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Lebanese Patriarch Pushes for Syrian Withdrawal
photographs by Maria Bastone

image (photo: Maria Bastone) 

22 Mar 2005 – NEW YORK – Nasrallah Cardinal Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, wrapping up a weeklong visit to the United States, said his country is ready to work with Syria, but only after it withdraws its forces from Lebanon. “Lebanon has no enemies.”

At the New York office of Catholic Near East Welfare Association on 21 March, the patriarch discussed the need for the “world community to keep her promises to Lebanon and stand by her during this crisis.”

The patriarch’s visit was prompted by an invitation from President George W. Bush, whom he met with last week in Washington. Patriarch Nasrallah also met with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and visited with members of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops. In New York City he met with Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, who supports withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 during the country’s civil war. The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the conflict, called for Syrian forces to leave within two years. Patriarch Nasrallah said the terms of the agreement were “applied selectively.” While Christian militia leaders were imprisoned or sent into exile, Muslim militia leaders remain in high office.

The patriarch said he would like to see Hezbollah, a Shiite party that opposes the Syrian pullout, disarmed. “But they must do so willingly, and not be made to disarm by force, which could threaten the country.”

The patriarch said he is eager to see normal diplomatic relations established between his country and Syria, but only after its troops leave. One positive result of the recent rise of the opposition movement, which has demanded Syria’s withdrawal since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the patriarch said, has been an increase in collaboration between Christian, Druze and Muslims. He expects this collaboration to continue after the Syrian withdrawal.

Patriarch Nasrallah said his role in Lebanon is to “guide my people. The people come to the patriarch. The patriarch advances the causes of his people.” The vast majority of the people approve his plans that Lebanon be free to pursue its own agenda, he insisted. He also said many Syrians agree that troops should leave Lebanon. “We never hear of the diversity of views in Syria,” he commented.

Upcoming elections in May will help unite the country, Patriarch Nasrallah said. The patriarch criticized the recent change in the Lebanese constitution extending the term of the president, Emile Lahoud – a Maronite favored by Syria – an additional three years beyond the six years already served.

“The change was made against our will because Syria wanted the change,” he commented.

Patriarch Nasrallah said he hoped a Syrian withdrawal would prompt Christian Lebanese who have emigrated from Lebanon to return. This emigration has been “a great loss.”