BEIRUT Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch said on Saturday his country faced a threat to its existence, appearing to take sides against Hezbollah on the eve of an election whose outcome will be decided by the Christian vote.
The influential Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who has already warned of "mistakes" were the Islamist group and its allies to win the election, spoke of "a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity." His remarks were reported by the National News Agency.
Sfeir, 89, has a stormy relationship with Hezbollah's main Christian ally, Michel Aoun, who currently heads the largest Christian bloc in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament. Seats in the chamber are divided according to sectarian quotas.
How Aoun and his Christian rivals fare in the parliamentary election on Sunday will decide whether the U.S.-backed "March 14" alliance, led by Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, retains its majority or loses to the Shi'ite Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, and its allies.
Many politicians expect the election to result in a coalition government, regardless of the outcome.
Sfeir has previously echoed March 14 calls for a state monopoly on weapons -- a challenge to the heavily armed Hezbollah.
He also has a record of opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, which is central to the agenda of "March 14." The alliance won the 2005 parliamentary election after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad's father.
"We must be alert to the schemes being plotted for us and thwart the intense efforts which, if they succeed, will change the face of our country," Sfeir said.
In February, al-Masira magazine quoted the patriarch as saying victory for the pro-Syria alliance would lead to "mistakes ... with a historic impact on the nation's fate."
Hezbollah's Christian opponents also include Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces party and the Phalange party led by former president Amin Gemayel. Both have attacked Aoun for the alliance he struck with Hezbollah three years ago and his rapprochement with neighboring Syria.
The United States, which lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group, has said it will review aid to Lebanon depending on the shape of the next government and its policies.
Hezbollah, the most powerful single group in the country, holds one portfolio in the current 30-seat national unity cabinet and has repeatedly called for the formation of another broad unity government after the election.
Some 50,000 members of the security forces will deploy on Sunday, paying extra attention to closely contested districts.
Lebanon was pushed to the brink of civil war last year by a power struggle between the alliances, fueled by rivalry between regional states -- in particular Syria, which supports Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia, which backs Hariri.
But it has enjoyed months of calm in the run-up to the elections, thanks in part to a detente in relations between Damascus and Riyadh.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)