Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai seeks help of Vatican, France to end vacuum

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Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai seeks help of Vatican, France to end vacuum
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star/Feb. 11, 2015

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai has pleaded with France and the Vatican to help in the election of a new Lebanese president, officials said Tuesday, in the latest attempt by the influential Maronite Church to end the 9-month-old vacuum in the country’s top Christian post.

Rai made the plea during a two-hour meeting with French presidential envoy Jean-Francois Girault in Rome Monday. The meeting was also attended by the Vatican Foreign Minister Monsignor Paul Gallagher, reflecting the Vatican’s concern over the lingering presidential deadlock in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Speaker Nabih Berri said he would meet with Prime Minister Tammam Salam soon to discuss the mechanism in taking the Cabinet’s decisions, in addition to the issue of opening an extraordinary session for Parliament.

“The Constitution’s provisions are clear with regard to the mechanism in taking decisions in the Cabinet in the absence or presence of the president. The solution lies in abiding by these provisions,” Berri was quoted as telling visitors to his Ain al-Tineh residence.

While the presidency seat remains vacant, the Cabinet has adopted a mechanism under which all decisions should be made unanimously and decrees signed by all 24 ministers.

Berri, according to visitors, also ruled out a new round of talks this week between the Future Movement and Hezbollah. He said the two rival parties might discuss the presidential election issue if they deemed this appropriate.

During his talks with Girault, “Patriarch Rai thanked the influential countries, namely France and the Vatican, and asked them to help in facilitating the election of a new president in Lebanon,” Walid Ghayyad, a spokesman for Rai, told The Daily Star by phone from Rome.

Describing the meeting as “good and positive,” Ghayyad said Girault briefed Rai on the outcome of his talks on the presidential election during his second tour in the Middle East. In addition to Lebanon, Girault had visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Vatican for talks focusing mainly on ways to end the presidential vacancy. The French envoy discussed with Rai the “possible means to resolve the presidential vacuum crisis in Lebanon and the needed moves in Lebanon and the role that should be played by friendly states, at the forefront of which is the Holy See and France,” Ghayyad said.

He added that it was agreed during the meeting that Girault would continue his efforts as part of a French initiative to break the presidential deadlock.

After examining the crises in the region, the French envoy and the patriarch “agreed on the importance of maintaining Lebanon’s great role, which constitutes a unique example and a main factor of stability in the Middle East through its distinctive system and Christian-Muslim coexistence based on equality, especially since Lebanon is the only country in the region whose presidency is headed by a Christian,” said a statement released by the Maronite patriarch’s media office.

A senior source close to Rai in Beirut said the Vatican was upset with the lingering vacancy in the presidency. “The Vatican demands the election of a Lebanese president as soon as possible,” the source told The Daily Star.

Rai had discussed the presidential crisis and the status of Christians in the Middle East during a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican last week.

The Rai-Girault meeting came days after the French envoy visited Beirut last week, apparently without making any headway in the presidential crisis in his talks with rival Lebanese leaders as the March 8 and March 14 parties upheld their support for opposing candidates.

Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun is supported by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies for the presidency, against the March 14 coalition-backed candidate, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea.

Parliament has since last April failed in 18 attempts to elect a president due to a lack of quorum as the feuding parties remain at odds over a consensus candidate. A new election session is set for Feb. 18.

Rival Lebanese leaders have argued that a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is essential to facilitate the election of a president.

A senior source close to Rai said the Maronite patriarch supported the ongoing dialogue between the FPM and LF, hoping it would help break the presidential impasse. “The patriarch considers the LF-FPM dialogue to be a main gateway to facilitate the election of a president,” the source told The Daily Star.

Although Rai had in his previous sermons blamed foreign factors, mainly the Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region and the strained Saudi-Iranian ties, for delaying the presidential vote, the source said: “The patriarch fully holds the Lebanese responsible for the failure to elect a president.”

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour warned that the presidential vacuum has been turned into a constitutional crisis.

“The presidential vacuum should come to an end. It’s time for this vacuum to end and for the Lebanese political parties across the country to reach unanimity over a new president, who would be the gateway to regular constitutional and political life,” Abu Faour told reporters after meeting Salam at the Grand Serail. “We don’t know where this presidential vacuum, which has been long and turned from a political crisis into a constitutional crisis, might lead.”