Time to lay the groundwork for an enduring pace in the Mideast, says Rice
On the eve of the Rome conference, calls for a ceasefire and appeals for help to the population multiply; so do demands for long-lasting solutions to the region's historic divisions. Lebanese PM Siniora is set to visit the Vatican. Patriarch Hazim calls on Syrians to welcome their Lebanese brothers.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – "It is time for a new Middle East," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. She added: "We need to begin to really lay the ground work for an enduring peace in this region". In Lebanon, radio stations relayed her statement with positive responses. The country in the meantime is waiting expectantly for a ceasefire and international help that might be decided tomorrow at the conference on the Lebanon crisis in Rome.

Speaking to AsiaNews by phone, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora reaffirmed the "need for an immediate ceasefire to stop the fighting as a prelude to open the door to diplomatic negotiations".

He said he hoped the Rome conference succeeds, noting that his participation was meant to assert Lebanon's right to a durable peace.

Mr Siniora renewed his criticism of Israel "which does not make any difference between what is civilian and military", and announced that he would hold talks in the Vatican with officials in charge of the Lebanon desk and for this he reiterated his government's gratitude to Benedict XVI.

Secretary of State of the Holy See Card Angelo Sodano told Italian weekly magazine Famiglia cristiana that "helping the parties quickly end this cruel war and relieve the pain of the civilian population who, for no fault of their own, find themselves targets of this new conflict" is what worries the Holy Father the most.

The cardinal noted that he was in favour of the deployment of a force that would be interposed between Lebanon and Israel, a possibility already included in tomorrow's discussions at the Rome conference.

"An interposition force," he said, "is always possible. It might even be appropriate, but it should have the means to intervene. The recent history of some UN actions is not encouraging. All we need to think about is the inertia of UN forces in some tragic situations in the Balkans, Africa, Haiti or East Timor."

"The UN's UNIFIL is still deployed between Lebanon and Israel, but it has been unable to prevent the current conflict," he said.

"What we need is for rulers and citizens to want peace. For this reason, the Church, in particular the Holy See, will never tire in urging the parties to enter into a dialogue in order to find ways of understanding and reconciliation."

In Beirut, air strikes continued after Secretary Rice's quick visit and her meetings with Lebanese PM Siniora, Shiite National Assembly Speaker Nabih Berri, who represented Hezbollah, and some representatives of the March 4 Movement. Other cities like historic Tyre were also attacked. In Nabatiye, St Anthony's Convent, which belongs to the Lebanese Maronite Order, was destroyed.

The villages of Yaroun, Khiam and Ain Ebel also came under fire. In Christian Ain Abel hand-to-hand combats have been reported.

But Israel is not the only part to the conflict to have come under harsh criticism. UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland has slammed Hezbollah for bringing suffering to the Lebanese people.

Egeland, who yesterday charged Israel with violating "international humanitarian law", today said that he was not talking about excessive use of force by Israel alone. "Consistently," he said "my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending . . . [a]mong women and children."

"I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this," he added, noting that no one "should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men."

Syria, which won't attend the Rome conference, is trying to make its voice heard. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Imad Moustafa expressed to AsiaNews "his regrets after the failure of the initiative of Rice, who does not want to end the suffering of the Lebanese population," insisting on the "need for the US to play a neutral role and not side with one of the parties."

Also in Damascus, the Greek-Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV Hazim, appealed to his fellow religious leaders in Syria "to provide immediate help to their Lebanese brothers affected by bombing."

Speaking to AsiaNews, Patriarch Hazim said he was hoping for a long truce and a final solution to the Mideast conflict. He praised the spirit of hospitality exhibited by the government and people of Syria in welcoming Lebanese refugees despite recent controversies.

The prelate also thanked Pope Benedict XVI for what he is doing to bring peace to the Middle East, and urged Christians in Syria to join him in prayer for peace in the region.

Finally, Patriarch Hazim renewed his appeal to all the heads of monasteries and bishops to provide "a decent shelter for our brothers."
In Israel, in his talks with Secretary Rice, Prime Minister Olmert has admitted that Israeli attacks in Lebanon have created "humanitarian difficulties". However, whilst agreeing to the necessity of finding a solution with the United States to at least some of the problems, he reiterated his country's intention to continue the offensive against Hezbollah.  

(With the collaboration of  Jihad Issa and Youssef  Hourany