By Elias Sakr
BEIRUT: A large gathering of Lebanese politicians and activists allied with the March 14 Forces to be held later this month will urge Christians in the Arab world not to fear democratic changes in the region, as international pressure mounts on the government in neighboring Syria.
Many see the gathering as coming in response to Patriarch Beshara Rai, whose recent comments on Syria and Hezbollah have sparked controversies within the community.
The “Lady of the Mountain” gathering will seek to dismiss concerns among Lebanon’s Christian community over its political and social standing as events in Syria move toward what many see as the inevitable fall of President Bashar Assad’s ruling Baath party.
“This is an intellectual, political and social gathering to elaborate on the historic position of Christians after we saw indications of confusion by some,” March 14 Secretariat General Coordinator Fares Soueid told The Daily Star.
Some Christian groups have recently argued that the fall of Assad’s regime would empower Sunni extremist movements in Damascus, threatening the presence of Christians in both Syria and Lebanon.
For some of Lebanon’s March 8 Christian parties, such concerns justify backing Assad to stay in power.
But Soueid disagrees. “The objective of the gathering is to clarify this false picture,” Soueid said, arguing that Christians have long upheld principles of freedom and democracy against authoritarian regimes.
“We should be in favor of the Arab Spring that began in Lebanon in 2005 with the independence revolution,” Soueid said, recalling the wave of mass popular protests that drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon, after 29 years of presence, in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Soueid added that Christians saw their political and social standing flourish in Lebanon thanks to the freedom of speech and democracy, warning against any alliances that would tie the fate of Christians to fading authoritarian regimes.
The establishment of a civil state, the promotion of national coexistence and the preservation of peace in Lebanon will be the focus of talks on Oct. 23 at the “Lady of the Mountain” monastery in the town of Afqa in the district of Jbeil, according to Soueid.
Soueid said discussions will seek to define the foundations of a civil state, highlight the importance of coexistence in Lebanon as a model for the Arab world in the wake of popular uprisings, and to preserve peace by restricting the decision of war and peace to the hands of the Lebanese state.
“We will join hands with those who struggle for peace, starting with the Palestinians, who recently set an example for others,” Soueid said, referring to the Palestinian request for statehood in the U.N. last month.
Though he said the gathering will not lay the foundations for a political movement, Soueid said the its communiqué would constitute a platform for inter-religious dialogue.
“The communiqué of the Lady of the Mountain will pave the way for political discussions based on these principles and to touch base with other religious groups,” Soueid said.
Unlike recent meetings held by the Maronite Church in a bid to bridge the gap between Christian groups of the rival March 8 and 14 coalitions, organizers of the Lady of the Mountain meeting reject the association of the gathering with one particular political camp over another.
Soueid, one of the gathering’s organizers, said individuals, rather than political parties, will be invited.
Those who will receive invitations must believe in the importance of Arab movements to bolster democracy, according to Soueid, who ruled out the attendance of officials of the March 8 Free Patriotic Movement who continue to side with Assad’s regime.
It is still unknown whether Kataeb (Phalange) Party officials would participate in the meeting.
The party’s leader, former President Amin Gemayel, said earlier this week that Christian parties should steer clear of media debate with the head of the Maronite Church and should instead seek direct dialogue with Rai.
During a recent visit to France, the patriarch said that Assad should be given a chance at internal reform in Syria, voicing concerns over the fate of Christians in the region should civil war break out between Alawites and Sunnis. March 8 officials say that the gathering is intended as a response to Rai’s statements.
Rai, who later said his remarks were taken out of context and dismissed any concerns over the future of Lebanon’s Maronite community, also tied the disarmament of Hezbollah to Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, saying that Hezbollah’s justification for carrying arms would collapse when Israel withdraws from Lebanese territory.