BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri pledged Sunday to fight what he termed “a minority of extremists” who are seeking to drive Muslims into a confrontation with Christians in Lebanon and the region.
Hariri, who returned to Lebanon Friday after more than three years abroad for security reasons, held an ice-breaking meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri Sunday night as part of attempts by the head of the Future Movement to defuse Sunni-Shiite tensions fueled by sharp differences over the conflict in Syria.
Berri hosted a dinner for Hariri, who did not speak to reporters following the meeting held at the speaker’s Ain al-Tineh residence.
While no statement was issued after the meeting, the National News Agency said the two leaders discussed “the current situation and developments in the country.”
In addition to easing sectarian tensions, the Berri-Hariri meeting is expected to set the stage for a flurry of consultations among the rival factions aimed at breaking a political deadlock that has left the country without a president for nearly three months.
Ahead of his meeting with Berri, Hariri warned that Lebanon and the Islamic world are facing “dangerous challenges” as a result of hostile actions by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups against Muslims and Christians in the region.
Speaking at a lunch he hosted at his Beirut Downtown residence for the new Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, Hariri urged Muslim scholars and Dar al-Fatwa (the Sunni mufti’s seat) to face religious extremism and prevent Muslims from falling into the “abyss of terrorism.”
“The challenges facing Lebanon and the [Islamic] nation are many and dangerous. And God Almighty will never forgive spoilers on earth who want to make our religion, Shariah and the message of our Prophet a means of terrorism, domination, division and strife,” Hariri said.
“The responsibility of Dar al-Fatwa and all the Muslim scholars at this stage is a great one that does not accept hesitancy or failure to fight extremism and rescue the message of Islam and Muslims from falling into the abyss of terrorism,” he added.
“We, from our political positions, also have a responsibility. We will not accept that a minority of extremists drives Islam and the Muslims into a confrontation with the rest of our partners in the country and the [Islamic] nation,” Hariri said. “These extremists who are uprooting Christians from Iraq, from their land and history, are a crowd of stray people who are hostile to Islam and departed from the message of our Arab Prophet.”
He vowed to protect Lebanon’s Muslim-Christian coexistence formula in the face of threats posed by the growing influence of militant groups in the region, such as Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
“We have called for a clear Arab and Islamic stance that protects common life among all religious communities in the region in general, and in Lebanon in particular, where we agreed on coexistence among its sons. We will safeguard this coexistence with all the means we have,” Hariri said.
Hariri’s comeback coincided with the most serious spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon territory when Islamist militants overran the northeastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria on Aug. 2.
Hariri called on the new mufti to devote Dar al-Fatwa’s efforts to safeguard Muslim unity and sectarian coexistence in Lebanon.
Addressing Mufti Derian, Hariri said: “Hope is pinned on you, your eminence, in protecting Islamic unity, stressing the rhetoric of moderation and preserving Dar al-Fatwa’s standing and its historic role as a major pillar of Lebanese national unity and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”
At the lunch, Hariri and his political opponent, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, embraced and kissed each other.
Meanwhile, sources close to the Future Movement quoted Hariri as saying that what happened in Arsal was “a warning to all the Lebanese, and even to Hezbollah and its policy in Syria.”
“Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was in the beginning [designed] to prevent extremists from coming to Lebanon as the party had declared. But what happened was the opposite,” the sources quoted Hariri as saying.
“They [Hezbollah] fought the Qalamoun battle, realizing that there is no exit for gunmen and extremists except Lebanon. As if the Qalamoun battle happened so that they [extremists] can come here and as if Hezbollah entered Syria to draw terrorists to Lebanon.”
The sources said that Lebanon, with the $1 billion Saudi grant, would be able to build an anti-terror program by acquiring weapons and equipment specialized in fighting terrorism.
Noting that Hariri has no new proposal to break the deadlock over the presidential election, the sources said the head of the Future Movement would begin a dialogue on the presidential deadlock with all the political parties, including the March 8 groups.
The sources ruled out a meeting between Hariri and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah for now, saying that the rift was still deep with the party over its participation in the war in Syria.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said he did not believe that the security situation in Lebanon would allow parliamentary elections to be held as scheduled in November.
In an interview with Future TV Sunday night, he said the security reports he received made him “morally compelled to bear the responsibility for not holding the parliamentary elections on time.”
“No parliamentary elections before the presidential election,” he said.
For his part, MP Walid Jumblatt said the failure to elect a new president would lead to the extension of Parliament’s mandate. “Shame on us as politicians to be unable to elect a president because any other solution will be the extension of Parliament’s term for one or two years,” he said.