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Preaching Unity in Lebanon

By Nora Boustany
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A18

Without intervention from its neighbors, Lebanon could thrive in peace as a united nation, said Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic community.

"Syria is good in Syria, and Lebanon is good in Lebanon," the patriarch said, referring to nearly 30 years of Syrian dominance in his country. He stressed that Lebanon and Syria should have brotherly relations as two separate, sovereign entities based on mutual recognition and respect.

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

President Bush, who invited Sfeir to Washington, met with him privately Wednesday at the White House. Sfeir also met with National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley; Elliot Abrams, Hadley's deputy in charge of Mideast affairs; and Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick.

Sfeir has worked to forge better relations among Lebanon's Christian, Sunni and Druze religious communities. The country of 3.5 million is about 30 percent Christian and 70 percent Muslim, according to recent estimates. Maronites make up the largest Christian group.

After former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated last month, massive street demonstrations broke out to protest Syria's meddling in Lebanese politics and its military presence. The United Nations, the United States and other countries have demanded that Syria withdraw its military and intelligence network from Lebanon so that the country can plan for parliamentary elections unhampered by outside interference.

In an interview Tuesday, Sfeir, 84, said that he maintains contact with two representatives of Hezbollah, a militant Shiite movement backed by Syria and Iran. Hezbollah has 12 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

"Hezbollah was actually a terrorist organization in the past, but we are in touch and the representatives have been leading discussions. There is a committee of dialogue with Hezbollah," he said. "If Syria pulls out, there is no fear the Lebanese will be divided."

Sfeir's entourage said he was heartened by assurances from Bush that the United States would stand by the Lebanese people and their demands for a complete Syrian withdrawal.

Bush told Sfeir that he would be "firm in holding Syria to its public promises for a full withdrawal from Lebanon and would follow through to keep it in the hearts and minds of the international community," according to Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour, who is based in New York and attended part of the meeting.

Sfeir said recent history had taught the Lebanese a "very dour lesson" and doubted they would repeat the same mistakes and resume wartime hostilities.

"Lebanon has to recover its health because it has been ill for 30 years," he said. "It has to be sovereign with full free expression."

Rights for Muslim Women

Two female Muslim officials, one from Afghanistan and the other from Iraq, visited Washington last week to take part in International Women's Day celebrations.

Narmin Othman, minister for women's affairs in the Iraqi interim government, said she feared that advances made by women in her country might be weakened by the outcome of the Jan. 30 national elections that gave a coalition dominated by Shiite religious parties a majority in the new assembly. She said negotiations for a new constitution could set women back in political and everyday life.

"They have 140 seats out of 275, and if they keep pushing for Sharia law in defining the personal status code of women," she said, referring to Islamic law, "it will be a disaster when there is a referendum on a draft constitution."

At a dinner at the Kuwaiti Embassy residence to raise funds for Iraqi families displaced by war, Othman expressed gratitude to the United States. "Thanks to your sacrifice, we have become free," she said. " . . . Iraq needs every support."

The Kuwaiti ambassador, Salem Sabah, said that "tomorrow belongs to those who build up -- not those who tear down. Tonight, you and I stand with Iraq's returning refugees."

Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, told Washington Post reporters and editors last Thursday that improving the standard of living in her country was a priority. She said men and women have equal rights as citizens in Afghanistan and that social justice was guaranteed by the system.

"We first need stability and better resources. . . . The government is not yet strong enough to stand up to a backlash from conservative sectors of society," she said. "One key to sensitizing society is by empowering women everywhere, by creating awareness. We have to first eradicate illiteracy and teach boys and girls to follow laws. Sixty percent of Afghanistan's students are outside the educational system. It is very crucial to bring women into the system."

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