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Mikati: Papal visit signals Lebanese unity
Rai and Mikati during their meeting at the patriarch’s summer residence in Diman. (The Daily Star/Antoine Amrieh)
Rai and Mikati during their meeting at the patriarch’s summer residence in Diman. (The Daily Star/Antoine Amrieh)
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DIMAN, Lebanon: Prime Minister Najib Mikati met with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai Sunday to discuss preparations for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon which the premier said would strengthen unity in the county.

“All Lebanese welcome the pope’s visit to Lebanon because it emphasizes the unity of the Lebanese people,” Mikati said after his meeting with Rai, which lasted over half an hour at the patriarch’s summer residence in Diman.

The annual meeting between Mikati and Rai comes less than two weeks before the pope is scheduled to arrive.

Mikati was accompanied by a group of 1 ministers at Diman, including the ministerial committee that is tasked with organizing next week’s papal visit.

The prime minister said the government would help to increase the number of charter flights to Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport to ensure that all Lebanese expatriates desiring to come to Lebanon for the papal visit would be able to do so.

“We will organize charter flights to Beirut to welcome all Lebanese expatriates willing to visit Lebanon. I have also received positive feedback from religious and political figures in Tripoli ahead of the pope’s visit,” Mikati said.

The annual visit by a government delegation to the Maronite patriarch was also an occasion for Mikati’s Cabinet to receive support from Rai amid the March 14 coalition’s calls for the government to resign.

“Today we received additional support through our talks [with Rai] and the testimonies the ministers gave him in the meeting ... These testimonies reiterated our strong commitment toward working for the unity of the country and that our goal is to ensure peace,” said Mikati.

Rai told Mikati that the government should work to address the daily socio-economic problems facing the country.

Mikati, who arrived in Diman shortly before noon Sunday, held a private meeting with Rai before moving into a larger hall where the ministers joined the talks between the patriarch and the prime minister.

“The annual meeting that takes place in Diman is important to discuss the various national and political issues that are facing the country and the region ... I can say that all the opinions expressed in this meeting emphasized safeguarding the unity of Lebanese territories and its people,” Mikati said.

Asked about recent statements by Speaker Nabih Berri critical of Mikati, the prime minister said that he welcomed criticism of the manner in which the government is working to tackle the country’s problems. He described relations with Berri as “excellent,” despite the speaker’s blunt criticism of Mikati’s attitude toward the government.

“We assure you that when Berri and I disagree in the morning, we have dinner together at night – let no one bet on our disagreements,” Mikati added.

Mikati said that heads of parliamentary blocs can sometimes disagree on policies and decisions within the government, but that doesn’t lead to a loss of trust between them.

According to Mikati, the reason behind Druze ministers’ absence at the meeting in Diman was not political but due to a conflict in schedule.

“We contacted the ministers and they expressed their willingness to visit Diman, which was originally set for Sept. 5, but when we had to reschedule the meeting for [Sunday], some ministers of the Progressive Socialist Party had previous commitments,” he said.

Relations between the PSP and other parliamentary blocs represented in the government are currently strained, owing mostly to PSP leader Walid Jumblatt’s open support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2012, on page 4.
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