Bkerke (Lebanon), 6 February, 2000
The Interview with His Eminence
Nasrallah Butros Sfeir
the Patriarch of the Maronite Church
6 February, 2000 in Bkerke, Lebanon
Piotr Balcerowicz: Lebanon is a country of highly diversified population, consisting of various religious groups and denominations. How does, in your opinion, this diversity influence the present situation in Lebanon?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: We have indeed many communities here. And there is a reason for this: each community which felt it was not at ease where it was used to come to Lebanon in search of the climate of liberty. They were as a rule permitted to practice their respective religions according to their conscience. That explains why we have as many as 19 different religious communities here: seven Catholic, five Orthodox and the remaining congregations are Muslims. This certainly influences the situation. But, despite all differences, we are really disciplined living together next to each other. Both Christians and Muslims were here right from their very beginnings: from the dawn of Christianity and Islam. There were some events which were not particularly happy, though. But if we want to recapitulate the whole history we can safely say that the days and years when we lived in peace with each other are much more numerous than those when we were in conflict. That attests to the fact that we can live together in peace.
PB: However, the history of last almost 30 years shows that there have been very few days of peace in Lebanon. It is occasionally claimed that precisely those religious differences were responsible for the years of war.
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Certainly we were at war for 17 years, and still the situation is not very quiet. But we cannot say the war in Lebanon was either religious or civil one. These were in fact the wars of others on the Lebanese territory.
PB: What were the others?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Well. other states... Some neighbouring states as well as some other countries that do not directly border with us. They gave money and arms, as well as they taught the Lebanese to fight each other, and - in the end - made the Lebanese fight each other. Having said that, this does not mean that the Lebanese themselves were innocent. There are also responsible for what happened. But this was not the war of Muslims against Christians or Christians against Muslims. The war involved also Christians fighting againt Christians and Muslims fighting against Muslims.
PB: Do you think you could perhaps name the factors responsible for the conflict in Lebanon, including other countries involved?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: There were various ideas. Besides, it was first of all the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; some hoped to eliminate Christians from Lebanon and to bring all the Palestinian community to Lebanon in their place. They thought to persuade in various ways Christians that they would feel more at ease elsewhere than in Lebanon. But such a plan was not feasible, because Lebanese Christians are traditionally very much attached to their land here.
PB: How do you assess the presence of Syria in Lebanon?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Syria came to Lebanon at the very beginning and has been here for about last 25 years. In 1989 it was the Taif Accord [a peace plan announced on 18 September 1989 by a Tripartite Arab Committee consisting of King Hassan II of Morocco, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and President Chandli of Algeria; endorsed by the Lebanese National Assembly on 22 October 1989 and formally ratified on 5 November 1989 - Piotr Balcerowicz], which stipulated that after two years from signing the Accord Syria would deploy its army form Lebanon. However, nothing has been done in this matter so far. Even though Syria was supposed to withdraw its forces from Lebanon ten years ago, Syria is still controlling all the situation in Lebanon. In other words, nothing takes place in Lebanon without the assent of Syria.
PB: How does Israel influence the present situation in Lebanon?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Israel is considered the enemy of Lebanon. It occupied South Lebanon for 22 years. Eventually it withdrew from Lebanon [at the end of May 2000 more than a month earlier that envisaged - Piotr Balcerowicz], but Israel is still considered a threat and enemy of Lebanon. In fact, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is influencing all the situation not only in Lebanon, but in the whole region.
PB: How much of a threat is Israel to Lebanon at present? We regularly witness Israeli aeroplanes crossing the border and flying over Beirut, for instance.
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Of course, it does in many ways. On the other hand, if the Lebanese have any contacts with Israel, the are immediately jailed [both by Syrian security as well as by Lebanese security, cooperating with the Syrian one]. Israel would like to push all Palestinians from Palestine to Lebanon, which is not acceptable to Lebanon for many reasons. Lebanon is a very small country of 10 thousands sq. kilometres and of 4 million people, with a high demographic density. What is going on in Israel aims at forcing Palestinians away to other countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. But moving the Palestinian community elsewhere is of course not possible because Palestinians are attached to their territories: it is the land of their fathers and forefathers!
PB: At present there as about 0.5 million Palestinian refugees in 4-million people Lebanon. How does such a numerous presence of Palestinians affect the situation here?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Yes, indeed. They have been here for a long time and if they want to destabilise the situation and make trouble, they of course can. Before [starting from in the seventies] they destabilised the whole situation, when they tried to settle down in Lebanon [which contributed to the outbreak of civil war].
PB: What about the present?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Naturally they are able to intervene any time, but they are actually not doing this. They have their arms and they enjoy relative independence in their camps.
PB: How do you evaluate the present activities of Hezbollah?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Hezbollah is composed of some Lebanese young people who have been trying to push back Israel. And they have been successful in their attempts! Actually, this a controversial position, because they are going to continue their struggle and push Israel from Shebaa farms. This is contested because Syria asserts that Shebaa farms [at the foot of Mount Hermon] belong to Lebanon. However, Lebanon cannot definitely confirm that the stip of land of Shebaa farms is the property of Lebanon. This problem can be only solved through peaceful means and obeying UN resolutions. There is no need to use the arms and to fight in order to push Israel away from there. Hezbollah [partly supported by Syria], however, thinks until now that it is necessary to continue fighting there, [which would justify the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon; the conflict is being upheld by Syria until it signs a satisfactory agreement with Israel that would gurarantee the return of Golan Heights to Syria and Syrian influence in Lebanon].
PB: What do you think about the American administration and president Bush to label Hezbollah a 'terrorist organisation'? How much of terrorists are they?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: This is the question. Hezbollah and some other observers claim that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organisation: they are trying to liberate their land from occupation. We have to define what is terrorism and distinguish it from resistance. There is a huge difference between the two ideas.
PB: How would you describe the difference?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: When a people has its all territory occupied, it has the right to defend its territory, its land and its existence. If there is no peaceful means to push away the occupier, they can utilise the arms. This is resistance.
PB: From this point of view, are the actions taken by Palestinians, such a suicide attacks against the Israelis, terrorist attacks or acts of resistance?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Of course these are acts of resistance, because every day they are being attacked and killed, their houses destroyed; there is bloodshed every day. Naturally they have to resist.
PB: What is the possibility to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which affects the situation in the whole region?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: There is no solution without giving the land and independent state to the Palestinians. The only solution is independent Palestine. Palestinians cannot exist without their own land and their own state.
PB: How important is independent Palestine for the stability in the whole region, for Lebanon, for Syria?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Independent Palestinian state is the key to the stability in Lebanon, Syria, Israel as well as to the peace in the Middle East, as there is, so to say, regional framework. Palestinian state should also become the member of United Nations and its existence should be regulated by general principles and international laws.
PB: What actions should be taken by the international community in order to stabilise the situation and bring peace in the Middle East? How do you assess the level of involvement of European countries in the peace process?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: The European community is in favour of giving an independent state to the Palestinians. There is no other solution of this conflict.
PB: What about American policy towards the Middle East?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: America is trying to solve the problem, but it is hard to understand what would be the basis of this solution.
PB: What do you think about the policy of Ariel Sharon and Israeli administration in the Middle East?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Sharon is apparently trying to push Palestinians away from Israel, in order to create a purely Jewish state. But this is not possible, because they are there. Neither Lebanon or Syria, or Jordan can accept the Palestinians, who have their own land in Palestine, so they cannot be settled down elsewhere. Nothing can be achieved without independent Palestine, which can peacefully coexist next to Israel.
PB: What is your opinion of American campaign against world terrorism and declaring such countries as Iraq, Iran and Norther Korea countries that support terrorism?
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir: Nobody favours terrorism. That is natural. But it is important for the whole world to combat the very roots of terrorism. The root of terrorism is poverty. Many people are incredibly poor. There are about 1.2 million people who have nothing to eat. This can - and must - be remedied. We cannot leave all these people in their poverty and hope they will be quiet.
PB: Your Eminence, thank you very much.
The interview was published in Polish in the daily , on 27.03.2002.