Maronite Church leader urges president to consider his position

BEIRUT (AP) — The head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church has publicly urged Lebanon’s president to consider his position, saying he prayed that Emile Lahoud will take a decision that would reassure the nation.
In a Christmas Day sermon on Sunday, Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir came closer than ever before to suggesting that Lahoud should resign as president. But Sfeir stressed the decision was entirely the president’s call.

A staunch supporter of Syria, Lahoud has come under renewed pressure to step down from the anti-Syrian majority in parliament since this month’s killing of a top newspaper editor, the latest in a series of bomb attacks on prominent opponents of Syria.

With Lahoud sitting before him in Bkirki Maronite Church, the patriarchal seat northeast of Beirut, Sfeir said: “Your excellency, being the head of the state, the responsibility falls on you to lead Lebanon to what will reassure the Lebanese, to preserve the constitution and to achieve national unity.”

The patriarch said the president was “the one who can judge whether his staying in power or resignation will strengthen or weaken the presidency.”

“We can only pray to God to inspire you to do what will preserve the dignity of the president and the presidency, and what will reassure the Lebanese,” Sfeir said.

A spokesman for Lahoud said the patriarch’s remarks would not change the president’s commitment to remain in office.

“There is nothing new requiring a change in the president’s position to continue shouldering his responsibility until the end of his mandate in 2007,” spokesman Rafik Shalala told the Associated Press.

Shalala said that before Sunday’s mass, Lahoud and Sfeir held a private meeting.

In a statement, Lahoud described the meeting as “positive and very good.”

Sfeir, who heads the 900,000-member Maronite Catholic Church — to which Lahoud belongs, has previously rejected calls for Lahoud’s resignation. However, the patriarch is a strong critic of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Sfeir’s sermon came a week after a coalition of anti-Syrian legislators and political activists called on Lahoud to quit and for the dismissal of pro-Syrian agents in Lebanon’s security services.

The coalition was angered by the December 12 assassination of the legislator and general manager of An-Nahar newspaper, Gibran Tueni. An outspoken critic of Syria’s role in Lebanon, Tueni was killed with two others in a car bombing.

Lebanon has suffered 14 bomb attacks this year, the worst being the February 14 truck bombing that blew up the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in central Beirut, killing him and 20 other people.

Hariri’s killing sparked mass demonstrations against Syria which, combined with international pressure, forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year military presence in the country.

In August, four Lebanese generals, including the commander of the Presidential Guard, Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, were arrested on the recommendation of the UN commission investigating the Hariri assassination. The commission has issued two interim reports implicating the Syrian intelligence service in Hariri’s killing. Syria has repeatedly denied involvement in Hariri’s murder and also the subsequent bombings.

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