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Councilman John Akouri, former Washington, DC Press Secretary & Capitol Hill Advisor, is President & CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Witness to History: A Man Of Peace Visits The White House

(WASHINGTON, DC)...I had traveled to the Detroit McNamara Airport terminal to board a plane to Washington, DC countless times before, but this time my trip felt different. I had been invited by the Ambassador to the Embassy of Lebanon many times before, but this time something about my visit was different. I had met His Eminence Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Sfeir numerous times before, but this time our talks were different. For three days last week, I was one of the lucky ones, granted a rare opportunity to witness an historic occasion in our nations capital. For me, the culmination of this moment in time started long ago.

The year was 1982 and I was just a teenager concerned with all the nuances and joys of shedding adolescence and welcoming the pre-adulthood status that awaited me in the early part of that decade. Though, with the excitement that surrounded the end of another school year and the beginning of summer came a black cloud that loomed overhead, as I could not escape the daily grim radio and television reports of what was to become a besieged Beirut. Since 1975 Lebanon had been embroiled in a bloody civil war – one that had extracted thousands of lives and forced the exodus of those who could to European, American and other foreign lands. By the early summer of 1982, the war had intensified and seemed to headline every major news network, magazine, and newspaper. I was glued to the recurring sights and sounds of
“We Interrupt This Program; Breaking News; Film at 11 and The Following is a Special Report.”

Beirut had been divided by what was known as the ‘Green Line’ and for years the Lebanese capital had withstood the constant bombardment of daily artillery shells, tanks, bombs, sniper fire and more. As if the presence of Lebanon’s warring factions was not enough, more than 30,000 Syrian troops had earlier entered its tiny neighbor and were stationed in and around parts of the city. Beirut, once known as the Paris of the Middle East had become a city of blood. And, for the first time in history, the armies of the state of Israel would invade an Arab capital. As the convoy of Israeli armies and tanks headed northward towards Beirut, people across the world witnessed firsthand the invasion of Israeli troops moving along the highways, streets and villages on their television screens. Beirut lay under siege and experiencing it’s darkest days.

A city thousands of years old with a rich archeological history and home to many historic, religious and cultural entities was being leveled inch by inch, mile by mile, a country laden with foreign aggression. And all we could do here at home in the US was watch the television monitors and pray for our loved ones still living in Lebanon. Three and a half years later, the prayers of many were answered. On April 19, 1986, His Beatitude Mar Nasrallah Boutrous Cardinal Sfeir was elected Maronite Patriarch for Antioch and all the East. A small yet gentle man, he began his reign during the midst of a war that had been ongoing for eleven years.

Fast-forward to last week’s significantly momentous and notable meeting between the Patriarch and US President George W. Bush. The Patriarch had to be flown from his residence in Bkerke to Beirut International Airport by way of helicopter due to a million-person People-Power rally taking place in Beirut’s Freedom Square that blocked many streets and blockaded traffic flow. But the Patriarch was determined to meet with the American commander-in-chief. A meeting borne out of mass rallies all over Lebanon and the international calling for the withdrawal of Syria’s remaining troops and intelligence security forces.

Pleas like that of Druze leader Walid Jumblat who was quoted as saying, “Unchain us, leave us, you made us hate Syria,” sprouted freely following the gruesome and horrific assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the architect of the rebuilding of post-war Lebanon, along with 18 other innocents. A Cedar Revolution had begun and took wing from Lebanon’s youth to bring freedom, democracy and independence to the nation and to find out the truth behind the shocking and ghastly killing of Hariri. As the Patriarch was in the air throughout most of the Beirut rally, he was sure to be briefed on all that transpired once he reached American soil.

Accompanied by an entourage of nearly a hundred priests, monsignors and bishops from around the country, personal security and bodyguards, an advance team, secret service agents, a motorcade, global media coverage, well wishers and paparazzi, the now 85-year old Patriarch made his way around Washington, DC. Morning meetings were scheduled, Masses were said nearly every day, a Druze delegation was met, the new church altar was consecrated, speeches were given at every stop and receptions took place each evening. And somehow, throughout it all, this kind and calm man of peace managed to keep a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face and the future of millions of Lebanese in his heart and soul.

As he walked into the Embassy, his eyes fixated on me and I could tell he was eager to embrace an old friend. I welcomed him back to the US, and asked God to grant him rest from his tireless work on Lebanon’s behalf and to lengthen his life here on earth. His words that night to the distinguished guests assembled, the Diplomatic Corps, and his old friends were simple, “Lebanon has gone through difficult times in the past and it was able to overcome them. At this time, Lebanon is at crossroads that could lead it in various directions. Only our unity and cooperation could bring Lebanon to the harbor of safety and could insure its prosperity and growth. Therefore, let us put our own personal differences aside and join our efforts for the sake of the free, sovereign and democratic Lebanon.” These words were broadcast all over the world through the magic of satellite.

Today, when I am asked about that encounter along with the situation in Lebanon and the fact that images are being revealed in real time across television stations throughout the world, I must admit that at times it seems as though I am hearing and watching a ‘rerun’ that mirrors a grim not to distant past. But this time, however, there is something different, very different – the stark difference is that I am witnessing these historic images unfold live and in person before my very own eyes and that this time it’s clearly peace all sides seek, not war.

JOHN AKOURI ONLINE NEWSROOM 'We will confront this mortal danger to all humanity. We will not tire, or rest, until the war on terror is won.' -- PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH Add to end of above"line without paranthesis when wanting to loop sound (( loop="-1">