BEIRUT: Michel Aoun left Beirut Sunday for a three-day visit to Rome, where he will meet with senior Vatican officials to discuss the difficulties Christians are facing in Lebanon and the Middle East.
Aoun is heading up a Free Patriotic Movement delegation that does not include MPs or ministers. He is scheduled to meet Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the de facto foreign minister. He is awaiting confirmation for a request to meet Pope Francis.
FPM sources said that Aoun’s meeting with senior Vatican officials would address the problems that face Eastern Christians as a result of the unrest in the Arab world in general and Syria in particular, turmoil that has driven some to leave their home countries.
Aoun will also raise internal Lebanese issues during the talks, including the Syrian refugee crisis that is altering the demographic balance of the country, the Cabinet crisis and the need to conduct presidential elections on time. He is expected to stress that the future president of Lebanon must be credible and represent a large percentage of the Christian community, the sources said, rather than be chosen as a result of external negotiations as in previous years since the Taif Agreement.
The sources said Aoun would request that the Vatican use its influence to protect the rights of Christians in Lebanon and let them choose their own president and members of Parliament in the same manner as the country’s other sects.
With respect to the ongoing discussions on the Cabinet’s formation, the sources said the current negotiations were limited to the issue of the contents of the government statement, particularly with regards to the Baabda Declaration as it relates to involvement in the Syrian war and Hezbollah’s role there. The March 8 Christian groups will OK any agreement that Hezbollah accepts in this regard, the sources added.
The sources said events outside the country had spurred Lebanese political blocs to begin serious negotiations to create a Cabinet. They said that Aoun’s preconditions for joining the Cabinet could be an obstacle, but added that the issue would not become a major problem as in previous situations due to time limitations.
On the other hand, the Christian groups in March 14 – particularly the Lebanese Forces – reject entering a government with Hezbollah before the party announces outright its withdrawal from Syria, where it is fighting rebels alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Parliamentary sources said that if there was local and international consensus on forming a Cabinet, the Lebanese Forces could remain outside it, particularly as sources in the party consider its share of one Orthodox minister a political loss to the group.
However, if the Lebanese Forces sticks to its principle of rejecting a seat at the same table with Hezbollah, this will increase its popularity among March 14 supporters and Christians.