Catholic World News News Feature
Trying to Shake a Troubled Past December 01, 2004
It used to be called the Switzerland of the Middle East. During its 15-year civil war, it became synonymous with hostage-taking and car bombs—an image that has been hard for it to shake. Yet most Christians in the Western world know very little about this tiny country, which is mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible.
Lebanon is a land rooted in history: from the ruins of ancient Baalbek, in which building began in 15 BC; to Byblos on the Mediterranean, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; to the southern coastal cities of Tyr and Sidon, which date back more than 4,000 years. The Lebanese have endured centuries of war or occupation, beginning as early as 2150 BC, with an invasion by the Armorites, continuing through the Crusades and on to the Ottoman period at the turn of the 19th century. The rugged mountains of north Lebanon have long offered an asylum to Christians from neighboring countries who fled to escape religious persecution.
After World War I, Lebanon was under French protection until 1943, when it became independent. The Christians of Lebanon, through their effective lobbying, were able to convince the French government to include enough agricultural land in the country to make it possible for the small new nation to survive. The constitution was written to respect the existing religions of the land. It was agreed among the Lebanese that the country’s president would be a Maronite Catholic, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.
Thus the first and the only real democracy in the Middle East and northern Africa was born, embodying genuine multi-party competition. For years Lebanon was really the only country in the region that had an open society; equal rights for all citizens; a long tradition of holding presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, and a vigorous free press. “That democracy, even though it was not Jeffersonian, worked and was unique in the Arab world, with the freedoms it provided and nurtured,” said Habib Malik, author of Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace.
In a 1994 book Father Michel Awit, secretary to the Maronite Catholic Patriarch, notes:
… the Lebanese mountains gave the Lebanese an iron will and stern stubbornness and the sea widened their horizon. They were open to all ideas, hospitable, generous, and assured of their strength. All these were qualities they cherished and maintained even at the cost of war.
Whether represented by the cross or the crescent, in Lebanon religion defines one’s identity. It is safe to say there are nearly no atheists here.
Sunnis and Shi’ites are represented among Lebanon’s extensive Muslim population, along with the Druze (an independent sect that broke from Shi’ite Islam in the 10th century), and six rites of the Catholic Church flourish in the country alongside five Orthodox churches. Exact statistics are hard to come by in Lebanon, but of the population of approximately 3.5 million, about one-third are Christians. Roughly 1 million of these are Maronite Catholics.
As noon, prayers echo from minarets, while church bells resound on Lebanon’s Christian radio station, reminding the faithful that it is time for the Angelus. Simultaneously, the top Arabic pop station in the country begins its daily 2-hour period of programming Christian praise and liturgical music.
Beloved images of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and saints are prominently displayed by Christians in their homes, shops, and offices; they are also regularly seen in taxis, doctor’s offices, and even hair salons. Muslims, for their part, proudly display verses from the Qur’an; Muslim men pass the time with their prayer beads.
The Lebanese, Christian and Muslim alike, have a fervent devotion to the Virgin Mary. [Well, not the same Virgin Mary; just as they don’t really worship the same God.] Among the thousands of pilgrims who visit the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon that towers over the hill of Harissa, outside Beirut, many are women wearing the distinctive Islamic headscarf, bringing their families to pay homage to the Virgin.
While religious faith is fundamental to one’s identity in Lebanon, it is noteworthy that the country has a tradition of coexistence and tolerance. Respect for the religious beliefs of one’s neighbors has long been, and continues to be, an unwritten rule among the nation’s people.
ROOTS OF UNREST But if coexistence among religious groups is really the norm in Lebanon, why is the country only now emerging from a civil war that saw long periods of inter-religious—and eventually intra-religious—bloodshed? To answer that question, one must understand something of Lebanon’s complicated recent history.
The conflict can be traced back to the Palestinian issue. After being expelled from Jordan in 1970, a large number of Palestinian refugees settled in southern Lebanon. Giving them land and keeping them in Lebanon—the weakest of the Arab countries—seemed at the time an obvious way to pacify the Palestinians. The general expectation was that large numbers of Lebanese Christians—who were already becoming known for emigrating to other parts of the world—would now leave their homeland in even greater numbers. Then the Palestinians could settle in, relieving the pressure on Israel to return the occupied Palestinian territories. That outcome was clearly attractive to Muslim Lebanese, who could anticipate an influx of Islamic residents, and to wealthy Arabic countries such as Libya and Iran, which were looking for both stability and Muslim ascendancy in the region. Some US officials also found the scenario attractive.
However, most Lebanese Christians refused to leave their homes. Moreover, they refused to accept the risk that their ancestral land would now become an Islamic state. So instead of leaving, they took up arms and began training—for a battle that soon erupted.
Two years into the resulting civil war, under the guise of ending it, an Arab coalition army was dispatched to Lebanon with the approval of both the US and Israel. Most of the troops in the intervening force were Syrian. The intervention was initially successful; peace was restored for a time. But significantly, while the other Arab countries withdrew their troops, the Syrians remained, and indeed Syria dispatched more troops.
At the time this arrangement made sense. Syria, as Lebanon’s neighbor, had its own reasons to want some curb on the growing power of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, which threatened to become a disruptive force in the entire region. As the Syrian troops settled in to stay in Lebanon, they were initially perceived as aiding the Christians, protecting them against the militant Islamic groups that were organizing in the Palestinian refugee camps. Only later did it become clear that Syria had its own long-term designs on hegemony over Lebanon.
The relations between Christians and Muslims, native Lebanese and Palestinian refugees, continued to deteriorate, and by 1980 the Christians were seeking help from another neighbor, looking to the south for aid from Israel. Seeing an opportunity to protect its northern border from Palestinian infiltration, Israel supported the Christians, and launched a powerful offensive into Lebanon. After months of fighting, order was restored in 1982 when Israel withdrew—having achieved an important military objective by weakening the PLO as an armed factor in Lebanon.
The fighting between different Christian and Muslim factions in Lebanon continued through the 1980s, however, and by late in that decade the chaotic struggle had degenerated into a series of battles among Christian groups.
AFTER THE TAIF ACCORD
The Taif Accord—named for the Saudi city where it was signed in 1989—was the instrument that officially ended Lebanon’s disastrous civil war. By then more than 100,000 Lebanese had died. Entire villages had been leveled, and thousands of people were displaced. Several hundred thousand Lebanese left their homeland entirely. For those who stayed behind, the burgeoning refugee camps and the skeletons of bombed-out buildings were a constant reminder of the carnage they had endured.
The resiliency of the Lebanese people has often been compared to that of New Yorkers. They picked themselves up by their bootstraps and continued on with their lives. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (who served from 1992 to 2004, with a brief hiatus) presided over an impressive reconstruction of Lebanon’s economic infrastructure—although the economic recovery came at a price. Hariri, who was known for his international connections and his own personal wealth, followed a policy of massive borrowing and massive spending, saddling Lebanon with a huge and growing national debt.
Meanwhile, as peace was restored, the Lebanese people began to recognize that Syria had used the Taif Accord to fortify its grip on Lebanon. As a reward for Syrian participation in the anti-Iraq coalition of the first Gulf War, the US and Israel looked the other way as Syria assumed greater control. With its heavy military presence casting a shadow over national politics, and its financial might backing its own favored candidates, Syria gained enormous control over Lebanese affairs. Through a series of bilateral agreements, arranged with its own favored Lebanese leaders, which came to cover virtually every aspect of life in Lebanon, Syria strengthened its influence: politically, economically, culturally, and militarily.
As the de facto guardian of Lebanon’s stability, “Syria had plenty of time to cultivate its own loyalist political class,” observes Habib Malik, a professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese-American University. (Habib Malik is the son of the late Charles Malik, a Lebanese Orthodox layman who became a prominent figure in UN affairs and one of the principal architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) He continues:
Syria saw to it that every sensitive post in the Lebanese government was manned by one of its cronies. This meant that any semblance of an opposition was effectively banned to the political wilderness, if not outright persecuted. Looking back now on the years of internal conflict, former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel charges: “The war itself was promoted by Syria. That’s part of the Syrian strategy to create the chaos in our country.” Gemayel—who emerged as a consensus choice for the presidency after his brother Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in 1982—claims that Syria’s leaders “still have the ambition to absorb Lebanon and to annex Lebanon.”
One evident consequence of Syria’s presence in Lebanon has been the methodical “Islamization” of the country. Thus for example even the Catholic private schools, which account for approximately 30 percent of the country’s schools, now observe a number of Muslim feasts as school holidays—a practice that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
A “MESSAGE OF LIBERTY”
When Pope John Paul II visited Lebanon in 1997, he had a message for Syria: “In the name of God, I’m addressing the Syrian authority to ask them to stop the destruction of the Lebanese capital and all of Lebanon, and not to take the attitude of Cain who was guilty of killing his brother.” The Pope called for the reconstruction of a Lebanon that would be “free from foreign interference, united with the legitimate authority, and in which the law, the traditions and the uniqueness of each (religious) community is reciprocally recognized and respected.”
Lebanon, the Holy Father said, “is more than just a country. Lebanon is a message of liberty and an example of pluralism to the Middle East as well as for the Occident.”
“If this country disappears,” the Pope continued, “it is the cause of liberty itself that will suffer dramatic failure.”
The Pope had a message of encouragement to the Lebanese people in particular: “Think of all that you were able to build together: a society of dialogue and prosperity that was widely envied.” He urged them, “If you possess a great deal, I invite you to give a great deal. If you have little, offer your spiritual energy and your material to others.”
Maronite Catholic Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir has been an outspoken voice for the sovereignty of Lebanon. He once remarked, “I consider it my duty to speak out.” He explained that he aims to promote peace in Lebanon, the traditional home of the Maronite Church. And citing the words of Pope John XXIII, he adds: “There is no peace without truth, liberty, justice, and charity.”
The Maronite Council of Bishops, meeting under the direction of Patriarch Sfeir, has also been clear in its calls for Lebanon’s freedom and independence. At a meeting in October, the synod issued a new public declaration—popularly known as the “fifth appeal,” because it follows in a series of such statements. The bishops’ statement paints a bleak picture of life in Lebanon today, citing 11 different reasons for pessimism about the country’s future. The synod mentions the country’s excessive debt, which now totals some $40 billion; the bribery and corruption that have become rampant in public offices; a “politicized judiciary” that “exhausts the citizens, degrades them, deprives them of their rights and spoils the democratic system;” rampant poverty; and the closed horizon that faces Lebanese youth, prodding thousands of talented young people to emigrate in hope of finding better economic prospects, in a process that “impoverishes the homeland by draining away intellectual capacities.” Nevertheless, the Maronite appeal urges the Lebanese not to give in to the temptations toward despair. The bishops insist: “The reasons for hope are still great in spite of all the confusing appearances, repulsive despotic acts and oppressive practices.”
What are those reasons for hope? The bishops cite the talents and traditional strengths of the Lebanese people. “The thing which brought us to this despicable situation is the undermining of the democratic system which characterizes our country,” the bishops’ statement said. If that was too subtle, they continued: “We frankly say it: Syria alone is to account for what has been going on in Lebanon….”
THE CHRISTIAN OPPOSITION
The Qornet Shehwan Gathering is a diverse group, drawing members from politicians who in the past have represented the extreme right of the political spectrum (including Christian militia leaders from the days of the civil war) as well as the extreme left, and many points in between. The group is also a microcosm of Lebanon’s Christian population, with Maronite, Orthodox, and Greek Catholic laymen among its 28 members. The Qornet Shehwan Gathering takes its name from the village, about a 30-minute drive from Beirut, where the members meet monthly at the office of Maronite Bishop Youssef Beshara, the group’s moderator.
From its origins, Qornet Shehwan had planned to join forces with a Muslim group to form a single united opposition party. The members recognized that in order for Lebanon to restore its independence and sovereignty, coordination between Christians and Muslims would be vital.
As a first step toward reconciliation across religious lines, however, in 2002 Qornet Shehwan organized a visit to the Chouf mountain area, where Christian and Druze militia groups had participated in some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war period, in 1983. But that pilgrimage of reconciliation—led by Patriarch Sfeir—was disrupted by Syrian forces, which arrested 300 of the young men and women involved in the gesture.
So the first effort to form friendly links between Qornet Shehwan and the Druze forces headed by Walid Jumblatt were thwarted, at Syria’s instigation. “They (Syria) want division,” argues Bishop Beshara.
“We went out of our way to have a partner, said Samir Abdel-Malak, secretary of Qornet Shehwan. “Even with these obstructions, we continued believing that this is the formula: that Lebanon has to be governed between Christians and Muslims.”
In declaring the establishment of Qornet Shehwan, the group’s members stated in a founding manifesto:
The fear of the Lebanese over their destiny at this time is no less than what it was during the war. This ongoing anxiety can be traced to their conviction that a number of vital issues that threaten their national future are still pending, unresolved… [including] the absence of comprehensive national reconciliation...the entrenchment of the intense economic crisis and the incapacity of the successive governments to resolve it…which contributes to the sweeping exodus that is depleting the country of the bulk of its youthful and dynamic forces; the increased menace posed to Lebanon and the region after [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon came to power and peace talks were halted…and the absence of national dialogue on the basic issues…
The declaration also complained of “provoked movements”—in which Syrian interference in local political issues has caused a stirring of public protest, which was then cited as a threat of renewed violence, and thus as the pretext for even heavier Syrian intervention. (One example would be the patriarch’s visit to Chouf, which saw a few clashes between Christians and Druze used to justify the wholesale arrests.) Qornet Shehwan conceded that there are still occasional clashes between Lebanon’s different religious groups, but insisted that these conflicts “do not express the reality of the relationship between the Christians and the Muslims, but rather constitute a desperate attempt to give the impression that the country is in danger of constant insurrection which makes it in need of guardianship.”
Qornet Shehwan has maintained its own cohesion, despite the initial frustrations. “What was and what is essential—in spite of the Syrian terror, the Syrian dictatorship, the Syrian means to prevent any kind of opposition—is that the opposition was able to survive,” said one prominent Qornet Shehwan member, the former president Amin Gemayel.
“It must be clarified that we are not enemies of Syria,” pointed out Bishop Beshara, speaking of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, but clearly intending that his words should apply to Lebanon as a whole. “We are neighbors. We could have good relations, but every country must be free.”
In 1998, Lebanese army general Emile Lahoud was elected president. He is widely perceived as a puppet of Syria. “He’s only a Syrian instrument in Lebanon, like a Syrian high commissioner,” argues Gemayel.
President Lahoud “runs the country with a very small circle of people, mainly from the military,” explains political analyst Farid el Khazen. “He failed to build bridges with many politicians, Christian and Muslim.” Rather than building up a coalition among the country’s leading political forces, Lahoud tightened his circle of associates, el Khazen says, and his decision-making process became “quite reflective of the increasing authoritarianism of the country.”
In August of this year, there was rampant speculation of political maneuvering that would allow President Lahoud to continue his mandate as president even after his term was scheduled to conclude in November. The constitutional ban on a new presidential term was viewed as an obstacle that could quickly be surmounted. A Syrian newspaper, speaking of the presidency in Lebanon, was so bold as to say that Syria was the greatest elector, if not the only one, in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the United Nations was on the offensive, in an effort to restore sovereignty to Lebanon. In early September the UN approved Resolution 1559, sponsored by the US and France, which called on all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon, sought guarantees that foreign countries would not interfere in the election of a new Lebanese president, and insisted on the disarmament of all militia groups in the country. The call for foreign withdrawal and non-interference was obviously aimed at Syria; the call for disarmament applied to both the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and the armed Palestinian groups still active in refugee camps, particularly in southern Lebanon.
Syria was not at all phased by the UN action. The day after Resolution 1559 was approved, the Lebanese parliament endorsed a constitutional amendment allowing for Lahoud to serve another three-year presidential term. The amendment caused a storm of protest, and four members of the ruling cabinet resigned. But the measure—solidly backed by Syria and its Lebanese allies—won the necessary votes for approval.
Both the Lahoud government and the Syrian regime referred to UN Resolution 1559 as “interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.” A few weeks later, in a superficial response, Syria did pull 3,000 of its troops out of Lebanon; but 17,000 Syrian soldiers remained there, allegedly as an “intelligence force.”
While Resolution 1559 did not actually name Syria as the party interfering in Lebanese politics, a report from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan a month later listed the Syrian presence in Lebanon as a violation of national sovereignty. Recognizing Syria’s heavy-handed influence over the Lebanese parliament, the Annan report also observed that it had been “widely contended in Lebanon—and asserted by the cosponsors of Resolution 1559—that the extension of President Lahoud’s term in office was the result of direct intervention” by Syria.
Nearly a month after Resolution 1559 there was an assassination attempt on Marwan Hamadeh, one of the four Lebanese cabinet ministers who had resigned to protest the constitutional amendment. A bomb in the former minister’s car killed the driver; Hamadeh and his bodyguard survived with lesser injuries.
Even if the UN’s public statements did not bring about any immediate change in the political situation, they did give new hope to Lebanese opposition forces. Before the passage of Resolution 1559, “Lebanon was completely marginalized and neglected,” says Farid el Khazen. “Today, someone is monitoring” the situation at least, he added.
Former president Gemayel agrees: “Now for the first time, the international community is seeing the Syrian presence in Lebanon as an occupation. It’s a new approach.”
The support from the UN—along with a popular backlash against the constitutional amendment to extend Lahoud’s presidency—has given new vigor to the political opposition. Christian and Muslim activists have pulled together, and critics of the government who were previously intimidated now feel empowered to speak out. Commenting on a recent political rally to protest Syria’s involvement in Lebanese affairs and President Lahoud’s extended mandate, the general manager of Lebanon’s daily newspaper An-Nahar said: “Today the opposition is united in the face of tyranny, and the press is behind it in the fight for the rights of citizens and the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Lebanon.”
The An-Nahar editorial continued:
We say it openly: We will not accept that Lebanon’s mission be eliminated, from within the country or from abroad. The entire Arab world, starting with Syria, is being put on the spot to follow the example of freedom and democracy in Lebanon, not the totalitarian, police-state lead of other countries in the region.
Opposition leaders also expect more help from abroad, in the form of diplomatic pressure on Syria. “With the reelection of President Bush, all indications suggest that the pressures on Syria will continue,” said Habib Malik.
The next test of Lebanese sovereignty will come in the spring of 2005, when the country holds new parliamentary elections. International observers will be watching carefully, in the aftermath of Resolution 1559, to see whether the elections can be held without undue Syrian influence.
RENEWAL OF FAITH
For the Catholic Church, the years of turmoil in Lebanon have brought a renewal of religious commitment. Patriarch Sfeir observed:
Before the war, faith was weaker, but actually now it is very strong, because our people—especially young people—have realized that they can’t rely on anything but God. They have lost their money, their parents, and their prestige. God for them is the only recourse, because only God is capable of deriving good things from wrong things.
The patriarch’s statements are not merely wishful words. Lebanese Christians have been flocking to Our Lady of Bechwait church in the Bekaa Valley—not far from the ruins of Baalbek, devastated by the civil war—and in recent weeks there have been rumors of miracles there. Vocations to religious life have risen. At the Maronite seminary, student enrollment is roughly twice what it was before the war.
Churches are full on Sundays. And a number of vigorous new Christian organizations have sprung up. One of them, Jesu Ma Joie, a youth group based on the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux, attracted more than 8,000 youth to its annual prayer rally at the Harrisa (Our Lady of Lebanon) shrine this year.
“When we see these people praying, we have hope for Lebanon,” said Father Toufic Bou Hadir, director of the group.
It’s not the politicians, nor the economists or outside help that will make Lebanon flourish again. These prayer groups are our signs of hope for the Lebanon of tomorrow, that it will be founded on the rock of Christ.
In an effort that reaches across denominational lines, this summer Christians formed a prayer chain for the future of Lebanon. To date, Maronite Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and non-denominational Christian groups have joined in the effort. According to Janan Matar, who coordinates the effort, there is now an unbroken period of prayer for 12 hours every day, with different individuals taking their turns in prayer for the country’s future. Matar hopes to increase the number of people involved in the effort, and to extend the prayer chain across national barriers; he is hoping soon to organize a day of prayer for Lebanon in London.
“We see that there’s no hope for Lebanon, if not from above,” Matar says. “We believe God will be in charge.”
[AUTHOR ID] Doreen Abi Raad writes from Bikfaya, Lebanon.