08/30/2004, 00.00
Lebanon - syria

Patriarch Sfeir slams Syrian influence on constitutional changes

Card. Sfeir says  Lebanon has become "a toy" in the hands of the regional powers. According to many politicians and observers the existence of the country is at risk.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir denounced on Sunday a bid to keep the Syrian-backed president through a constitutional change he said was "plotted by night" and forced on Lebanon's cabinet. Lebanon's top Christian cleric, a vocal critic of Syria's influence in Lebanon, opposes President Emile Lahoud's intention to remain in office after his term ends in November, which would require changing the constitution.

A hastily convened cabinet requested such a change to extend Lahoud's term by three years on Saturday, despite opposition from the prime minister and prominent politicians, including some traditional allies of powerful neighbour Syria.

"What happened yesterday regarding the Constitution and the presidency is unfamiliar, plotted by night and carried out swiftly by day," Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir said during Sunday mass at the church's seat in Diman.

"Those directly involved were seized to express a view imposed on them, and obeyed submissively," he said. "I call on all to be aware ... and for God to help Lebanon and the Lebanese."

Sfeir opposes President Emile Lahoud's intention to remain in office after his term ends in November, which would require changing the Constitution.

"The government handled the matter hastily," Sfeir said, adding that: "The presidential issue is so important and needs more time for consultation; however, the concerned officials obeyed blindly by forcing on us a decision dictated to them."

According to Sfeir, "the Lebanese people, left behind in the midst of international and national turmoil over the Syrian intervention, have become strangers."

"Lebanon has become a toy in the hands of regional and international interests disregarding the interests of the Lebanese people who are now outsiders in deciding vital national issues," Sfeir said.

The Maronite Bishops' Council, which is presided over by Sfeir, will convene on Wednesday to discuss the latest development. The council will issue a statement regarding its stance on the proposed constitutional amendment.

Syria flooded Lebanon with troops during the 1975-1990 civil war, later firming its grip through broad influence in the presidency, military and security services.

The Patriarch's objections have been echoed by politicians closer to Damascus including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose allies in the cabinet rejected the plan.

Druze overlord Walid Jamblat vowed an unflinching opposition to the 'extended regime," saying "there can be no coexistence between freedom and the military barracks." Speaking from his ancestral mansion in Moukhtara, Jumblat deplored the defiance of the constitution and the betrayal of existing laws so as to keep Lahoud in power against the will of the Lebanese people. "Nations are not measured by their size, but by their liberties and respect of the human being," said the defiant leader of the Progressive Socialist Party.
Presidential aspirant Michael Daher, once a staunch ally of Syria, said the way with which the extension bill was drafted inside of 20-minutes by the cabinet Saturday resembled a "smuggling operation conducted on a moonless night." "We are heading to a catastrophe for which the country will pay heavily," Daher said. "Extension is bound to create an irreparable schism in Lebanon."
Parliament member Fares Soaid, an outspoken leader of the Qornet Shahwan coalition of right-wing Christian politicians said Syria has seized altogether Lebanon's constitutional institutes."

The amendment, proposed at a 20-minute extraordinary Cabinet meeting, will be sent to Parliament, where it is expected to pass easily since pro-Syrian legislators hold a large majority. Lahoud's term expires Nov. 24 and Parliament is expected to meet as early as this week to pass the amendment to extend his mandate without an election.

The U.S. State Department said last week the presidency should be a Lebanese rather than a Syrian choice, and determined according to Lebanon's constitution, a position repeated by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in Damascus. Washington is pressuring Syria to cut support for Lebanon's Hizbollah and pull its troops out of the country. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa, hosting Fischer on Saturday, defended the move to retain Lahoud in office, saying respect for a country's constitution did not rule out the possibility of changing it.

A prominent Lebanese politician who requested anonymity said the regional situation, full of uncertainties prompted Damascus to choose "someone it knows and tried", holding on to its "strategic partner" in the country "until the storm leaves the region".

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