first visit by the head of the Maronite Catholic Church to Houston.

Sfeir said he would press home the same message while meeting with Bush on Thursday in the Oval Office.

"I have a message to him. I am asking for his help so Lebanon will be sovereign and independent and have the best situation with all her neighbors," he said.

Sfeir comes to the U.S. at a time of unrest in his country. Earlier this month, the Iranian-backed forces of the radical Shiite group Hezbollah took over much of Beirut.

Lebanon's pro-Western government grew out of the Cedar Revolution in 2005, when Syrian troops were pushed out of Lebanon. Bush has cited Lebanon as a success story in his effort to foster democracy in the Middle East.

Sfeir said he worries that Lebanon will not be allowed to determine its future. The country has been without a president since November.

Lebanon's politics are complex and factionalized, with Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims of Hezbollah, Druze (a Muslim sect), Maronites and other Christian sects all looking for influence. Outside countries also exert influence.

"We need all of our constitutional institutions to be active and effective," he said. "Lebanon, by nature, is pluralistic, a country governed by a consensual democracy. This special character of Lebanon should be safeguarded and never lost."...

Sfeir said Christians continue to leave Lebanon because of the country's political instability. "We need the help of all nations to safeguard and support their presence and status," he said.

Alberto Tohme, a parishioner at Our Lady of Cedars who follows political events in Lebanon, said, "It has been a very difficult path for the Maronites and Christians in Lebanon."
The cardinal-patriarch -- who turned 88 during his stay -- left for Spain earlier today.

Reuters(1); AFP/Getty(2)