WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush met with the patriarch of the Maronite church, Nasrallah Sfeir, and reaffirmed that Syria must withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.  “I assured his eminence that United States policy is to work with friends and allies to insist that Syria completely leave Lebanon, Syria take all her troops out of Lebanon, Syria take her intelligence services out of Lebanon, so that the election process will be free and fair,” Bush said. The 85-year-old Sfeir, a leading figure in the Lebanese Christian opposition, was making his first visit to Bush’s White House even as Syria has begun to pull back its roughly 14,000 soldiers from Lebanon.

“We are hopeful, as Lebanese, with this effort of their friends around the world will be able to build a better future in a free, independent, pluralistic and sovereign Lebanon,” said Sfeir.

Ordained a cardinal in 1994, Sfeir is seen as the protector of Lebanon’s Maronite community, the country’s largest Christian group. Of the country’s 3.5 million people, 37 percent are Christian and 63 percent Muslim, according to recent estimates.

“It is important to recall that Lebanon was the first democratic country in the region. Maybe it was not a perfect democracy, but Lebanon remains the home and the point of departure for the spread of democracy in the region,” he said.

“His eminence and I discussed, of course, Lebanon and our deep desire for Lebanon to be a truly free country, free where people can worship the way they choose to, free where people can speak their mind, free where political parties can flourish, a country based upon free elections,” said Bush.