BKIRKI, Lebanon, March 27 (AP) - Tens of thousands of Christians welcomed the return of the Maronite Catholic patriarch from a North American tour in an outpouring of loyalty that turned into a show of resentment against Syria's domination of Lebanon.

The toll of church bells, the wail of honking cars, and the stomp of folk dance greeted Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who returned Tuesday from a six-week tour of Lebanese immigrant communities in the United States and Canada during which he repeatedly called on Syria to pull its army out of Lebanon while also seeking good neighborly relations with Damascus.

Anti-Syrian Christian groups had urged supporters to take to the streets to welcome Sfeir.

``We are calling for a very simple thing, that Lebanon be sovereign, free and independent,'' the soft-spoken patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church told reporters on arrival at Beirut airport.

``I think this is a natural, legitimate demand for every country ... It is the demand of all people, even if they do not say it loud,'' said Sfeir, whose church's 900,000 members comprise Lebanon's largest Christian sect. Lebanon's population is 3.5 million.

The Maronite patriarch has come under sharp criticism from Muslim extremists and from pro-Syrian groups who have accused him of fueling the flames of sectarianism by his anti-Syrian campaign and have dismissed him as a clergyman with little following.

Sfeir's views made him a de facto leader of the opposition and put him in direct conflict with the pro-Syrian government, which says the presence of Syria's 30,000 troops in Lebanon was necessary for stability after the 1975-90 civil war.

During his North American tour, Sfeir called on the estimated 2 million people of Lebanese descent not to forget their homeland and preached that Lebanon can only survive by Christian-Muslim coexistence.

His criticism of the Syrians lit sparks in Lebanon, where the issue of Syria's sway over this small country has become a divisive one. Sfeir and many Christians have openly questioned Syria's continued hold over Lebanon. But many within the country's Muslim communities continue to support Syria and its army in Lebanon.

Sfeir's motorcade drove from Beirut International Airport, escorted by security forces and supporters. He was stopped several times by supporters on the road to Bkirki, the mountain seat of the Maronite Church overlooking the Mediterranean coast above the port of Jounieh north of Beirut.

Residents showered the motorcade with rice and rose petals and church bells tolled as the motorcade moved through Christian areas. It took Sfeir more than two hours to reach Bkirki, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Beirut, where he offered a thanksgiving prayer.

Some who took to the streets to welcome Sfeir home carried anti-Syrian banners. ``Syrian withdrawal NOW before tomorrow,'' read one banner on the coastal highway. Others shouted anti-Syrian slogans.

This was not the first time the cardinal traveled abroad but the massive welcome - estimated by the Christian media at 40,000 seated and another 60,000 standing with some perched in trees - outside the stonewalled monastery overlooking the Bay of Jounieh was only rivaled in 1997 during Pope John Paul II's first visit to Lebanon.

Syria's army crossed into Lebanon at the height of civil war in 1976 at the invitation of Christians, who were locked then in a battle for life with Lebanese Muslims backed by Palestinian guerrillas.

The Christian-Syrian relationship turned sour a year later and Syria sided with Muslims in the fighting that ensued. A Christian-Muslim agreement to end the civil war called for Syrian redeployment out of Beirut.

The Maronite Church has called for an end for what it described as Syria's control of decision-making in Lebanon in the last decade and implementation of the so-called Taif Accord that ended the conflict. Calls increased in the summer after Israel's pullout in May from southern Lebanon.

Despite Christians becoming a minority in Lebanon in the last century, Lebanon remains the only Arab country where the head of state is Christian.

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