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Lebanese Christian opposition simmers over new government

Questions were raised about the reasons for disregarding Bkirki's preferences for the new government and the lack of positive response to its recent positions, which were considered by many as "historic" and an opportunity to bridge the gaps between the Maronite Patriarchate and Damascus (Syria).
Christian opposition simmers over new government -- Maronite patriarch 'disappointed' with lack of representation
Sabine Darrous, Daily Star, Lebanon

The Christian opposition's failure to secure a single seat in the new government has provoked disappointment and irritation in Bkirki and among many opposition leaders and may threaten the current detente between the Maronite Patriarchate and Baabda.

Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir was reported to have been "disappointed and dissatisfied" with the new government, according to sources close to the prelate. The sources said Bkirki wasn't pleased with the Christian representation in general and the Maronite in particular, which included only politicians from the loyalist camp. Sfeir is expected to relay his displeasure regarding the new government to Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who is expected to visit Bkirki early Saturday morning to relay Easter wishes.

Attention will then shift to Easter Sunday and whether President Emile Lahoud will attend Mass at Bkirki and hold a meeting with Sfeir afterward in keeping with tradition. Sources close to Bkirki asserted that Sfeir's position, which had been recently calm and supportive of Syria as a result of the regional situation, "will reflect his annoyance with the political situation." However, the sources added that the prelate will not escalate the tone of his criticism out of awareness of the sensitive regional situation and the increasing US threats against Syria.

Nonetheless, Sfeir's message on Good Friday reflected some of his dissatisfaction. Sfeir said he hoped that Lebanon would be able to overcome the "personal interests" of a few and said that all Lebanese will be affected by the success or failure of the country.

Questions were raised about the reasons for disregarding Bkirki's preferences for the new government and the lack of positive response to its recent positions, which were considered by many as "historic" and an opportunity to bridge the gaps between the Maronite Patriarchate and Damascus. The Bkirki source said that the lack of a comprehensive Christian representation in the new government was a "slap in the face" and a clear rejection of cooperation and a new beginning with Bkirki.

"It is as if the formation of the new government was meant to drive the country backward and not to push it to be better," the source said. The Council of Maronite Bishops, headed by Sfeir, issued a statement recently, praising the role and position of Syrian President Bashar Assad toward the US-led war on Iraq a step which was considered by many as an opportunity for improving relations between Bkirki and Damascus.

Although Sfeir refused the request by senior officials to identify his preferences regarding the new government, he is known to be closer to some Christian politicians than others. Among those figures are some members of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, all of whom were excluded from the new government, despite earlier reports that either Batroun MP Butros Harb or Baabda MP Salah Honein would join the new government.

Even former Industry Minister George Frem, who is not an opposition politician but enjoys good relations with Sfeir, was replaced by less popular Kesrouan MP Fares Boueiz, who was appointed to the Environment Ministry.

Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt's statement on Thursday, stating that Sfeir would not involve himself in the details of the new government, was considered by Christian sources as an effort to "pave the way for the shock resulting from the announcement of the new government."

After meeting with Hariri as part of the parliamentary consultations to form the new government, Jumblatt praised the "wisdom" of Sfeir and admitted that there would be "gaps in the new government." Jumblatt added that the current circumstances required "compromises and sacrifices."

Harb said coming up with a new government that has almost the same faces and represents only one political line will serve in "harming the country" and will hinder it in confronting the expected regional challenges. "I believe that what happened was not a formation of a new government, but a reshuffle of the old one to serve a few personal interests," Harb told The Daily Star.

Harb said the new government does not represent the majority of Lebanese and was not the type of government needed at this time. He said he does not expect any "exceptional or positive positions" from its policy statement, adding that Qornet Shehwan will definitely oppose the new government.

Officials from the loyalist Christian camp believe the sensitivity of the regional situation and the threats against Syria and Lebanon required a "homogeneous" government that would remain distant from domestic conflicts.

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