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Sfeir focuses on next year's elections

Patriarch asks if electoral law will allow public free expression

By Majdoline Hatoum and Elie Hourani

Daily Star staff

Friday, December 24, 2004

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir expressed hope Thursday that the upcoming elections, due to take place next May, will be a chance to allow the public complete freedom of expression.

In his annual Christmas message, Sfeir said he believed the upcoming elections would play a crucial turning point in "determining the country's future and that of future generations."

However, Sfeir echoed ongoing fears that the elections could be postponed "if something unexpected happens" whether at the political or security levels.

He called for treating the Lebanese people as "citizens, who are entitled to determine their own fate and are capable of shouldering their own responsibilities."

Sfeir went on to say these elections are related to the future of Lebanon, and wondered whether the Lebanese people would be granted an electoral law that would allow them to freely express their opinions.

"Would the Lebanese be left to choose their true representatives in Parliament, or would there be more interference in the names of voters or in the ballot boxes?" he asked, in an indirect allusion to previous cases of alleged interference in the voting process, whether at the level of the actual voting or in the calculation of the results.

The patriarch also expressed his distress at the situation in the region, and cautioned against the wars taking place around Lebanon, including the "conflict in Palestine between the Arabs and Israelis," and the war in Iraq where "each day dozens of people die and houses are destroyed."

"One cannot turn a blind eye to the massacres taking place in Palestine and the lack of peace in the land of peace where the God of peace was born," the patriarch said.

Sfeir, who is due to meet with President Emile Lahoud on Christmas, said the festive season was falling at a time when many people are suffering from the lack of the bare essentials, such as food and clothing.

Sfeir also complained about much unemployment, which was "driving a significant number of young Lebanese to leave their country and seek employment elsewhere."

Meanwhile, Sfeir received a number of officials, including Metn MP Michel Murr and his son, former Interior Minister Elias Murr, who told reporters following his meeting with the patriarch he was grateful he was not currently in charge of any governmental post.

"I thank God I am not part of the Cabinet right now," he said, in reference to the political bickering currently taking place between the opposition and the government.

Murr also asserted he was not running for parliamentary elections, as his father would be running for the post.

"My father is the best person to represent the political beliefs of our family, and I know for a fact that he will be running as a candidate next spring," he said.

Both Elias Murr and his father Michel asserted their support for an electoral law based on small districts or qadas.

Speaking after his meeting with the patriarch, Michel Murr said that he "has long agreed with the patriarch that small districts would be the best choice to guarantee true representation."

Murr also said he supports the release of Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), who is currently serving a life sentence in the jail of the Defense Ministry.

"Despite the fact that, in the past, he made an assassination attempt against my life, I did not press charges, and I would immediately sign the petition to free him, if that would lead to his release," Murr said, talking about the petition recently signed by opposition figures including Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt's parliamentary bloc.

Sfeir also met with Batroun MP Butros Harb during the day.

Following his meeting, Harb said the Lebanese were living in a free and democratic country where the decision-making process should belong to the people and not the intelligence apparatus.

Speaking to reporters on the steps of Bkirki after conferring with Sfeir, Harb said he discussed the issue of electoral law with the patriarch, adding that he was confident of a good turnout for the opposition in the parliamentary elections "if they take place at the qada level or large electoral districts."

However, he explained that his fear was stemming from the fact that the Lebanese voice might not prove to be effective enough during these elections, facing the extensive work taken by the intelligent apparatus recently.

"Everyone knows that there are certain forces working overtime in order to ensure a majority of MPs who are loyal to the government in the next Parliament," Harb said.