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New Maronite patriarch calls for "partnership and love"--cabinet formation efforts making progress--Hariri in tripoli for three-day visit.

Bishop Beshara al-Rai, the newly-elected head of Lebanon's influential Maronite Catholic Church, has called on the Lebanese to adopt his slogan of "partnership and love," saying Lebanon has a major role to play in the Arab world, the Beirut media reported on Wednesday. Tuesday's election of Rai as a successor to Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, gained front-page coverage in local newspapers on Wednesday, overshadowing other important regional developments."Rai Carrying Sfeir's Fear for Lebanon: A Big Role Is Awaiting Us in the Arab World," read the banner headline of AN NAHAR newspaper, which is close to the Western-backed March 14 coalition. The leftist newspaper AS SAFIR, which is close to Hizbullah, said in its banner headline: "Rai is the Patriarch of 'Maronite Challenges'."

Rai's election gained general attention at all levels because he is "a man (known) for his clarity and direct expression and the sovereign line emanating from Sfeir's postulations," AN NAHAR said. While Rai's election came contrary to expectations, AS SAFIR said, "the new patriarch must now prepare for confronting major challenges awaiting him, including dealing with the inter-Christian divisions, especially within Maronite ranks, reviving the Maronite Church's role inside and outside Lebanon, in addition to strengthening communications with the other sects in Lebanon."

Soon after news of Rai's election was announced, top officials, including President Michel Suleiman, caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, as well as religious figures and ordinary people flocked to Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarch northeast of Beirut, to congratulate the church's [] leader. Church bells tolled and fireworks exploded across Lebanese territories as early as 10:50 a.m. when Bkirki announced the election of Rai, six days after last Wednesday's summon of 39 bishops behind closed doors. The 71-year-old Rai, who headed the Jbeil diocese for the past 21 years, won a sweeping majority of votes after 14 electoral rounds, which began Saturday morning.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday night after a long day, Rai said he hopes the Lebanese will adopt the slogan of his tenure "partnership and love." "This is the door through which we can return to build our Lebanese fabric... We expect Lebanon to play a big role in this Arab world which is unfolding and we don't know where it will reach," Rai said in his remarks which were published by AN NAHAR and other newspapers on Wednesday. "This is my slogan for my tenure as patriarch, starting with our synod of bishops," Rai said, addressing bishops after prayers that followed the conclusion of the synod. "We pray for the end of Lebanon's crisis, which is a country with a mission ... under the current difficult circumstances the East is witnessing," he added.

Suleiman hailed Rai's election as "a worthy successor of a worthy predecessor." He said Rai's election was a continuation of Bkirki's historic and national principles, which his Sfeir defended during his 25 year tenure. "It is certain that Rai will follow [Sfeir's] path based on his clerical history on the religious, social and cultural levels ... The patriarch will continue the path to develop the church while preserving its principles, which remain a uniting factor in Lebanon and the region," Suleiman added.

Sfeir, 90, has been an outspoken critic of Syria's role in Lebanon as well as Hizbullah's weapons. March 8 Christian leaders, allied to Hizbullah and Syria, have criticized Sfeir, saying he was too involved in politics and biased toward the Western-backed March 14 Christian parties. Sfeir asked to be relieved of his post because of his age. Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation last month.

The Maronite Church has up to five million followers worldwide. Its head exerts significant influence in Lebanon, where Christians make up about 40 percent of the country's 4 million people.

Cabinet Formation

Meanwhile, Mikati's efforts to form a new government are heading a positive way and overcoming obstacles, AN NAHAR reported Wednesday, quoting sources close to the prime minister-designate. The sources expected the Cabinet makeup to be announced soon, without ruling out the possibility of this happening before the weekend. However, caretaker Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, a son-in-law of Christian leader MP Michel Aoun, said Tuesday that the date of the birth of the new government was not imminent. He said that no agreement has yet been reached on any details of the Cabinet lineup.

Suleiman was quoted by visitors as calling for the quick formation of the government, especially after the March 14 groups have announced that they will not participate in it, AN NAHAR reported.

AS SAFIR, quoting "a well-informed official source," said that the weekend will witness "a qualitative development" with regard to the government formation efforts that could the set the stage for the announcement of the Cabinet lineup in the middle of next week after overcoming all hurdles. The source expected the new government to be a mix of politicians, technocrats and influential independent figures.

Aoun's Demands

In an attempt to break the Cabinet deadlock, envoys are shuttling between Mikati's house in Verdun and Aoun's residence in Rabieh to try to solve the problem over Aoun's tough demands for participation in the government, AS SAFIR quoting the source as saying.

Mikati, who is backed by the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance, has been struggling to form a new government since Jan. 25. His efforts to form the government have hit snags mainly over Aoun's tough demands for participation. Aoun, who heads the second largest parliamentary bloc after Hariri 's Future bloc, is demanding a large Christian participation for his bloc. He also insists that the Interior Ministry portfolio be allotted to a member of his Change and Reform bloc. Suleiman was reported to be seeking to retain caretaker Interior Minister Ziad Baroud.

Hariri in Tripoli

Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Hariri arrived in the northern city of Tripoli Tuesday for a three-day visit aimed at thanking northern parties for their participation in the March 14 coalition's mass rally in Beirut Sunday to mark the sixth anniversary of the movement's founding. AN NAHAR said. AS SAFIR, quoting sources close to Hariri's Future Movement, said he will wrap up his visit to Tripoli on Friday with a popular rally in the city.

Since the collapse of his Cabinet on Jan. 12, Hariri has launched a fierce campaign against Hizbullah's weapons, saying the weapons have become a national problem that needs a national solution.

Hariri's March 14 coalition marked the sixth anniversary of its founding with a mass rally on Sunday that called for the powerful Shiite Hizbullah group to disarm, with Hariri demanding that the party's arsenal be placed under state control. Hizbullah's arsenal was the main target of attacks by March 14 speakers at the rally held in central Beirut during which the coalition declared "a second Cedar Revolution" aimed at forcing the party to hand over its arms to the Lebanese state in the same way the first March 14 revolution in 2005 led to a Syrian troop withdrawal, ending nearly three decades of Syria's grip over Lebanon. (See MER 14/3/2011).
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Publication:The Daily Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Mar 16, 2011
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