Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir agreed Sunday to work for the release of Lebanese prisoners in Syria after the inmates' families petitioned him following Mass.
Some 200 of the prisoners' relatives gathered in the outside the church in Bkirke, the headquarters of Lebanon's Maronites, and greeted Sfeir with banners such as "How long are Lebanese going to remain imprisoned in Syria?"
"We implore Your Beatitude to take action with the relevant authorities to win freedom for our sons and husbands who have been rotting away in Syrian prisons for years," a representative of the group told Sfeir as he left Mass.
Sfeir's initial response was to say they should take their case to "security authorities and pursue their cases through the legal system."
But the woman replied that Lebanese and Syrian officials refused to meet with them.
"There have not been any proper judicial procedures," she said, pointing out that the prisoners had never been tried.
Sfeir then promised the group to work for the release of prisoners held unjustly "in Syria, and also in Israel."
The patriarch had raised the ire of some Lebanese and Syrians on Wednesday after he and other Christian leaders called for an end to Syria's presence in Lebanon.
The human rights group Amnesty International estimated in April 1998 that 228 Lebanese, mostly Christians and Islamists opposed to Damascus' heavy hand in the country, are imprisoned in Syria.
Damascus freed 121 Lebanese prisoners in March after mediation by Lebanon's former president Elias Hrawi.
Amnesty International has also condemned Israel's continued detention of 19 Lebanese, including the Islamist leaders Abdel-Karim Obeid and Mustapha Dirani who were kidnapped by Israeli commandos 11 and six years ago respectively.
Israel seized the Lebanese hostages as bargaining chips for Israelis missing during the country's 22-year occupation of south Lebanon.
Only one Israeli, pilot Ron Arad, is believed to be possibly still alive -- BKIRKE, Lebanon (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )