BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Lebanon's opposition bid to oust pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud was backed by the Maronite patriarch, who declared it should be done constitutionally.
In line with Lebanon's confessional system, Lebanese presidents are chosen from the Maronites. Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the highest Maronite religious authority, declared openly that he has removed the church's protection on Lahoud.
Speaking in an interview with Beirut's leading daily As-Safir Tuesday, Nasrallah said he backs "the ouster of the president of the republic through legal and constitutional means."
Sfeir said that Lahoud's growing isolation since Syria's withdrawal last year made the post of president effectively vacant.
"The president should by law oversee rule over the whole country, but if he can no longer assume that matter, his post becomes almost vacant," Sfeir said.
His comment coincided with a campaign launched last week by anti-Syria opposition groups to force the president to step down, including parliamentary petitions calling for his resignation and street action and demonstrations outside the presidential palace.
Sfeir, who is largely respected by all Lebanese politicians, Christian and Muslim, said street action could be tolerated to a certain limit. "But it should not include raiding the presidential palace to topple the president by force."
The Lebanese are divided over Lahoud's ousting. The parliamentary majority is seeking signatures for a parliament petition calling for Lahoud's resignation. Under the constitution the petition is futile unless it is backed by two-thirds of the 128-member chamber. The opposition holds 71 seats, but needs 86 signatures.
Opposition leaders Waleed Jumblat, the Druze head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Hariri's son and political heir, Saad, who commands the Sunni majority in parliament, and Samir Geagea head of the Christian Lebanese Forces group launched their campaign to oust Lahoud on the first anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination.
On the other side of the spectrum stand the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement, Christian strongman Gen. Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and a presidential hopeful who has declared his opposition to removing Lahoud by force.