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Tug-of-war mounts in Christian Gathering

FILE - Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, right, meets with the head of the Marada Movement MP Suleiman Franjieh in Bkirki, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (The Daily Star/Elie Mansour)

The recently formed Independent Christian Gathering is meeting regularly to discuss national and international affairs, and despite the fact that the gathering does not have a political affiliation, sources say that factions within it are working to pull it in various directions.

A former minister who is a member of the gathering, which usually meets in the Kesrouan town of Harissa, said it began “with a conviction among a number of Christian political, economic and cultural figures that the current alignment ... is futile and can’t get the country out of the cycle it is in. Thus the political situation had to give birth to a group that is completely independent from all current alliances which are drawing foreign influence into Lebanon.”

The former minister said that this conviction was shared by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, who has showed concern for events in the region and their repercussions on Lebanon: “There was a decision to establish a movement of independent figures with the aim of developing a vision to shield Lebanon from what is happening in the region, and to develop an independent group which would meet occasionally with the March 14 and March 8 blocs.”

He added that the gathering does not fall under Rai’s direct patronage, but will deal with many of Rai’s concerns “and will attempt to be supportive of his opinions.” The committee will send suggestions to the patriarch, who will decide whether and how to act on them. But the former minister said: “This does not mean that the patriarch is responsible for the works of the gathering, or that there is a patronage.”

But the former minister also said that “the desire and intention of participants to adopt the stances of the patriarch and gather around him is not hidden, as Bkirki has left clear marks on the path of sovereignty, independence and freedom.”

Denying that the gathering can be seen as a new Qornet Shehwan, a Christian anti-Syrian gathering that met in the early years of this century, the former minister said the previous gathering was under the direct patronage of Bishop Youssef Beshara. In this case, he said Bkirki is not directly responsible for the gathering.

Despite the gathering’s lack of an announced political affiliation, other sources told The Daily Star that there are three political groups within it. One of these groups is close to March 8, and another is close to the centrists of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and President Michel Sleiman. A third group plays a pivotal role in preventing the gathering from veering too far in either of these directions, an important task given that the first two groups have both attempted to increase their power within the gathering by allying with political figures with clout at the national decision-making level.

These sources told The Daily Star that there has been communication between some members of the gathering and high-ranking political leaders, with the aim of garnering the support of these leaders. The leaders, however, refused to ally themselves with a camp in the gathering because of the political and sectarian issues involved.

In future meetings, the gathering will tackle a number of controversial issues Rai has brought up, including the importance of Lebanon remaining neutral in regional conflict, ending Christian emigration, and increasing the political representation of Christians.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2012, on page 3.

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