New York Cardinal Asks to See American Hostages
BKIRKI, Lebanon (AP) _ Cardinal John O’Connor of New York canceled a visit to Moslem west Beirut Sunday and instead appealed to the captors of nine American hostages to ″let me see them.″
″Some of my countrymen are hostages here because they wanted to help Lebanon,″ the Roman Catholic archbishop said.
Several Moslem leaders reacted angrily to O’Connor’s decision not to go to west Beirut and said his views of Lebanon’s years of conflict would be incomplete.
″I wish that those who are holding the hostages would let me see them because I would go anywhere that a priest can go,″ O’Connor said during a visit to an institute for war-wounded victims in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut.
The cardinal traveled to the facility in Beit Shebab in a bullet-proof black Cadillac escorted by four jeeps full of army commandos.
O’Connor came to Lebanon to refocus attention on the hostages, whose plight has been overshadowed by civil war fighting. The hostages are believed held in Moslem districts of the city by extremist fundamentalist groups linked with Iran.
O’Connor looked angry as he told reporters of the decision to scrap meetings with Moslem government and religious leaders.
″We’re not going to west Beirut at the moment for security reasons. I am told this is not a good time for me to go,″ he said.
Sources at Bkirki monastery, seat of Maronite Catholic Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir where O’Connor is a guest, said the cardinal received a telephone call from the U.S. Embassy minutes before he announced the trip cancellation.
O’Connor, however, said the decision was made by Sfeir and Luciano Angeloni, Pope John Paul II’s representative in Lebanon.
″It’s their considered opinon that this morning I should not go to the west for security reasons. But this is not because of any discussion with our ambassador, Mr. (John) McCarthy, or any officials in the U.S. government,″ O’Connor said.
″Whether I will still go I just don’t know,″ he added. ″I still very much would like to go over and pay those courtesy calls. But I am now subject to the recommendations of my host.″
But Sfeir’s aide, Bishop Roland Abu Jawdeh, told reporters the patriarch had nothing to do with the cancellation of the visit.
″The only person who mentioned security was Ambassador McCarthy, who also cancelled a lunch (Sunday) in the cardinal’s honor,″ Abu Jawdeh said.
O’Connor had been scheduled to meet in west Beirut with acting Prime Minister Salim Hoss, who heads the Moslem Cabinet in Lebanon’s dual government, and Shiite Moslem Parliament Speaker Hussein Husseini.
Hoss said, ″I regret to say there are those who have an interest in preventing the cardinal from listening to our views.″
He did not mention any names but said ″they portrayed the security situation to him in an exaggerated manner to make him call off the visit.″
Husseini said O’Connor was ″fed misleading information to prevent him from coming to west Beirut to get the Moslem views.″
O’Connor overruled State Department objections in coming to Lebanon for a three-day visit. He arrived Saturday.
Aides said the archbishop was unaware of the Moslem criticism when he celebrated an outdoor Mass at Virgin Mary’s Church in the town of Harisa.
He told about 2,000 applauding Christians, ″My reason for being here is ... I love you.″
He drew cheers when he declared that the bishops in the United States ″will not turn their backs on you, not as long as I’m alive.
″The Christians in Lebanon have never persecuted any other people. They have always wanted to live in peace with Moslems and others. The world does not understand this.″
He added, ″I will fight for your freedom.″
At least 15 foreigners, including nine Americans, are held hostage in Lebanon. They include Anglican church envoy Terry Waite of Britain, who disappeared in west Beirut on Jan. 20, 1987, while on a mission to free the hostages. He turns 50 on Wednesday.
The longest held hostage is American Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press. He was kidnapped March 16, 1985.
The latest fighting in Lebanon’s 15-year-old civil war pits army commander Gen. Michel Aoun’s 20,000 mostly Christian troops against a Syrian-Druse alliance that outnumbers them 4-1.
O’Connor held a 90-minute meeting Sunday with Aoun, who heads a Christian Cabinet contesting power with Hoss.
Syrian gunners in west Beirut blasted the coast of the Christian enclave north of Bkirki with sporadic shellfire, maintaining a blockade against the area’s 1 million inhabitants. Police said there were no casualties.
At least 359 people have been killed and 1,396 wounded since the fighting and Aoun declared on March 8 a ″war of liberation″ against the Syrian troops.
Syria, under a peackeeping mandate from the Arab League, sent troops into Lebanon in 1976.
O’Connor voiced sympathy for Aoun’s cause. ″You can’t do anything when you have occupying armies and when you have shells coming in,″ he told reporters.