President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Catholic backed by Syria, repudiated Thursday calls by Maronite bishops for Syrian forces to get out of Lebanon.
These positions "arouse confessional, sectarian instincts, which do not serve the nation's highest interests," the president said in a statement.
The bishops called Wednesday for the withdrawal of the 35,000 troops Syria has stationed in Lebanon.
"A Syrian withdrawal will mean that Lebanon will not disappear," they said after a conference held under their patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir.
Without directly mentioning their statement, Lahoud said, "It is neither wise nor logical to conduct an anti-Syrian campaign and close one's eyes to the crimes Israel committed against Lebanon."
Former warlords who call for freedom and democracy but did not apply them among their own supporters during the 1975-90 civil war should, "regardless of their confession ... apologize, even belatedly, and confess their mistakes to the people instead of inciting them again to listen to their instincts and ignore the lessons of the past."
The war ended after Syria intervened, with the Maronites losing their dominant place in Lebanon.
The Lebanese government joined the debate late Wednesday, warning that "extremist stances" could endanger national unity.
"Relations between Lebanon and Syria are not tied to circumstance. They do not change as a result of foreign or sectarian positions. They are strategic relations, defined only by the state and the constitutional bodies," said Information Minister Anwar Khalil after a cabinet meeting.
He said ministers had discussed "the tension that has recently erupted as a result of voices rising here and there which could lead to a return to an unhealthy climate that might upset national unity," Khalil said.
The reference was apparently to anti-Syrian slogans chanted at recent rallies by supporters of the banned right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces.
Khalil called for "reasoned speech", warning of the danger of "reopening the wounds of the past."
After the bishops issued their statement, two leading Lebanese Muslim clerics responded with their own joint communiqué, saying it was up to the country's authorities to take a position on the Syrian presence in the best interests of the Lebanese people -- BEIRUT (AFP)
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