Sfeir brushes off U.S. accusations he is stirring sectarian strife

Patriarch lashes out at Lebanon’s MPs saying they failed their duty to pass a new electoral law

By Leila Hatoum , Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir brushed off U.S. accusations that he was “whipping up sectarian sentiments” following his criticism of Lebanon’s electoral law and launched a fresh attack on the legal framework for the upcoming elections.

Following his insistence that the current electoral law “violates Christian Muslim coexistence,” which drew a sharp rebuke from the White House, who accused the patriarch of  increasing sectarian tension by “adding fuel to the fire,” Sfeir said yesterday that the law failed to “satisfy anyone.”

Meanwhile, a source from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut told The Daily Star that America hopes “the Lebanese would not allow sectarian tension to undermine their participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections.”

The Maronite Bishops Council warned yesterday that the 2000 electoral law, which will provide the legal basis for the elections which begin at the end of this month, was unfair to Christians.

The law is widely seen as favoring pro-Syrian loyalists and is likely to benefit pro-Damascus Christian politicians.

Unidentified sources within the Bush administration warned the Bishops Council and Sfeir that their criticism could increase Lebanon’s sectarian tensions.

The Maronite Patriarchy declined to comment on the U.S. criticism of its statement. But Sfeir lashed out at Lebanese MPs saying that they have fallen behind on their duty to pass a new electoral law which reflected the aspirations of all Lebanese people.

He said: “We are concerned for keeping Lebanon as it has always been known, a country for Muslims and Christians where the Muslims elect their MPs and the Christians elect their MPS.”

He added: “There should be no room for separation between the Lebanese, because the divisions are what have led us to the current situation.”

Sfeir said the Taif Accord gave us (Christians) 64 MPs, and that Christians should “be entitled to elect 64 MPs.”

Under the current electoral law, Sfeir claims Christians will only be able to elect 14 MPs with the remaining 50 being elected through the list system in Muslim dominated voting districts.

Opposition MP Neamtallah Abi Nasr launched a verbal attack on America’s criticism of the patriarch and the Bishop’s statement.

He told The Daily Star: “If the U.S. officials are looking out for our best interest then they would have pushed the draft-law proposed by former Premier Omar Karami’s Cabinet to be discussed in Parliament  rather than seeing the electoral law of 2000 being adopted.”

Abi Nasr added: “If there were a sole national non-sectarian reference in the region, then it would be the Maronite Patriarchy.”

He added that the fact every sect electing its own MPs “constitutes the peak of sectarianism,” a thing that contradicts what Sfeir has been calling for.