Rai: Talks with Hezbollah focus on state

The Daily Star

BKIRKI, Lebanon: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said Thursday the ongoing dialogue between the Maronite Church and Hezbollah focused on the structure of the state and maintaining Lebanon’s neutrality in a turbulent Middle East facing a wave of popular upheavals demanding democratic change.

Rai also warned that it would be “shameful” to return to the 1960 parliamentary election law, as top politicians are discussing a new law for the 2013 round. The patriarch also renewed his call on Lebanese not to sell their lands to foreigners.

Rai spoke during a meeting with a delegation from the Journalists’ Union at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkirki.

“Our dialogue [with Hezbollah] does not replace the [National] Dialogue table. It is not a political dialogue. Bkirki, which represents the church, says the truth objectively,” Rai said. He was referring to the moribund national dialogue stalled since November 2010 because of differences between March 8 and March 14 parties over what topics to discuss.

Rai said the dialogue with Hezbollah, which was launched earlier this month, centers on three major topics: Lebanon’s existence as a state, the National Pact on sectarian coexistence and the state’s neutrality, and the country’s message of coexistence to the Arab world.

“We are looking forward to the concept of a strong state. We must face anything that obstructs the establishment of this state. We should all raise ourselves to the level of the state,” Rai said. He called on all Lebanese to return to the National Pact because Lebanon is for all its people.

Rai sparked a controversy last year during a visit to France, where he linked the topic of Hezbollah’s weapons to an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The patriarch has repeatedly urged the international community to pressure Israel to fulfill its obligations under U.N. resolutions. He said the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Shebaa Farms, the Kfar Shouba hills and the northern part of Ghajar village would deny Hezbollah the pretext to maintain its weapons.

Since becoming patriarch last year, Rai has reached out to Hezbollah, charting a course different from that of his predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who repeatedly criticized Hezbollah’s arms and voiced support for the opposition March 14 coalition.

Hezbollah has rejected local and international calls to disarm, arguing that its weapons are needed to defend Lebanon in the event of an Israeli attack.

Seeking to clarify an earlier statement in which he warned that the presence of Christians in the region was threatened by the popular upheavals in the Arab world, Rai said: “I did not say that I fear for the future of Christians in the Levant but for the future of Christians and Muslims and the Levant as a whole. Emigration [from the Levant] affects all religious communities and is common among Christians and Muslims.”

While the government is still debating a draft election law based on proportional representation, the patriarch warned against a return to the 1960 election law, which adopts the qada as an electoral district and was used in the 2009 elections.

Referring to last month’s meeting of Maronite political leaders and Christian lawmakers in Bkirki, which endorsed an election proposal made by the Orthodox Gathering, Rai said: “The focus was on the quality of representation and the best way to maintain an equal [division of parliamentary seats]. The results of these meetings have opened the door to dialogue and debate on the best election law.

“It is shameful to go backward, that is, to return to the 1960 law because fundamental changes and developments at all levels have occurred in Lebanon,” Rai added.

While the Bkirki meeting endorsed the Orthodox Gathering’s election proposal, it stressed the need to hold dialogue with the rest of the Lebanese factions on the matter. The Orthodox Gathering’s proposal called for each sect to elect its own candidate based on proportional representation in 2013, but has drawn fire because it would further deepen sectarianism.