VATICAN CITY, MAR. 2, 2001 ( Reconciliation in Lebanon and the return of Middle East refugees to their homes were among the issues brought up this morning as Lebanese President Emile Lahoud met with John Paul II.

Lahoud arrived at the Vatican accompanied by his wife and a 10-member entourage. Lahoud, a Maronite-rite Christian, took office in 1998.

Following his meeting with the Pope, the Lebanese president was received by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary for relations with states.

In a press statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said: "The discussions offered the opportunity to reaffirm the particular ties that unite Lebanon with the Holy See, which hopes that the country will once again have the role it is entitled to in the Middle East." Lahoud is the general who reformed the Lebanese army after the civil war.

Navarro-Valls said that during the meetings, "special attention was given to the problem of those who have had to leave regions of the Middle East in the last months: The hope was expressed that all will be able to return to their homes as soon as possible."

Some of the Christians who lived in Occupied Territories, which Israel has now abandoned, become victims of reprisals by Lebanese Muslims, who regard them as collaborators of the Jews because they lived with them for years.

For John Paul II, Lebanon is more than just a country; it is a message for the world because, until the Lebanese war broke out in 1975, it was an example of coexistence of different cultures and religions (Muslims, Christians and Jews) in the Middle East.

The press statement clarified that both the Pope and Lahoud expressed the opinion that "only a real path of national reconciliation will allow the country to surmount the present difficulties and become again a ´message´ of coexistence among peoples of different cultures and religiosity."

Between November and December 1995, John Paul II convoked a synod of the bishops of Lebanon, to ratify the country´s need to become a witness of reconciliation in the Middle East.

Last year, after Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch, Nasrallah Sfeir, expressed the need for Syria to put an end to military occupation, in keeping with U.N. Resolution 520. "We call for a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon," the patriarch has affirmed on several occasions.

In a population of some 3 million inhabitants, 60% are Muslims and about 40% Catholics, the Vatican agency Fides reports. The Jewish population has virtually disappeared from the country, following the renewed outbreak of violence in the Middle East.