BEIRUT — A Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency, Dennis Kucinich, met separately with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on a six-day trip to the region over the Labor Day holiday.
The trip began in Syria. In the Golan region, they visited the site of the “Shouting Valley” where Syrians live whose families were separated by the occupation. People have to literally shout to each other across a distance of several hundred yards in order to maintain family and personal contact.
Syria has accepted and settled more than one and a half million refugees from Iraq. Kucinich and his wife visited an area on the Syrian-Iraqi border, as well as one neighborhood in Damascus where some of the Iraqis had settled. The Syrian government is providing free education and healthcare. “People are desperate,” said Kucinich. “They have lost loved ones in the war. They have nothing but the clothes on their back. This is a profound humanitarian gesture on the part of this country because it significantly increases the population of Syria. Now, someone must provide for these refugees.”
On the second day, there was an extended meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They discussed a wide range of matters including building relations between Syria and the United States, the role of the European community in negotiations between Syria and Israel, hopes for a national unity government in Lebanon, matters affecting Pakistan, and Assad’s stated desire for a peace agreement with Israel.
Elizabeth Kucinich met with the President’s British-born wife, with whom she shares an interest in community economic development, education and the welfare of refugees.
One of the most moving parts of their trip was a visit to the holy site of Notre Dame de Saydanaya, a revered Christian mecca where legend says the Virgin Mary appeared 1,500 years ago, and fully veiled Muslim women worship together with Christians. “In this time of religious strife, it is important to bear witness to places that show the way of peace,” Elizabeth observed.
Kucinich said the United States should engage in conversations with all nations.
“I propose direct engagement. Leader to leader, eye to eye, heart to heart,” Kucinich said. President George W. Bush has not met with Assad, charging that he heads a “state sponsor of terror.” Kucinich is the most recent in a line of American senators and congressmen, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who have gone against the administration’s wishes and met with Assad.
In Lebanon, President Lahoud was specific about the challenge of Shi’a having resigned from the government: “Lebanon is governed by a consensus on every issue. To have this we must have the three main religious groups represented equally (Shi’a, Sunni and Maronite). When one group leaves, you cannot have a legal government.”
Lebanon’s leading Christian cleric, Cardinal Sfeir, Patriarch of the MaroniteChurch, met with Kucinich and his wife. Cardinal Sfier is no stranger to U.S. He has met with George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice in Washington. As the leader of a large segment of an ethnically and religious diverse nation, he told the Kuciniches, “We have to appreciate living together with persons who are not of our faith and working with them to achieve a common good.”
Kucinich and his wife were repeating a visit the two made last year after the 2006 war with Israel to view the destruction caused by the conflict for themselves.
On Wednesday, Kucinich, his wife — a former volunteer at a home run by Mother Theresa in India and with the British Red Cross’ refugee unit — and three Lebanese-American friends from his native state of Ohio, toured South Lebanon, stopping first at Qana.
“The world must recognize what happened here and seek forgiveness from the people of Qana,” Kucinich said, speaking at the memorial created for those who died in in an Israeli air strike during last summer’s war, surrounded by mothers who lost their children in the attack.
“Qana is a message for the entire world. Some believe at Qana, Jesus Christ at a wedding feast turned water to wine. I believe the tears of the people of Qana will turn tragedy to peace,” Kucinich said.
In 2006, an obviously moved Kucinich recounted, he and Elizabeth found themselves at Qana around 10 p.m. at night, gazing at photos of the dead and stopped at the image of a young boy wearing a red jacket and a “beautiful smile.”
“As I stood there weeping [in front of the photo] a hand came round to comfort me and it was one of your villagers,” the congressmen told Qana residents. “And he held on to me until I regained my composure. The man pointed to a picture of a woman and three kids and said ‘This was my family.'”
As they left, Elizabeth gave kisses to some of the mothers and Kucinich hugged a child who had lost his sister.
In Bint Jbeil, the two met with local residents, many of whom are Lebanese-Americans. Having witnessed over 20 years of Israeli occupation and lived through last year’s war, they responded positively to the congressman’s message of peace.
“I hope next year you’ll be the first lady,” one of the Bint Jbeil residents called out to Elizabeth Kucinich as the two were leaving.
“Inshallah,” Elizabeth smiled, using the Arabic expression for “God willing.”
“People love America, but have lost some of that love. I want America to be loved again,” Kucinich said. “The reason I’m running for president is to push for a transition from war to peace.” And, in what may be a surprise to many here at home, there is a surprisingly large American population in Lebanon. How large? About 50,000, many of them active in “Democrats Abroad Lebanon,” a branch of the Democratic Party’s official overseas arm. Those U.S. citizens were thrilled to have a chance to meet the candidate and his wife at a special evening meeting, and they used the event to kick-off their plans for getting Americans in the country to vote in Democrats Abroad’s delegate selection process to choose delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention next year in Denver.
“It is time for a new role for the United States, not as a nation above nations but as a nation among nations,” Kucinich, who was one of the first American politicians to call for a cease-fire to last summer’s war, told residents of Qana, Bint Jbeil, Remeich and Maroun al-Ras — many of whom said they shared his frustrations with the current Bush administration.
“I would take America on a totally different direction on matters of security: Strength through peace, not peace through strength,” he said, rejecting Washington’s current policies of unilateralism, “pre-emptive” war and what he described as disregard for international laws and the U.S. Constitution.