Pope John Paul renewed his call on Monday for the observance of international law and UN resolutions in the Middle East to allow negotiations to resume and peace to be obtained, reported the Daily Star newspaper.
The pontiff’s remarks came during a meeting with Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who is on a foreign tour that will also take him to the US, Canada and France.
Hariri and the Pope discussed the Middle East and Syria’s army presence in Beirut as well as the Pope’s visit to Syria in May, reported the Daily Star newspaper.
“The situation in Lebanon and … the Middle East were the main themes of the talks,” said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls, making no mention of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir’s calls for the Syrian army to leave Lebanon, the paper said.
According to a member of the delegation accompanying Hariri, Sfeir’s reluctance to accompany the pope in Syria was not discussed between the two men, but was high on the agenda of Hariri’s talks with senior Vatican Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Foreign Minister Jean-Louis Torrens.
The two officials told the premier that Sfeir was due to visit the Vatican to discuss the matter prior to the pope’s visit to Syria.
Hariri said he had advised Sfeir to visit Syria at the same time as the pope.
In separate interviews with the Vatican’s radio and television stations, Hariri reiterated his position that Lebanon’s national interest required keeping the Syrian army in Beirut, the paper quoted him as saying.
“He said that Lebanon’s official position on the Syrian presence was opposed to that adopted by Sfeir and argued that the Taif Accord did not provide for an immediate Syrian withdrawal.”
“This is still a matter under debate and we still require the presence of this army,” he said. “Besides, no one other than the Beirut government is entitled to make any decision on this.”
The premier said that Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims had much in common and that the former play a crucial role in several fields, namely culture, economics and politics.
Meanwhile, Hariri also said that the US administration remained undecided about its long-term strategy in the Middle East, reiterating that “the settlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is impossible and that there is a national consensus on this issue.”
Hariri also met officials of three Italian companies involved in construction and maintenance projects in Lebanon.
The Vatican was Hariri's first leg in the tour which will also take him to the US, Canada and France.
On Tuesday, Hariri is due in Washington, where he will meet US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. He will be joined by four ministers on his US trip, the paper added.
On April 29, Hariri will make a two-day visit to Canada, where he will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Hariri will then fly to Paris on May 1 to meet French President Jacques Chirac, before returning to Beirut on May 2, the paper said.
Sources said that Hariri will visit Damascus after his American-European tour, and meet with high-ranking officials there - Albawaba.com
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