Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir has warned that Lebanon was threatened by "extinction" and called for an "honorable exit" of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Beirut papers said Friday.
"The Syrian presence is not in its place anymore. Either a country governs itself by itself or it doesn't exist," Sfeir said in a live interview with the Orbit satellite channel late Thursday.
Sfeir, who is engaged in a war of words with Damascus, said "the decision should be left to the Lebanese, or else the country will not be independent. Lebanon has the right to demand its independence."
"When we call for the withdrawal of the Syrian forces, we are seeking an honorable exit in the context of friendship and cooperation," he said.
"We are against conspiracies against Syria from Lebanon. We want Syria to respect Lebanon as Lebanon respects it," he said.
He denounced "the Syrians for appointing officials in Lebanon, this is unbearable for the Lebanese. We are for dialogue between the Lebanese and Syrian governments on the condition that one is not made by the other."
"Any person that Syria vetoes cannot reach high positions" in Lebanon.
On September 20, Christian Maronite bishops called in a fiery statement for the pullout of 35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, which they described as undermining Lebanese independence.
Asked about the timing of such calls, Sfeir said "we knew that it would be wrong to call for the exit of the Syrians while Israel was still occupying the land" until its troop pullout on May 24.
"The Israelis withdrew, the parliamentary elections were held, we were awaiting the creation of a new government and the rule in Syria had changed," he said.
"It was our duty to speak out loudly what was being whispered by the people. The issue cannot handle more delays. There is emigration, poverty and Lebanon is heading for extinction more than ever before," he said.
Sfeir spoke of "despair" among the Lebanese because of the economic crisis and the lack of confidence in a government born of "dishonest" elections.
"Frustration is not only among the Christians. About one million Lebanese have emigrated" since the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war in 1990.
"Every month, some 15,000 Lebanese knock on the doors of embassies to emigrate and the rate of Christians is slightly bigger than that of Muslims. Therefore despair has hit everyone," he said.
Prominent Christian opposition MP Albert Mukhaiber said Thursday the new Beirut government of Rafiq Hariri had the "duty" to call for Syria's troop pullout from Lebanon.
Mukhaiber, speaking at the opening of parliamentary debates ahead of a vote of confidence in the new cabinet, warned that if Beirut and Damascus do not develop ties, "the Lebanese will be to Syria what the Palestinians are to Israel."
He called for exchanging embassies in Lebanon and Syria, which had never established diplomatic ties since their independence in 1943.
Hariri responded by saying that "without Syria, we would be facing major problems. Syria isn't the problem in country. Israel is. Syria played a major role in restoring consensus. It helped build the Lebanese army."
"If Syria wanted to control Lebanon, it wouldn't have allowed the building of such an army, which is the basis for any country's independence," he said.
Hariri's government policy statement said the Syrian army presence remained "necessary, legal and temporary ... and determined by the two countries' strategic needs."
Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976, a year after the outbreak of the 15-year civil strife in Lebanon – BEIRUT (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )