03/22/2005, 00.00
LEBANON
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We want a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon, says Patriarch Sfeir

The head of the Maronite Church speaks about his visit to the US.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – In leaving the United States after an eight day visit that began on March 15 Card Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch of the Maronite Church, said: "We want a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon. Many years ago it was said that Lebanon could not govern itself because of the war others fought on its soil between 1975 and 1990, but the latest events show the opposite."

Invited by US President George W. Bush, the Patriarch met US administration officials, United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan, and UN Mideast envoy Terry Larsen.

In addition to official meetings, Cardinal Sfeir held pastoral meeting with Maronite faithful and their bishops as well as US bishops.

Before returning to Lebanon, he met Mgr Robert Stern, general secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association to express his countrymen's gratitude towards the US charity for its help to the needy in Lebanon.

Just before departure for Beirut where he is expected in the afternoon (local time), the Patriarch held a press conference to illustrate the main points of his US visit.

He said he talked with US officials and renewed his demand for an immediate and dignified withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, stressing the importance of the upcoming parliamentary elections which should be free, with free participants, without Syrian interference as was always the case before but with candidates committed to personal integrity and the country.

Answering a question about Hezbollah, the only Lebanese political party with an armed militia, he said that as soon as Israel pulls out of the Shebaa Farms, it, too, should become like any other political party.

Last week Hezbollah had organised a mass rally against US and French pressures on Syria, raising the spectre of renewed strife with the Lebanese opposition which has been calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and secret services.

The Patriarch also expressed hope that under current President Mahmoud Abbas a just solution be found to the Palestinian question.

As to pressures put on current Lebanese President Émile Lahoud, he stressed the need to avoid any 'constitutional vacuum' and backed the opposition's demand that it receive half of all posts in the new cabinet.

Cardinal Sfeir ended the press conference calling for the release of Samir Geagea, former commander of the Lebanese forces and the country's most important political prisoner, who was a victim of Syrian influence in Lebanon.

During his stay in the US, Patriarch Sfeir received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Fordham University. (YH)

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