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President and patriarch see eye to eye
FILE - Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, center, poses with bishops in Bkirki, Friday, April 5, 2012. (The Daily Star/Elie Mansour)
FILE - Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, center, poses with bishops in Bkirki, Friday, April 5, 2012. (The Daily Star/Elie Mansour)
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President Michel Sleiman and Patriarch Beshara Rai’s simultaneous announcements of Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to Lebanon from Sept. 14-16 – during which he will sign the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East – is a sign of the coordination and cooperation between the president and the patriarch.

Sources close to the president said that during Sleiman and Rai’s closed-door meeting before Easter Mass in Bkirki, the two addressed pressing local and regional issues in detail, focusing on the grave dangers looming on the horizon.

They discussed last week’s attempted assassination of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and the possibility that it signaled the return of political assassinations, which Sleiman considered to be a dangerous prospect that must stopped by security forces.

Sleiman said that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s call to engage in dialogue in the wake of the attempted assassination does not necessarily mean that the perpetrator of the act was a domestic group. The president clarified that dialogue would allow all political parties to sit together to strengthen national unity and weaken sectarian discord.

The two leaders also discussed the electoral law, and according to sources close to Sleiman, the president voiced his hope that all parties would reach an agreement to support a law based on proportional representation and reject any electoral law based on the 1960s, which represents an era that Lebanon has already lived through and overcame after Syria’s withdrawal from the country. The president added that a PR system would give every group its proper political representation regardless of established alliances.

Sleiman also confirmed his support for a modern electoral law under which all segments of society are represented in a national, nonsectarian framework, while preserving the Muslim-Christian parity that is a necessary for democracy in the country.

During Sleiman and Rai’s meeting, which lasted roughly 30 minutes, the president and the patriarch also discussed the volatile developments in Syria and agreed on the necessity of self-determination for the Syrian people without foreign intervention.

The leaders called on Arab states to take initiative and return to the Arab League or United Nations to develop a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Rai defended recent statements that stirred controversy, arguing that the remarks – which were made during a Reuters interview – were in line with his concern for minorities, Christians in particular, in the midst of the Arab Spring. Sleiman’s response was that Bkirki had always carried this concern for the Christian community from Patriarch Antoine Arida to Rai.

Following Mass in Bkirki, Sleiman received visitors on the occasion of the Easter holiday in Amsheet. In response to a question from a guest on whether the current Cabinet would fall before the 2013 Parliamentary elections, the president responded that such change is normal in a democratic system, but said he saw no pressing need for a new Cabinet.

The president also called on all Lebanese parties to be neutral in all conflicts in the Middle East, except in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sleiman said that the pope’s visit reflects the message that Christians, as pioneers of civilization, dialogue, open-mindedness and Arabism, are an important part of the Middle East and that their presence allows Lebanon to be an example of co-existence, freedom and equality.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 10, 2012, on page 3.
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Beshara Rai / Michel Sleiman / Lebanon

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