Christians Are ‘Moderating Force’ in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Christians in Lebanon are a “moderating force” because their beliefs promote tolerance, said a Lebanese general often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

Gen. Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian bloc in the Lebanese Parliament, said Christians were “like a transitional culture between the West and the East ... like a human bridge between both sides.”

Aoun, a Maronite Catholic, said he thought it was “very symbolic for relations” that a memorandum of understanding between his movement and Hezbollah, which represents the Shiite Muslim community, was formally presented in February at St. Michael Maronite Catholic Church in Beirut. A day earlier, a Catholic church in Beirut was attacked by Islamic extremists protesting caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Aoun also noted that St. Michael’s is on the border of the Green Line, the area that witnessed intense Christian-Muslim fighting during Lebanon’s 1975-90 war.

“‘So it is very symbolic for starting a new period,” signified by the dialogue between his movement and Hezbollah, Aoun said.

‘”When I made the memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah, everybody was afraid of it,” said Aoun. “They considered it like a plague. After, they realized that it was a good thing, and they agreed with us.”

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. However, the Lebanese government regards Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories. Hezbollah led a military campaign against Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000. It continues to fight Israel in the disputed Shebaa Farms area of southern Lebanon, in which the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.

Aoun said Lebanon has a number of problems to deal with, and there is a lack of confidence among politicians.

“We admitted that dialogue is the only way to solve the problems,” Aoun said of his Christian political party’s understanding with Hezbollah. “So it’s a step forward toward democracy.”

Aoun returned to Lebanon last May after a 15-year exile in France imposed by the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government. He had led the Lebanese Army in the “war of liberation” against Syria, launched March 14, 1989.

From exile in Paris, he led the Free Patriotic Movement, which began as a resistance movement in 1990 and was officially declared a political party last September.

His testimony before the U.S. Congress was influential in the passage of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, signed by President George W. Bush in May 2004. The act imposed economic sanctions on Syria for its occupation of Lebanon.

In March 2005, some 1 million Lebanese — Christians, Muslims and Druze — peacefully marched in a protest that resulted in the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon one month later.

Aoun said that those governing Lebanon now “were used to ruling the country under the Syrian yoke, and they still have the same mentality. I think we need to have in office leaders who are really independent, free and sovereign.”

However, he also said it was important to have good relations with Syria.

“In liberating Lebanon from Syria, we have to settle up good relations, and we have to build up peace,” said Aoun. “And what we are doing with Hezbollah is in the right way: to have diplomatic and equal relations with Syria, without any tutelage.”

Aoun and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah are among Lebanon’s 14 faction leaders participating in a series of national dialogue meetings to tackle areas of dispute. Participants agreed to push for diplomatic relations with Syria and to disarm Palestinian groups outside refugee camps in Lebanon.

However, the group failed to reach an agreement on the issue of Hezbollah’s disarmament and the fate of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. The talks were set to resume in early April.

Anti-Syrian politicians have waged a campaign to oust Lahoud, whose term ends Nov. 7. A replacement has yet to be agreed upon, but the Lebanese Constitution says the presidency must be held by a Maronite Catholic.

Aoun has publicly expressed his interest in the presidency but said he will not participate in any action intended to remove Lahoud from office. The general said he is backed by about 75% of Lebanon’s Christians, and he has some Muslim supporters.

“They are pushing me to be a candidate for president,” he said, adding that he feels he could serve his country in other ways, too.

Aoun predicts that “the situation [in Lebanon] will get better and peace will be restored — real peace.”

For the Lebanese diaspora concerned about the homeland, Aoun said: “I can tell them that Lebanon will be stable. From Gen. Aoun, that means a lot to them. Because I don’t say anything lightly.”