Hariri says not reckoning STL posing threat to stability in Lebanon

Hariri: Stopping Palestinian tragedy is pressing world question

French FM in Lebanon: Cancellation of STL is impossible

Christian leaders’ meeting in Bkirki warns of danger lurking to Lebanon, calls for end to double possession of arms

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri has renewed his backing for a UN-backed investigation into the murder of his father, despite warnings by Hezbollah the probe could plunge the country into crisis.

"The work of the tribunal is ongoing and there are many investigators in Lebanon, and they are doing their own work," Hariri told the BBC in an interview during an official visit to Britain.

Asked whether he gave 100-percent backing to the tribunal set up after former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005, Hariri replied: "Yes."

Hariri confirmed he would not cut links with investigators despite demands to that effect from Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite militant group.

Tensions have been rising in Beirut amid unconfirmed reports the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon is set to indict members of Hezbollah in connection with Hariri's murder.

The Iranian- and Syrian-backed movement has made clear it would not accept such an outcome.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, the Shiite militant group's second-in-command, this week warned any charges against Hezbollah members would be "equivalent to lighting the fuse, to igniting the wick for an explosion."

In his interview with the BBC, Saad Hariri insisted dialogue was the best way out of the current standoff with Hezbollah and downplayed the risk of unrest.

"I think what is dangerous is not to (hold) dialogue about the issues that are really difficult in the country, and I think this is one of the difficult issues in Lebanon," the premier said.

Hariri told the BBC the absence of peace was aiding anti-Western forces.

Hariri has said the Middle East is "heading towards disaster" if peace cannot be reached between Israel and the Arab world.

In statements to the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen the Lebanese premier said that the current situation was allowing extremism to flourish.

He said the whole world was paying the price for Israel's policies on the Palestinians.

The lack of peace was also aiding anti-Western forces including Iran, he said.

Hariri, who is currently on a visit to the UK, said that Iran had significant influence in the Middle East region but that the real threat to stability was from failing to achieve peace between Israel and the Arab world.

He said hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims were daily watching television footage of Palestinian homes being destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, and that such actions were "not just inflaming the region but ... affecting the whole world".

"You're paying the price in London, you're paying the price in Europe, you're paying the price in the United States, you're paying the price everywhere," he said, and asked what the international community was doing to aid the peace process.

The prime minister also said he would continue to support the UN-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of his father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The tribunal, taking place at the Hague, is expected to issue indictments by the end of the year and many believe those accused could include prominent members of Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon.

The movement told BBC Arabic that indicting any of its members would be "equivalent to lighting the fuse and is dangerous for Lebanon".

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has denied the movement was involved in the assassination, and has called on all Lebanese to boycott the investigation.

Meanwhile, France's foreign minister appealed for calm in Lebanon amid a deepening political crisis over upcoming indictments in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

Bernard Kouchner said the Netherlands-based tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri's death is impartial and that the killers must be brought to justice.

"It is paramount for the equilibrium of Lebanon that there be no impunity for such crimes," said Kouchner, who met with Lebanon's president, prime minister and members of the Hezbollah militant group during his two-day trip.

Many observers fear violence could break out if the court indicts Hezbollah members. The militant group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, says the court is biased and has been poisoned by "false witnesses" who misled the investigation.

Hezbollah said in a statement that it told Kouchner that "dangerous violations" have undermined the court's professionalism and credibility from the start.

Kouchner said Hezbollah believes it "will be targeted more than others" by the tribunal.

"I understand their concerns ... I know they are certainly anxious about the consequences," he said.

The U.N. tribunal has caused deep divisions within Lebanon's already fractious government, which includes Hezbollah and its allies along with pro-Western blocs.

The current prime minister, Saad Hariri, is the son of the slain leader.

In recent months, the United States, France and other countries have appealed for calm and spoken out in support of the tribunal as part of a diplomatic effort to back the investigation.

The bombing that killed Rafik Hariri along Beirut's Mediterranean waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005, was one of the most dramatic political assassinations the Mideast has seen. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Lebanon’s Christian leaders strongly denounced the bloody terror attack on an Iraqi church in which 52 people were killed, echoing calls from across the country’s sectarian spectrum which emerged following the atrocity.

A further 67 people were wounded after gunmen from the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliated organization, stormed Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church during Sunday Mass, taking some 100 people hostage and leaving the future of the country’s Christians in further doubt.

“Our numbers may be small but we sacrifice a lot,” said Béchara Rai, the Maronite bishop of Jbeil. “[We have to ask] how much can we sacrifice and how long for?”

Calling on the Christian community to endure all hardship as a means of true salvation, Rai expressed solidarity with the Iraqi people and urged them not to let the incident diminish their faith.

The incident has terrified people and may scare them into not going to church and could lead to them losing their sense of community and identity out of fear, he said.

“We must act together to stop this from happening.”

The number of Iraqi Christians has shriveled from over 1.5 million before the first Gulf war to only some 500,000 today, with 300,000 plus thought to have left since the 2003 US-led invasion and the subsequent rise in sectarian and religious violence.

Their falling numbers are mirrored by those across the Middle East which have experienced mass Christian immigration spurred by increased instability, religious persecution and economic underdevelopment. According to the Vatican, only some 20 million – including Lebanon’s estimated 1.5 million – are now thought to be left in a region of 356 million people.

The issue dominated last month’s Middle East Synod, which saw 200 bishops from otherwise Muslim countries, gather in Rome to discuss issues facing local congregations of the 22 Eastern Churches.

The two-week meeting ended with the pope calling for an end to Israeli occupation of Arab lands, increased cross-communal dialogue and for co-religious harmony to prevail.

“In the pastoral level the church has agreed to organize its institutions to help Christians to stick to their religious identity,” Rai, who recently returned from the Synod, told The Daily Star.

“Their mission in the Middle East is to shine light on the word of God, and their historic roots in contributing to the social, cultural and economic development of their countries,” he added. “We urge for dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews in order to work together for peace, unity and for the fundamental respect for the dignity and rights of all human beings.”

Governments must do more to protect the rights of their Christian citizens and improve the economic and security situations which can disproportionably target religious minorities, he said.

The Islamic State of Iraq has vowed to continue its attacks, and is allegedly targeting Egypt’s Coptic minority for its supposed mistreatment of Christian women who convert to Islam, while a succession of bomb blasts once again rocked Iraq last week, raising additional questions about the security services’ ability to cope.

“We urge authorities in the Arab world to address terrorism on their territories because fundamentalist groups are tarnishing the image of Muslims,” said Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church Gregorios III. “These groups are the enemies of Muslims and Christians and they are the enemies of these religions’ values and faith.”

The patriarch has addressed a letter to all Arab heads of state calling for them to guarantee religious freedom and to improve religious dialogue across the region. Despite major restrictions freedom of worship is officially allowed in all Arab countries, except Saudi Arabia which only permits Islam to be practiced on its territories.

The gathering of Christian leaders at Bkirki heralds a new stage that rejects “attempts to eliminate the [Lebanese] entity,” Lebanese Forces bloc MP Antoine Zahra said.

According to a statement issued by the LF, he added that peaceful resistance is now more necessary than ever in the face of the “attempt to abolish all the constitutional institutions” by a regional power working through an armed proxy, in a reference to Iran and Hezbollah.

Bkirki is both a national and a religious point of reference, Zahra said, adding that “whoever thinks that Bkirki is only our religious authority is neither Maronite nor Lebanese.”

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir sponsored a meeting at Bkirki that included Christian March 14 figures.

Tension is high in Lebanon after unconfirmed reports that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) would soon issue its indictment for former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s murder.

There are fears that should the court indict Hezbollah members, it could lead to clashes similar to those of the 2008 May Events.