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Aoun, Rai spar with Berri, Qabalan.

Summary: Comments made by President Michel Aoun during a trip to Bkirki Thursday led to a war of words with Speaker Nabih Berri, while Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai's remarks drew the ire of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council.

BEIRUT: Comments made by President Michel Aoun during a trip to Bkirki Thursday led to a war of words with Speaker Nabih Berri, while Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai's remarks drew the ire of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council. On his first official visit outside of the presidential palace as Lebanon's head of state, Aoun lamented the fact that Parliament had extended its term twice in recent years. "All institutions were damaged due to the extension of the Parliament's term and the inability of the governing body to act," he said.

Aoun's comments drew a swift response from Berri. "Of course the extension was bad and state institutions became weak as the president said, but hindering the election of a head of state was far worse for the institutions, including the Parliament," the speaker said in a statement issued by his media office. Aoun and allies had boycotted presidential elections for nearly two and half years before Aoun secured victory and was elected Oct. 31.

Meanwhile, Rai called on Aoun to assume his role in working with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to form a Cabinet, which would equally distribute responsibilities among all parties.

"It is unacceptable to [demand] a 'package of conditions' and [for parties] to cling on to [portfolios] by using a veto," Rai said, apparently referring to Berri's insistence on keeping the Finance Ministry.

Responding to Rai, vice president of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan refuted the apparent jab against Berri's insistence that the ministry remains with the Shiite community. Qabalan fired back at Rai saying, "The Shiite Muslims were and always will be the keenest for a just and equally representative state."

Qabalan added that Shiites, historically, were deprived and disadvantaged "even in defending their own lands."

"We refute these words that we heard today because we demand something that is a true representation in empowerment," Qabalan said in response to Rai adding, "Yes, it is a right of ours and in the case of the abolishment of sectarianism, we will be the first to support it."

Aoun, accompanied by his son-in-law and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, was welcomed at the seat of the Maronite Church by Rai. A representative from the Vatican and a number of patriarchs from different sects were also present.

Following a prayer service held in Aoun's honor, Rai congratulated the president while praising him for making his first official visit to Bkirki as has been a customary move by former presidents.

He added that after two years and five months without a president, Aoun's election unified Lebanese political parties and parliamentary blocks, overcoming previous divisions. "It is now imperative for you to continue the positive beginning of your term to assure a balanced participation between all in the administration," Rai said to Aoun.

Aoun was told by Rai that now was his chance to fully implement the Taif Accord by agreeing on a new electoral law that ensures the representation of all Lebanese and is capable of holding those in power responsible. "The president of the republic and the Maronite Patriarchate work together in unison to preserve Lebanon," Rai said.

Rai called on all Lebanese to live by the words of Lebanon's first Patriarch Elias Hoayek, whom he called the "Father of Lebanon."

"I am a Maronite patriarch ... I am the patriarch of Lebanon ... I dedicated my life to the Lebanese cause, which I consider a holy cause. For me, it is not a Lebanon of sects, there is one sect and its name is the Lebanese sect," Rai said, quoting Hoayek.

The first patriarch was in charge of the Maronite Church at the time Lebanon gained its independence.

Rai also quoted another former Lebanese patriarch to stress that Bkirki was for all Lebanese, not just one sect. "This patriarchate is not for the Maronite sect only, it is a house for all Lebanese. [It] has always stood for the Lebanese cause without differentiating between one sect and another," Rai said.

Aoun echoed Rai in stressing the need for Lebanon to respect and follow Patriarch Elias Hoayek's motto of coexistence.

"While Christians in the Middle East face potentially the most difficult times today ... we, in Lebanon, face the same threat," Aoun said.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Nov 18, 2016
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