Assad Takes Long Agenda to Paris
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad begins a delicate three-day state visit to France on Monday, his first since assuming power last year. Assad is expected to urge Europe to take a bigger role in resolving the Mideast crisis.
In an interview with France’s Channel 2 last week, the young president said bilateral relations between his country and its former colonial occupier would top his visit’s agenda, including economic, cultural and education cooperation.
According to AFP, Assad will be seeking French support for Syria's economic reform program, but at the same time will probably have to explain recent remarks that have been judged anti-Semitic.
Several Jewish organizations have called for protests on Monday in Paris and other French cities against his visit.
One group, the French Jewish Union for Peace (UJFP), has also protested against a visit to Paris on July 5 and 6 by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calling both he and Assad "persona non grata,” said the agency.
Assad has told the French television he wants "normal relations" with Israel once peace is achieved.
Syria's peace negotiations with Israel have been in deep freeze since January 2000 when Israel refused Syria's demands for the turnover of the whole of the occupied Golan Heights.
Assad is to be accompanied by some 30 business executives as well as top-ranking officials.
On Wednesday, Syria hit back at an Israeli message to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan accusing Assad's regime of anti-Semitism, saying that Assad respects all major religions.
Syria "respects all religions and refuses to fall into the trap of confusing Judaism, a monotheist religion, and Zionism, a political and ideological movement," said Syria's interim charge d'affaires to the UN, Faisal Makdad, in a statement published in Syrian newspapers.
"Israel must cease accusing Arabs of anti-Semitism, because Arabs, themselves, are Semites," he said.
"Anti-Semitism is an accusation that Israel is all too ready to bring against all those who dare question its respect for international law, the UN charter, and the principles of human rights."
The Syrian statement was an answer to the Israeli delegation at the UN accusing Assad of anti-Semitism during Pope John Paul II's trip to Damascus last month.
The Israelis pointed the finger at Assad for his speech upon welcoming the pope to Syria, in which he said the Israelis were "trying to kill religions in the same way they betrayed Jesus Christ, in the same way they tried to kill the prophet Mohammed."
Meanwhile, Reuters said that France, for its part, would likely press Assad "to contribute to the stability of the region" by checking radical Islamist organizations whose action could aggravate growing tension in the Middle East and increase the threat of a wider conflict, diplomats said.
Assad arrives with one feather in his cap after having just pulled Syrian troops out of Beirut and its surroundings - a long-standing demand of Lebanon's Maronite Christian community, France's traditional ally in Lebanon, said Reuters.
The 24-hour detention last week of dissident journalist Nizar Nayyouf by Syrian security agents wanting to prevent him from revealing information about the country's human rights abuses was a fresh reminder of the issue, the agency added – Albawaba.com
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