WASHINGTON – President Bush said he has a deep desire to see Lebanon secure religious and political freedom as he welcomed a leading Lebanese Christian into the Oval Office on Wednesday.
Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir (search), head of the 900,000-member Maronite Catholic Church, has been a longtime critic of Syria's control in Lebanon. Bush said he assured Sfeir that the United States is working with allies to insist that Syria completely leave Lebanon so the country can hold free elections.
"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," Bush said after the meeting.
Sfeir supports integrating Hezbollah into Lebanon's political mainstream. The Shiite Muslim militant movement opposes Israel and is listed as a terrorist group by Washington. But Bush on Tuesday suggested Hezbollah (search) could shed its terrorist label and win U.S. backing for a role in Lebanon's politics.
During a press conference before meeting with Sfeir, Bush said Hezbollah remains on the terrorist list because of its violent past, but he wants to encourage broad participation in future Lebanese elections.
"Maybe some will run for office and say, 'Vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America,"' Bush said. "I don't think so. I think people who generally run for office say, 'Vote for me, I'm looking forward to fixing your potholes or making sure you got bread on the table."'
Sfeir thanked Bush for his "sincere interest" in a free and peaceful Lebanon (search). "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," Sfeir said.
He has been a strong advocate of Christian-Muslim coexistence in a country where Christians' political power dwindled over the decades as their majority evaporated.
Maronites dominated the country following the country's independence from France in 1943 until the end of the civil war that was fought largely along religious lines. The war ended in 1990 and power shifted to the majority Muslims.
Still, Lebanon remains the only country in the overwhelmingly Arab world with many aspects of Christian culture and tradition preserved. An estimated 900,000 Maronites live in Lebanon today, making them the country's largest Christian group. The Maronites have had a long association with the Roman Catholic Church (search) but have their own patriarch, liturgy, and customs.
While the Lebanese Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the U.S. State Department says Lebanon has restrictions and religious discrimination is built within the government, particularly within the legal system.