06/04/2011, 00.00
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Bkerke: Patriarch seeks to unite "brother enemies"

by Fady Noun
MPs and political figures attended the "extended" Maronite assembly. Focusing on two central issues: the sale of Christian property to non-Christians, and the Christian presence within State structures.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - After calling together the four main political leaders of the Maronite community, on June 2 Patriarch Béchara Raï chaired the extended Maronite assembly, which was attended by MPs and dignitaries drawn from all different political viewpoints.

The Patriarch tried to unite these "brothers and enemies" on non confrontational - but vital - matters that affect all Maronite Christians in Lebanon, beyond the differences that mark the political life of Lebanon and legitimate varying positions. He stressed his care not to mix religion and politics, and justified the Bkerke meeting by pointing to the exceptional situation that Lebanon and the Middle East are currently experiencing, in which the Church must play a catalytic role.

Yesterday two major dossiers were addressed. The massive sale of Christian property to non-Christians, and that of the Christian presence in public administration and services. The Center for Research and Documentation of the Maronite Church (Cmdr), chaired by Camille Zeidan and Labora association prepared two studies on the issues in question. Camille Zeidan has long been in charge of the Secretariat for Catholic schools. The Labora Association, chaired by Tony Khadra, an Antonine priest, is relatively new and aspires to the role of an employment agencies for Christians.

The sale of the property has been discussed several times in recent years in Lebanon and within the Church. It was also addressed during the Synod on the Middle East held in Rome in October 2010. The outlook drawn up at the meeting in Bkerke does not seem as disastrous as might have been expected: faced with the actual figures, widespread fears have been somewhat dissipated.

But the fact remains that large amounts of land were purchased by non-Christians during the past decades, particularly in the region of Jezzine in the south of the country, where one person alone has bought more than three million square meters. In a small country like Lebanon (10,452 km square) is a lot of land for one man.

It reminds us that during the 90s, Hezbollah were accused of land grabbing in the region of Jezzine with some Christians and Druze deputies claiming the Islamic party close to Iran wants to create a the Shiite majority area, demographically linking South Lebanon to Bekaa, another Shiite majority zone.

But the massive purchases of land are not limited to southern Lebanon, noted personalities gathered in Bkerke. The phenomenon also extends to the region of Koura and Zghorta, near the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. These purchases also raise the concern of the population there, which fears a progressive colonization and expansion of Sunni Muslim presence in the predominantly Christian regions.

The Lebanese Constitution reaffirms the right of residence for every Lebanese citizen in any area of the territory. This happened as a reaction to the 1975-1990 and a plan that aimed to redistribute the Lebanese people in confessional cantons.

The concern of the Maronite patriarch and some Lebanese MPs, like Boutros Harb, is not linked to the fact that the Lebanese people may intermingle, but rather to the need for this to happen spontaneously and naturally. They are opposed to a community planning of places of residence along ideological or political lines. And this in the name and cause of the principles enunciated by the Constitution.

For example, in Beirut, Shiite-majority districts are beginning to press on other predominantly Christian areas. In some cases, political and military pressures were exerted on Christians to cede their property, and in other cases it was necessary to put pressure on Muslims who illegally occupied Christian properties to leave. This issue could become a source of community concerns.

In Mount Lebanon negotiations are ongoing for Hezbollah to return three million square meters of land occupied illegally, and belonging to the Maronite Patriarchate. Maronite MPs who attended the meeting, as well as mayors and community leaders across the country have been asked to be vigilant on this point, and to coordinate their actions in advance with the Patriarchate. Also discussed was, once again, the creation of a financial fund, under the supervision of the Maronite Patriarchate, designed to buy the properties offered for sale by Christians for one reason or another, and especially if the sale is motivated by need .

The second case concerned the Christian presence in public administration. Some campaigns aimed at encouraging Christians to enter public service, particularly in law enforcement, have been very fruitful. At the time of greatest Christian disaffection with the State there was a 15% presence in the administration.  Now that presence stands at 24%. It is not a negative figure, for a community which represents about one third of the total population of Lebanon. Especially since the rules of Muslim-Christian equality, which is required in parliament and among senior officials does not apply in this area. It is true that there proposals for the Equality Act to be applied at all levels in administration, but there is little chance that the motion will be carried.

Some political parties have requested that the next Maronite assembly in Bkerke broaden to become a Christian assembly. No date has been set for the next meeting, to be prepared by a commission headed by a bishop.

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