BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI called Friday on Lebanon’s feuding parties to bolster stability and uphold dialogue as a means of resolving the current political crisis so that their country can remain a model of diversity.
The pope spoke during a meeting with President Michel Sleiman at his office in the Vatican in Rome. Sleiman arrived in the Vatican to attend the official appointment of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai as a cardinal in the Catholic Church Saturday.
The pope and Sleiman discussed the strong historic relations between Lebanon and the Vatican which culminated recently with the pontiff’s visit to Lebanon in September, the state-run National News Agency reported.
The pope reiterated his thanks for the warm welcome with which all segments of the Lebanese people greeted him during his visit and expressed his special deep-felt love for Lebanon, it said.
Benedict emphasized “the role of dialogue among the Lebanese as a means of solving their problems and called on them to strengthen stability in their country so that it can remain a model of interaction despite the difficulties and pains sweeping across the region,” it added.
The pope held the Lebanese responsible for the deposit of the message he carried to them during his visit to Lebanon which focused on peace and the bases of spreading it, the NNA said.
For his part, Sleiman briefed the pope on the steps he was taking to preserve peace in Lebanon and maintain Lebanon’s effective civilized role in the region and the world despite the difficulties and delicate circumstances through which the region was passing and which affect Lebanon, NNA said.
Sleiman thanked Benedict for the Apostolic Seat’s continued support and its concern to constantly defend Lebanon’s causes. He also thanked him for his decision to elevate Rai to cardinal.
“This decision is a strong message of papal love and appreciation, not only for the Maronites in Lebanon and the Levant, but for all the Lebanese,” Sleiman said, according to NNA. It said that Sleiman also met with Rai at the Maronite Institute in Rome.
Sleiman’s meeting with the pope came amid rising political tension in Lebanon stoked by deep divisions by the rival factions over the 20-month-old bloody conflict in neighboring Syria.
Also, last month’s assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, chief of the police’s Information Branch, has thrown Lebanon into a serious political crisis following the opposition March 14 coalition’s call for the resignation of the government and the formation of “a neutral salvation Cabinet” before attending any session of National Dialogue which Sleiman has been trying to convene.
The pope’s choice to elevate Patriarch Rai, the head of the influential Maronite Church, to the cardinal rank, is seen by observers as a sign of Vatican support for religious diversity in Lebanon, which Benedict said was a “model” for the region during a visit in September.
Benedict has called for coexistence between Islam and Christianity and has said Christians should stay in the Middle East despite rising Islamism.
Rai will join the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals Saturday when he will be officially appointed to the newly elected “Princes of the Church” in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica. Lebanon’s newest Cardinal is one of six non-European prelates, including American James Michael Harvey and Nigeria’s John Onaiyekan.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri visited the pope last month and a papal envoy earlier this month traveled to Lebanon to meet with Syrian refugees and humanitarian organizations operating here. Hariri and his Future bloc will be represented at Rai’s nomination by MPs Samir Jisr and Hadi Hobeish.
A Hezbollah delegation, led by MP Ali Fayyad, will attend the ceremony for the new cardinals.
Media reports said Speaker Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt will each send ministers or MPs to represent them at Rai’s nomination. Prime Minister Najib Mikati will be represented by Information Minister Walid Daouk.
Meanwhile, Rai rejected a government change that would leave behind a power vacuum and urged political leaders to engage in National Dialogue in line with Sleiman’s call.
“It is important to respond to President Michel Sleiman’s invitation to [National] Dialogue and work on changing the government if need be but calmly, without plunging ourselves into a vacuum,” Rai said during a dinner hosted at a hotel in Rome by former MP Farid Khazen Thursday.
Referring to Lebanon’s Independence Day marked Thursday, Rai said real independence should be based on three main pillars: sovereignty of the decision-making, particularly with regard to internal decision-making; sovereignty of the internationally recognized territory in the absence of illegitimate arms; and national dignity.
Asked why four Hezbollah members indicted in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have not yet been handed over to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Rai said: “The judiciary is the one that summons and decides. When the tribunal summons, we support the judiciary, which we respect. The judiciary’s role is to accuse, investigate and issue a final verdict. We have to wait for the final verdict which is the beginning and [leads] to an appeal ... No one can accuse anyone.”
In what appeared to be a response to media reports quoting Rai as saying that “no party has the right to demand the handover of the accused because the accused is innocent until he is found guilty and the matter is entirely left to the judiciary,” lawyers from the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the National Bloc and the “Independent March 14 Lawyers” said in a statement that the STL’s bylaws stated in Article 22 that a trial in absentia would take place before the STL if the accused was not handed over to the court by the authorities of the concerned state or that he might have disappeared.