BEIRUT: Labor Minister Butros Harb defended Tuesday his proposal to ban inter-religious land and property sales saying it was aimed to counter “suspicious” transactions to drive Christians out of certain Lebanese territories.
“There are suspicious sale operations of Christian territories happening as if there is a trend of expelling Christians from their land,” Harb told Future News. “Christian presence in Lebanon allows cultural and religious diversity.”
The Batroun M.P. also slammed accusations voiced by several politicians that the law proposal was drafted to satisfy sectarian motives.
Harb’s proposal has drawn criticism from a number of officials, particularly Speaker Nabih Berri and Free Patriotic Movement leader M.P. Michel Aoun, saying it violated the Constitution, the principles of a free economy and promoted divisions within the population.
Harb’s draft law would prevent Christians and Muslims from selling property to each other for a period of 15 years.
The proposed legislation was said to be a response to fears that the demographic balance in Lebanon would be affected by a recent, quasi-organized trend in land sales from members of one religion to another.
Harb responded to Berri’s remarks saying his proposal was based on a fatwa issued by the Higher Shiite Council 27 years ago forbidding Muslims from selling their land to non-Muslims.
The Higher Shiite Council’s late Vice President Sheikh Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddine issued a religious edict in 1984 banning the sale of Muslim-owned land to non-Muslims in mixed areas in order to preserve the diversity of various Lebanese regions.
“My proposal mirrors that of Sheikh Shamseddine, whom Speaker Berri used to support,” Harb said.
But a source close to Berri told the state-run National News Agency that Shamseddine’s fatwa was “circumstantial” and was aimed at preventing further divisions among the Lebanese.
Shamseddine’s son, former Minister of State for Administrative Affairs Ibrahim Shamseddine said his father had issued the fatwa under Israeli occupation when fears mounted over land exchange being used to shape religiously homogenous regions as a prelude for dividing the country.
He added that though he was supportive of Harb’s valid concerns with regard to suspicious sale activities, Harb’s proposal contradicted constitutional norms.
But after a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, Harb called on parties with alternative proposals to come forward with their suggestions. He said the proposal was based on a prior proposal he had filed in 1983 to ban inter-religious land sale in Mount Lebanon’s Chouf, Aley and Metn regions to counter the emigration of Christians in war-torn regions of Lebanon.
Harb has served as an M.P. for Batroun since 1972 and has assumed several ministerial posts.
“Whoever has a better idea to preserve national coexistence, then let them come forward or have the courage to support my proposal,” Harb told reporters following talks with Sfeir.
Harb’s concerns over suspicious sale activities were also shared by Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
Geagea said all Christian factions, irrespective of their political affiliations, were concerned with large-scale land sales. “The state should intervene in multicultural societies to preserve the balance between all factions,” Geagea said.
However, Aoun slammed Harb’s proposal as a violation of the Constitution and one that imposes illegitimate restrictions on the freedom of property ownership and trade.