Hariri meets Pope Francis, vows stability
Prime Minister Saad Hariri vowed Friday to maintain stability in Lebanon and consensus among rival factions to shield the country from the reverberations of regional turmoil. He spoke after meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican and separately with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Rome.
Hariri’s remarks coincided with a tough speech by U.S. President Donald Trump against Iran in which he accused Tehran of supporting global terrorism.
“We must maintain stability in Lebanon. We must maintain consensus because this is in Lebanon’s interest,” Hariri told reporters after meeting Rai late Friday night. “Maintaining this consensus and stability in Lebanon is what counts.”
He dismissed rumors about the fate of his government. “The government will stay in office,” he said.
Asked to comment on Trump’s hostile speech against Iran, Hariri said: “Lebanon is a very small country. My duty as head of Lebanon’s government is to spare it any danger. This is an American attitude toward Iran and Lebanon has nothing to do with it.”
Earlier in the day, Hariri said after meeting with the pope that safe zones in Syria were the key to the repatriation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their homeland.
The Syrian refugee crisis and its security and economic impact on Lebanon’s stability figured high in Hariri’s talks with the pope. The talks also covered regional developments and religious tolerance.
Hariri, accompanied by his wife, Lara, and children Hossam, Lula and Abdel-Aziz, arrived in Rome Thursday night on an official visit.
The prime minister said the pope would work to assist Lebanon in coping with the hosting over 1 million Syrian refugees whose presence is straining the country’s weak infrastructure and struggling economy.
“We talked about this issue [of the refugee crisis] and the Vatican has a responsibility in this regard, and the pope will work on this. But what is essential for me and for the displaced, is that no one is preventing any displaced from returning to Syria today,” Hariri told reporters. “The right way for their return to their country should be found and there must be safe areas in Syria for the displaced to be convinced to return safely to their country and to these areas. In this way, we would have secured the return of the displaced to Syria.”
Hariri reiterated his opposition to forcing the Syrian refugees to return home. “The talk about forcing them to return is out of the question, unnatural and inhumane,” he said. “But we in Lebanon must protect the Lebanese citizen, by applying Lebanese laws that preserve his jobs .”
Following a 30-minute meeting with Hariri, the pope received Hariri’s family and members of the accompanying delegation. Hariri offered the pope a silver cross from the Byzantine period, while the pontiff presented him with an icon from
the 19th century, a statement from the premier’s media office said. Hariri then headed to the office of the Vatican Secretary of State, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, for an hourlong meeting, during which they discussed the situation in Lebanon and the impact of the displaced Syrians.
Describing his meeting with the pope as “very good,” Hariri said the pontiff underlined the importance of inter-faith dialogue. “We in Lebanon do not just love dialogue but live this dialogue. His holiness stressed the importance of dialogue, and the need to work for it and to live this kind of shared life between Muslims and Christians,” Hariri said. “This is what some countries in the Arab world are missing, but we are fortunate in Lebanon because we live this model of coexistence.”
He said he invited the pope to visit Lebanon. “He really wants to come and hopefully we will see him soon in Lebanon. This will be in Lebanon’s interests, and in the interests of Muslims and Christians and the region. His holiness understands the situation in Lebanon,” Hariri said. He added that he also met with the Vatican secretary of state with whom he talked about local and regional developments.
Asked what he heard from the pope, Hariri said: “We heard from him that Lebanon is important to him and coexistence in Lebanon is an example for the whole region, and must be preserved ... His holiness went to Egypt to confirm the importance of dialogue, especially between Muslims and Christians. His fundamental message is a message of peace and kindness.”
Hariri praised the “understanding” reached among the rival Lebanese factions that led to the election of President Michel Aoun in October last year and to his return to the premiership. “It is this understanding that saved Lebanon and that can lead the country to safety and peace,” he said.
Meanwhile, Aoun Friday marked the Oct. 13, 1990, anniversary at Baabda Palace from which he was evicted by Syrian troops after refusing to step down and for opposing the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War.
Speaking to visitors at Baabda Palace, Aoun said that his revolt against the Taif Accord was not to gain popularity, but to lay the foundations for a state.
“A state that does not enjoy sovereignty, independence and freedom cannot build itself by itself, ”Aoun said, adding that with his election as president, the time is ripe to restore the rights of the Maronite community.
Aoun’s comments came on the anniversary of the Oct. 13, 1990, events when Syrian warplanes bombed Baabda Palace where Aoun was sheltering in a bunker with his family, having refused to step down.
As a result of the heavy Syrian bombardment, Aoun, who was then the Army commander, fled to the French Embassy before the Syrian army reached the palace. He was later exiled to France in 1991, where he spent the next 14 years before returning to Lebanon in May 2005.
Speaking on the same occasion, FPM leader and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told a rally in the town of Jounieh Friday night: “Oct. 13 was a dream of freedom, sovereignty and independence that came true with the elimination of Syrian tutelage, Israel’s withdrawal [from south Lebanon], and the crushing of Daesh (ISIS) terrorism.” He said his party rejected resettlement of Palestinian or Syrian refugees in Lebanon because it runs contrary to independence.
Hariri, accompanied by his wife, Lara, and children Hossam, Lula and Abdel-Aziz, arrived in Rome Thursday night.