Politicians greeted the Maronite clergy’s anti-Syrian tirade with conspicuous silence on Thursday, underscoring resolve to avoid a new round of political infighting that would shift emphasis from the economy.
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri cautioned during the weekly Cabinet session that the “delicate regional and domestic situations” should overrule any discussion of divisive issues. When asked to clarify the government’s position on Wednesday’s statement by the Council of Maronite Bishops, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters that “Hariri’s remarks were clear.”
“There’s no doubt that the timing of the statement was a surprise … All of the ministers were agreed on this point,” Aridi said. “For about two weeks now, the country has been moving toward a kind of calm, dialogue and initiatives that will unify our position on regional challenges.”
The minister said that President Emile Lahoud had taken “practical steps” to oversee dialogue, and that “everyone is busy with this matter.”
The statement, released two weeks before the first anniversary of the bishops’ call for a Syrian withdrawal, accused the authorities of neglecting dialogue and said Lebanon was disappearing as an independent country. It listed former Foreign Minister Fouad Butros and Speaker Nabih Berri among those whose initiatives had led nowhere.
Significantly, Syrian President Bashar Assad received Butros in Damascus for talks on Thursday, a meeting that was scheduled before the statement. The National News Agency said talks focused on “issues that concern Syria and Lebanon.”
For his part, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said he preferred to make a measured response to the bishops’ statement some time next week, commenting that the call deserved “an objective and precise response.”
The Chouf MP made the remarks after receiving Batroun MP Butros Harb, who called the document a “reminder of positions and policy constants expressed in earlier statements.”
“The state must deal with it positively and take its substance into account,” Harb said.
In Diman, the Maronite patriarch received Fouad Saad, the minister of state for administrative development, who declined to comment on the document.
Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir also received Kesrouan MP Fares Boueiz, who said the bishops’ call came after the authorities demonstrated a lack of seriousness in overseeing political dialogue.
“It seems to have been more of a face-saving exercise than a dialogue aimed at reaching fundamental and radical national solutions,” Boueiz remarked.
Observers agreed that the document’s timing and tone raised eyebrows. One Christian activist who is close to Bkirki said the statement could lead to even more extreme positions, while its timing appeared to mean the end of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering’s effectiveness on the opposition scene.
“The timing wasn’t that smart, especially after (last week’s) meeting between President Lahoud and Qornet Shehwan,” he argued. “It will lead to extreme reactions, especially with the academic year about to start. Student activists will be able to say that ‘if the authorities didn’t respond to Bkirki, then what can we do except escalate the situation?’”
While acknowledging the document “expressed all of the frustration” within Christian circles, the activist predicted that dialogue would be difficult.
A Christian politician with good ties to Bkirki also expected the statement to backfire.
“People who are against certain Christian political stands are going to interpret it as follows: (The bishops) are helping the US and the Israelis pressure Syria, even if this is not the case,” he said. “The statement is also going to be interpreted as the end of Qornet Shehwan again, this might not be the case.”
The politician offered the view that Bkirki found itself forced to issue a strong statement.
“There’s no doubt (the authorities) drove him (Sfeir) to desperation, and the statement was harsher than some of (former army commander Michel) Aoun’s declarations,” he said. “Aoun’s recent statement in which he accused the patriarch of not doing enough to publicize his issue was one factor, while privately, supporters of the Lebanese Forces are complaining that Sfeir isn’t doing enough for (jailed former LF leader) Samir Geagea.
“But in the end,” the politician argued, “it was another Christian mistake.”