ROME, FEB. 22, 2006 ( General Michel Aoun, who headed the transition military government in Lebanon from 1988-1990, is optimistic about his homeland. "It is very clear to me that the Lebanon is a message of peaceful coexistence," he said during a visit in Rome. Aoun was visiting the Lebanese community here and attending meetings in the Vatican. ZENIT was able to receive his insights on the Mideast and other topics. After almost 15 years of exile in France, where he founded the multiconfessional Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese general returned to his homeland last May 7 to play a leading role again in the future of his country.

Last week, Benedict XVI analyzed coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon with Fouad Siniora, the Sunni Muslim president of the Lebanese Council of Ministers. Q: At the general audience, you spoke for a few minutes with Benedict XVI. Did you already know Joseph Ratzinger? Aoun: I knew him only by name and by his office. I know that he participated much in the elaboration of Catholic doctrine. I met him for the first time. It was really beneficent for me to receive his blessing. I know that he will always have a thought for Lebanon, that he will defend it, he who is the greatest moral authority in the world; and this will help Lebanon much.
Q: You also met with John Paul II. What impression do you retain of him?

Aoun: John Paul II breathed holiness. He was a man of justice, law, and very profound morality. His life was a permanent struggle to liberate humanity. We were able to see it when he came to Lebanon, in his personal concern for the country, a country that was suffering and that continues to suffer.

Q: John Paul II wanted a Synod of Bishops on Lebanon. He called for the liberation of Lebanon from occupation …

Aoun: Yes, indeed. I myself addressed a message to that Synod. I think this greatly homogenized relations between Christians and Muslims and also between Muslims among themselves. It was an appeal for moderation, tolerance and respect of the other in the framework of freedom.

Q: How do you see the role of Christians in the country? Do you think that Christians engaged in politics can meet again and be reconciled?

Aoun: The majority of Christians wish to unite themselves to the Christian group that favors a policy of understanding, in order to protect the whole world and have the community respected. I think we are on the verge of achieving it.

Q: Do you think there will be a hardening of attacks? We have seen, among others, the death of Rafik Hariri, of journalist Samir Kassir, of Gebran Tueni. Are you still optimistic despite everything?

Aoun: The Lebanese people have given numerous martyrs for their freedom and independence. One more crime will not destroy them. The Lebanese are going to harden against crime.

There are many who are jealous of their freedom and independence. I think that this will entail a remission of this type of events in general, and that we will come out of it with constructive ideas for the country.

Q: In his message of peace, Benedict XVI addressed the nations launching an appeal for disarmament and inviting them to reinvest the money dedicated to armaments in the development of peoples. Do you think that Lebanon, the Middle East and Hezbollah will adopt, little by little, the logic of disarmament for development?

Aoun: Certainly. It is an international initiative. I believe that the whole world could contemplate disarmament at this moment.

Q: It is said that Lebanon is impoverished because the diaspora continues. Is this true?

Aoun: Lebanon has been impoverished over these past 15 years. After the hot war of arms, we have suffered the economic war. Around 100,000 people leave the country every year, especially the living forces, the young people, who have gone to build elsewhere.

I think that the restoration of power in Lebanon, in a climate of confidence, security, as well as with measure to fight against corruption, might make the Lebanese return to their beautiful country. Above all, it is a question of stability and of confidence in the authority.

Q: John Paul II used this expression for Lebanon: "More than a country it is a message." How do you interpret this phrase?

Aoun: I see very clearly that Lebanon is a message of peaceful coexistence, of mutual understanding, of respect, of the right to difference; a place where all believers can express themselves freely. This is Lebanon.

If there is an attempt to destroy it, this will have a negative influence in the entire world.

I wrote in 1989 that attention had not been given to the confrontation between Islam and the West. The world did not believe in the development of monocultures that reject the other’s right to difference.

Now we are in a global war against terrorism, against "monoculture." Pluralism is the expression that represents society most correctly.

Q: Lebanon accepts this mosaic of different cultures …

Aoun: If one studies the demography of Lebanon, one realizes that all the communities that are present here suffered persecution and sought refuge in Lebanon to be able to preserve their customs and religion. They have a common aspiration to freedom, to freedom of faith.

Q: What do you expect from the Christians in Lebanon and, more concretely, from the Maronites?

Aoun: For us, the expression "Maronite" is no longer the exact term; there is much more talk of "Christians" in general. We regard the rites as secondary traditions, because we are all Christians for Christ, whether Maronite, Greek-Catholic, Melkite, etc.

What is essential is Christianity and I believe that the role of Christians can decrease or increase according to the time or the situation.

Christians have brought about the unity of Lebanon; they were the only ones who cohabited with the different Muslim groups, when coexistence among the different Muslim groups did not exist.

They have a historic role, which is to live their mission, to be an element of understanding, a federalizing element of the people of Lebanon in its different components. Playing this role, they can, I believe, recover their function in the republic and participate in politics and in the socioeconomic construction of the country.