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Lebanon crisis marks milestone in Christian decline

BEIRUT, Nov 22 (Reuters) - A crisis surrounding the fate of Lebanon's presidency is a milestone in the decline of Maronite Christian influence in a country once dominated by the sect.

Reserved for a Maronite, the presidency could be left vacant if rival leaders have not agreed on a successor to President Emile Lahoud by the time his term expires on Friday.

At best, rival camps dominated by Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim factions will agree on a figure with little support among Christians, whose main leaders are allied to the opposing sides, complicating the search for a consensus president.

For Christians, the crisis symbolises the erosion of political power which had already been curbed by the Taif Agreement that ended the 1975-1990 civil war.

"The worst scenario possible would be no presidential election," said Rosana Bou Monsef, a commentator in the al-Nahar newspaper. "Lebanese could become accustomed to the absence of the president and say we can do without it," she told Reuters.

Desperate to avoid that outcome, the Maronite church has been at the heart of efforts to push the anti-Syrian governing coalition and its Damascus-backed opponents towards agreeing on a president.

The church is worried that the protracted crisis is catalysing more Christian migration from Lebanon, making its followers an ever smaller minority in the only Middle East state with a Christian president.

Under pressure from French mediators, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir presented a list of possible consensus candidates to the rival camps. But they have so far been unable to agree in what has been seen as a blow to the Patriarch's standing.

THE END OF THE ROAD

The lack of a deal is pushing Lebanon towards even deeper crisis, two governments and the possibility of violence. The opponents' ties to rival foreign states has complicated the search for an agreement.

But another part of the problem is the bitter rivalry between the main Maronite leaders, especially Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, who are allied to the opposing camps.

Their rivalry dates back to the civil war when they fought militarily to destroy each other. Head of the largest bloc in parliament and part of the Hezbollah-led opposition, Aoun insists that the presidency is rightfully his.

But Geagea and his allies in the anti-Syrian coalition, which is headed by Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri, say there is no way Aoun could be head of state.

"There is a great problem in the Christian alignment between a Sunni camp and a Shi'ite camp," Bou Monsef said. "The absence of a single Christian bloc has brought down the Christian role as a third force."

The Maronite weakness is a far cry from the early days of Lebanon, whose borders were drawn by France in the 1920s.

"It might seem like a mere difference on some names ... but in essence it is the end of a long road for a sect which founded the Lebanese entity," columnist Sateh Noureddin wrote. (Editing by Dominic Evans)

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