Lebanon News

Christian leaders hold icebreaker talks in Bkirki

The gathering was expected to see leaders come forward with broad proposals to lay the foundations for a future road map. (Photos: Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Rival Christian leaders agreed to shelve talks on politically divisive issues and focus instead on matters of mutual concern in the Christian community at “a touch base meeting” held under the sponsorship of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai Tuesday.

“The meeting ended in the same spiritual way it started and will be followed by other meetings and future gatherings whenever the need arises,” a statement released by the patriarchate’s press office in Bkirki said.

The icebreaker meeting began at 9 a.m., shortly after the arrival of Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, Kataeb (Phalange) Party leader Amin Gemayel, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea and Marada Movement head Suleiman Franjieh.

“This is a touch base meeting,” Gemayel told The Daily Star.

Gemayel said Beirut Bishop Boulos Matar was tasked with following up on the gathering and coordinating future steps between the patriarchate and the four leaders.

These future steps are to include a second mini-gathering at Bkirki to address “priority issues,” Gemayel added. The former president said that a procedure was agreed upon whereby the four leaders would put forward proposals, leaving it to the patriarch to determine the date of a second meeting based on progress made in coordination contacts led by Matar.

“The timeline will not take long and it is up to the patriarch and bishop Matar to decide the date of the next meeting,” Gemayel said.

The meeting was reported to have taken place in a friendly atmosphere as Maronite leaders, divided between the Future Movement-led March 14 alliance and the Hezbollah-led March 8, agreed to discuss contentious political issues in a civil and democratic manner.

“Issues proposed for discussion were divided between those that could be agreed on, and those which are subject to legitimate political differences in a democratic nation that respects freedom while preserving the country’s unity and upholding its interests,” Bkirki’s statement said.

Commenting on the gathering following his Reform and Change parliamentary bloc meeting, Aoun said it was held in a calm atmosphere as participants spoke openly of their political positions and agreed to refrain from disclosing the subject of deliberations until they had achieved results.

Gemayel said that politically contentious issues, including but not limited to Hezbollah’s weapons and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, were left for future discussions.

According to Gemayel, priority issues include an agreement over an electoral law, and efforts to reduce high emigration rates, increase the inclusion of Christians in state administrative positions, reduce the large-scale property and land sales to non-Christians, and prevent the naturalization of Palestinian refugees. 

Property sales and high emigration rates have raised fears over organized efforts to alter the country’s demographic balance, as Lebanon’s Christian community has fallen to almost 40 percent, threatening the continued viability of a system of power-sharing based on parity between Muslims and Christians.

Bkirki’s press office said that attendees discussed Christian principles, which guide the leaders’ political work, as well as national principles, which unite the Lebanese people.

“The exchange of ideas was an introduction to the current situation, taking into consideration hopes voiced by the Lebanese to preserve their country and its future under the difficult circumstances in the region,” it added.

Matar and Youssef Beshara, Maronite archbishop of Antelias, participated in the meeting, which was followed by a lunch banquet attended by Rai’s predecessor Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir.

Photographers were briefly allowed in. Geagea and Gemayel were seated to the right of Rai, and facing Aoun and Franjieh.

Bkirki’s attempt to ease tensions within the Christian community reportedly stems from its fear of the widening schism between the two camps, one siding with the U.S.-French-Saudi axis and the other with the Syrian-Iranian axis.

While March 14 Christian factions have recently escalated their campaign against Hezbollah’s weapons after boycotting the new Cabinet, Hezbollah’s ally, Aoun, continues to quarrel with President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite, over shares in the new government.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 20, 2011, on page 1.

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