He met Benedict XVI a few months ago to thank him for his trip to Lebanon in September 2012. But the Maronite Christian Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, decided to return to Rome to meet Pope Francis in the Vatican.
The meeting between the Argentinean pope and Sleiman – who was not able to attend the mass which celebrated the start of Francis’ Petrine ministry last 19 March, because he was not in the country – lasted 25 minutes and the two were assisted by an interpreter. The Prefect of the Papal Household, Mgr. Georg Gänswein, who returned to the Vatican with Benedict XVI yesterday, was also present.
The Lebanese president gave Francis a 20th century icon of the Virgin Mary; in exchange, the new Pope gave him a silver and mother of pearl medallion. Sleiman was accompanied by an entourage of 11 people, including his wife, Wafaa and the vice prime minister Samir Mokbel and his wife.
According to a Vatican Press Office statement, during the audience the two leaders said they hoped for the success of negotiations for the formation of a new government in Beirut. The new government “will face significant challenges on a national and international level.” Lebanon has been without a government since the end of March, after Prime Minister Najij Miqati handed in his resignation. This is second resignation handed in, in the past few months. The former prime minister’s coalition government split over differences in opinion regarding the organisation of the upcoming legislative elections.
Sleiman and Francis also highlighted the importance of dialogue and collaboration between members of the various ethnic and religious communities that make society so rich and varied, in favour of the common good and the development and stability of the nation.”
But the main focus of the audience was, naturally, the Syrian conflict and the tragic situation faced by thousands of refugees who have fled to Lebanon and neighbouring countries. Francis and Sleiman “called for further humanitarian aid with the support of the international community to help the suffering population.”
But in the Vatican there is fear of the repercussions the Syrian crisis could have on Lebanon’s domestic situation, especially on Christians. Last October, just one month after Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon, there was a serious bombing in Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood, leading to the death of the head of Lebanon’s secret services, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (FSI), Wissam al Hassan.
The Vatican statement said there was mention of “the delicate situation faced by Christians in the entire Middle East and the significant contribution they can make.” This was in light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in the Middle East”, which Pope Benedict XVI delivered on his visit to Lebanon. The Apostolic Exhortation “is an important reference point for Catholic communities and societies in the Region.” Finally, the two leaders wished for “a quick and fruitful resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. This is becoming increasingly necessary for peace and stability in the Region.”
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