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Lebanon’s Bassil Eager to Take Part in Pope’s Reception in Baghdad

Lebanon’s Bassil Eager to Take Part in Pope’s Reception in Baghdad

Wednesday, 3 March, 2021 - 09:30
Head of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement MP Gebran Bassil. (Reuters)

Head of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement MP Gebran Bassil is reportedly eager to travel to Iraq to take part in the reception for Pope Francis I as he pays a historic visit to the country on Friday.

Bassil is seeking to represent the FPM at the reception, but the Iraqi leadership has refrained from inviting him because it wants to commit to the protocols of the visit and refuses to become embroiled in inter-Lebanese disputes.

Only senior Iraqi politicians and religious figures will take part in the welcome.

Informed Lebanese political sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Bassil had indeed sent a request to Iraq “to test the waters” and determine whether he would be invited to attend.

The Iraqi government, in adhering to the protocols, did not invite foreign officials to join the reception, said the sources.

They added, however, that the government’s dismissal of the request goes beyond just sticking to protocol. They explained that Baghdad wanted to avoid any embarrassment in Lebanon and does not want any party to exploit the pope’s visit for political gain given the sharp divisions in the country.

Moreover, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has since he was sworn in office, been adopting a balanced policy in its Arab relations. This has been evident in his openness to Arab countries, starting with the Gulf, in contrast to his predecessors, who have always been quick to join the “deterrence front” led by Iran, said the sources.

The same balanced approach applies to Lebanon, they continued. This therefore, demands that the pontiff’s visit be kept away from inter-Lebanese disputes and preventing any Lebanese side from exploiting it to make gains against rivals.

Lebanon is mired in an unprecedented political and economic crisis. Its currency and banking systems have collapsed, it is still suffering from the fallout of the devastating explosion at Beirut port on August 4 and politicians have for months been bickering over the formation of a government that must approve much-needed reforms.

President Michel Aoun, Bassil’s father-in-law, has tussled for weeks with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri over the formation process, even as services and living conditions continue to deteriorate in Lebanon and people slip further into poverty.

The sources said that Kadhimi is keen on adopting a policy of “positive neutrality” when it comes to Lebanon. The PM has suggested that Lebanese parties resolve their crisis by implementing the initiative proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Bassil’s presence in Iraq to welcome the pope would therefore, contradict with the above position.

Furthermore, the sources said that Lebanese leaderships were aware of Bassil’s intention to head to Baghdad and the reasons why the federal government has distanced itself from him.

They credited Iraqi authorities for being aware that Bassil would employ his visit for political gain in Lebanon. They suspected that he would have used it to portray himself as a protector of Christians in the region, which goes against the very purpose of the pope’s visit.

The pontiff will meet in Iraq with leaders of various religions, highlighting the country’s diversity and acting as a form of response to the heinous crimes committed in the name of religion by the terrorist ISIS group.

The sources wondered whether Iraq refrained from inviting Bassil due to the sanctions imposed against him by the United States due to his alliance with the Iran-backed Hezbollah party, which, according to many Gulf countries, has played a direct part in destabilizing the region.

They also wondered if it has anything to do with Bassil’s poor relations with France, which blames him for obstructing the implementation of its Lebanon initiative.

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