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Habib C. Malik

The Forgotten Christians of Lebanon

Once free and equal, Lebanon's Christians now struggle against tremendous odds in a country dominated by Syrian politics and an increasingly Islamized culture.

Before he was exiled from the Soviet Union, the great writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was outspokenly critical of Patriarch Pimen and the Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy whenever he sensed they were cozying up to the Communist authorities. After going into forced exile, however, Solzhenitsyn fell silent on this issue. When reminded of his earlier criticisms and urged to continue in that vein, he replied firmly and without hesitation that he no longer felt he enjoyed the moral right to speak out against the perceived errant behavior of the Russian Orthodox Church because he was no longer sharing directly in the daily historical-existential trials and tribulations of his people and his church living under Soviet rule. In other words, criticizing from a distance can be a dangerous business and also risks becoming unethical.

I mention Solzhenitsyn's studied caution only to suggest that a similar prudence is required when evaluating the behavior of Christians native to the Middle East, especially those of Lebanon—an ancient and beleaguered Christian community that proudly traces its roots in an uninterrupted line all the way back to the time when Saint Paul set sail from Byblos on his first missionary voyage to the West.

Middle Eastern Christianity, which includes the Christian communities of Lebanon, has had to contend over the past 1,300 years with living in close proximity to, and often under, Islam, the religion that early on became dominant in the region. Over the centuries, Western interest in, and subsequent incursions into, the Middle East have taken on many forms—a lot of them proving disadvantageous to the Christians of the region. The eventual defeat of the Crusades, for example, precipitated a violent Islamic backlash against the indigenous Christians, particularly those like Lebanon's Maronites, who had cooperated with and supported the crusading hordes.1 Later Western commercial and imperial expansion into Ottoman domains seemed at first to resuscitate the sagging fortunes of local Christian communities, only to have them witness a return of persecutions once the inevitable Western retreats occurred. Rivalries among the European powers in the Levant and in Egypt often enlisted the native Christians on the side of one and against the other. This too had its deleterious effects, culminating in the 1861 massacres of Christians in Mount Lebanon and Damascus that left a lasting scar on intercommunal relations, and aggravating the repeated oppression of Egypt's Copts to this day.

I am not suggesting that all Western involvement in the affairs of the Near and Middle East over the centuries has been detrimental to the region's Christians. Far from it. However, the fact remains that the West's interaction with the Middle East was always designed to serve primarily the West's interests. This includes the Protestant missionary activities of the nineteenth century, which, after failing to make noticeable headway among Muslims, turned their energies to converting the local Christians to the creeds of Europe's great Reformers. Resulting tensions and mutual misunderstandings between the native churches and the newly transplanted Protestants linger to the present.

Meanwhile, the reputed tolerance of Islam, particularly for the "People of the Book," as Jews and Christians are designated, created in reality the dhimmi system of second-class servitude, which, under the guise of toleration, was actually a system of subtle repression and dehumanization leading to gradual liquidation.

Repeatedly the advice offered to Middle Eastern Christians by Westerners—the sincere among them as well as the self-serving—would counsel restraint, circumlocution, and a self-effacing posture vis-ˆ-vis the dominant Muslim majority; in other words, a resignation to the perpetuation of dhimmi status in the name of mere survival and not rocking the boat. The one community in the region that has persistently resisted traveling down this demeaning road is the Maronite Christian community of Lebanon, along with assorted portions of Lebanon's other Christian communities—the Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and even Protestant. This has earned them a number of by now familiar adjectives in the specialized as well as the popular literature, the most benign of which has been "obstinate."

In pretechnological times, the rugged and inaccessible geography of Lebanon's mountains acted as a natural refuge for persecuted minority communities fleeing oppression. For this reason an accurate, if colorful, description of Lebanon's recurring crises in religious turmoil, including the most recent agony of the past 20 years, is to refer to them as chapters in the ongoing drama of freedom under siege. This time around, however, the devastating technologies of modern warfare, coupled with the array of hostile neighbors and other foreign meddlers, broke down the natural protective barriers and rendered the siege far more destructive. The full brunt of the prolonged assault that commenced in 1975 was borne by the Christians, who also found they had to contend with a series of negative stereotypes about them, generated and popularized mainly by a host of Western journalists. These distorting stereotypes were quickly internalized by many in the West and did irreparable damage to the image of a community that was fighting for its life.

The first stereotype would be that of a ruthless minority out to do everything it can to preserve its political and economic privileges by keeping the Muslim majority deprived and in a subordinate state. The truth is that pre-1975 Lebanon, despite its many blemishes and imperfections, enjoyed a degree of equitable power sharing among its constituent communities that was unique in the Middle East—a liberal atmosphere that has all but vanished today following the silencing of the guns and the lowering of the Syrian curtain of occupation.

A second stereotype holds that Christians in Lebanon are affluent out of proportion to their numbers, and that they enjoy prosperity at the expense of the Muslim majority. This simply ignores the poor rural Christian population. Moreover, regarding relative poverty, many among Lebanon's poorer Shiite Muslims practice polygamy—for which the Christians cannot be blamed—thereby increasing the squalor index by adding large numbers of children to the ranks of the wretched. Today we see that the Christian middle class has been hit the hardest, and any significant money in the country is not in the hands of the impoverished Christians, but the monopoly of a Muslim-dominated plutocracy led by megabillionaire Prime Minister Hariri. In other words, the very tangible "trickle down" effect that characterized Lebanon's economy before 1975 has simply evaporated.

Lebanon's history offers a unique example of peaceful and creative coexistence between Muslims and Christians.

According to a third stereotype, this was a civil war from day one—the implication being that these savage Lebanese were just itching to get their hands at each other's throats. In fact, the conflict began as a Lebanese-Palestinian (specifically PLO) war that quickly acquired features of civil strife and internal confessional polarization fueled by the heavy-handed involvement of outside actors, principally Syria and Israel (not forgetting Iran and Libya and an assortment of mercenaries).

As for the horrific sectarian atrocities and massacres laid cavalierly at the doorstep of Lebanon's Christians, once again a responsible investigation of the matter—as conducted, for example, by the German scholar and Lebanon expert Theodor Hanf of Freiburg—reveals that eight out of ten massacre victims throughout the entire Lebanon war were Christians, that the targeting of Christians was in most cases deliberate, and that the main purpose was to terrorize the community and precipitate massive population dislocations, particularly from the outlying Christian and mixed villages in the country.

I am by no means here denying the grave flaws and chronic shortcomings of Christian leadership, both political and spiritual, in Lebanon: the ineptitude, the mediocrity, the frequent bungling, the wasteful and at times bloody squabbles, the many missed opportunities, the insular parochialism, the clannishness and feudal vestiges, the absence of a unified stand, the corruption of character, and the mercantile mentality. All this regretfully is part of the picture.

To stop there, however, as so many have chosen to do, is to form a truncated view of the overall reality. The tremendous odds against which the Christians of Lebanon—the people and their leaders—have had to labor have been truly mind-boggling: oil money, Western neglect joined with Western appeasement of Islam and of Syria and Israel, erroneous and often tendentious media depictions, the absence of a strong and reliable external ally, the multiplicity of fierce external foes, and the demographic dragon. Even the finest leadership in these circumstances would buckle under the combined weight of such staggering negatives.

Back in the 1970s and '80s it became disgracefully fashionable in Western policy and media circles to put down the Lebanese Christians, particularly the Maronites. These attacks often bordered on outright racism. Similarly today it has become fashionable to lay all the blame for the Bosnian conflict on the shoulders of the Serbs. If the priorities of certain Western governments and their policy planners (Washington included) have dictated that such one-sided obfuscations serve as the basis for ethically dubious policies, the priorities of self-aware and morally critical Christians in these same Western countries ought to be markedly different.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible among the Christians of Lebanon, and between them and their brothers in Christ in the West. A stronger spiritual bond is attainable, and a more solid and all-embracing ecclesiology is not an imaginary goal. Indeed, there is good news coming out of Lebanon for a change; important strides have been taken in the direction of inter-Christian and interchurch reconciliation:

  • A milestone gathering of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecclesiastical officials took place in North Lebanon a couple of years back, paving the way for further rapprochement between these two key Christian churches. One fruit of this has been the recent encouragement by Rome of the Uniat Greek Catholics or Melchites to return to the fold of the Orthodox church.2 This is in keeping with parallel developments in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Before—one hopes long before—the year 2054 (the one-thousandth anniversary of the Great Schism), the Catholic and Orthodox churches will be reunited, and Lebanon will have played a modest part in this great endeavor.
  • Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, along with a number of representatives of other Middle Eastern churches, paid a visit to Lebanon in 1996 that was marked by a spirit of ecumenical openness and dialogue that heralds a new age. Although the visit was laden with unnecessary political declarations made by the visitors in line with Syrian positions on regional disputes, and although it was marred by an offensive pilgrimage to the site of the Israeli massacre in the southern Shiite village of Qana (offensive because the visitors, on their way to Qana, traveled silently past Damour and Jiyya, two coastal Christian towns that in 1975 were totally destroyed and their inhabitants massacred or violently evicted from their homes), the visit of Pope Shenouda was nonetheless a significant step in the direction of greater understanding and mutual acceptance among Middle Eastern Christians.
  • A crucial special Synod for Lebanon, called for by Pope John Paul II, was held in the Vatican in 1995. Under the heading "Christ Is Our Hope: Renewed in His Spirit, in Solidarity We Bear Witness to His Love," the synod brought together representatives of Lebanon's multivaried Christian family, along with Muslim observers, and demonstrated the Vatican's abiding commitment to Lebanon as the home of free Christianity in the Middle East. The official statement that was issued following the synod was nothing less than revolutionary in its bold candor and its grasp of the situation on the ground in Lebanon. Among other things, it called for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and for the first time used the technical terms "cultural pluralism" and "multiculturalism" to describe Lebanon's divided society, as well as employed the term "consensual democracy" (i.e., democracy by communal consensus) to point the way toward an eventual political solution for Lebanon based on a federal formula of communal autonomy and power sharing.
  • Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, the country's leading spiritual and ecclesiastical figure, has for some time now been outspoken on human-rights abuses and the curtailing of freedoms perpetrated by the Beirut authorities at the behest of their masters in Damascus. The Patriarch's courage to speak out has restored the respect and historical-national stature of Bkerke, the patriarchal seat of Lebanon's Maronite church and the traditional vanguard of defense for the Christians of the country and the region.
  • Perhaps the most significant development and the source of the greatest joy is the growing evidence throughout Christian Lebanon of a spiritual revival among the youth. Prayer groups, catechism groups, and Bible-study groups are sprouting everywhere, and I was privileged over the past two years to have taken part in some. The enthusiasm and spiritual dedication glowing in the eyes of these young men and women after 20 years of war and occupation are for Lebanon tantamount to a resurrection from the dead!
  • Last, the Middle East Council of Churches appears on the verge of broadening its hitherto exclusive fixation on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem to include such vital issues on its agenda of priorities as the welfare of native non-Muslim minority communities (mainly the Christians), the state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region, women's issues, and Christian unity.

Alongside this good news, there is, unfortunately, plenty of the bad to grapple with. Lebanon's Christians face the grave dangers of corrosive attrition ahead, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Syrian occupation. The longer this lasts the more permanent and the deeper the damage sustained by the Christians. Already freedoms across the board are in eclipse, and with the rubber-stamp Parliament in place following the 1996 elections state-managed by Damascus, the Syrians will be in a position to run legislation through the Lebanese chamber affecting such sensitive areas as education, demography, and politics that will have a negative impact on the Christian community.
  • Islamization. Left to wallow in its present stagnant state, Lebanon is being steadily and irreversibly Islamized. Whether through the policies of the Saudi-backed Hariri, who purchases vast real-estate properties from needy Christians and staffs government and civil-service appointments exclusively with Muslims, or whether on the other end of the spectrum through the growing power of the militant Iran-inspired fundamentalist organization Hezbollah, whose leaders state openly that they are working for the eventual creation of an Islamic state in Lebanon—Islamization directly threatens the free Christian presence in Lebanon.
  • Continued delay in the completion of the Middle East peace process. The longer it takes to arrive at actual peace treaties between Lebanon and Israel and between Syria and Israel, the worse it will be for Lebanon's Christians. Whenever one of Lebanon's two borders is closed, the country automatically falls a virtual hostage to the other open border. When the border with Israel opens, unchecked Syrian hegemony is bound to be diluted.
  • The crisis of leadership. Unless credible and competent leadership emerges soon among the Christians of Lebanon that will unify them and wisely chart a future course for them designed to protect and promote freedom, prospects look quite bleak. This is something only they can do for themselves.
  • Western apathy. In the hard-nosed world of realpolitik, petroleum-free Lebanon does not amount to much either strategically or economically for a country like the United States. Injecting other human and value-oriented parameters and ingredients into the policy calculus of Washington that would elevate Lebanon on the scale of foreign-policy priorities is in itself an awesome and daunting undertaking requiring prayer and patient hard work.
  • Demography and emigration. Perhaps the greatest single danger facing Lebanon's Christians in the coming years is depletion through emigration and declining birth rates. It is estimated that throughout the long war years, close to 900,000 people—the vast majority of them Christians—left Lebanon. Only a fraction have since returned. To make matters worse, a dubious decree approved by Parliament in 1994 naturalized some 300,000 people (mostly Syrian Muslims), or the rough equivalent of 10 percent of Lebanon's population. If naturalization of the remaining Palestinians in the country—who are overwhelmingly Muslim—goes through as part of an overall peace settlement, then the Christians will be in dire straits. Reliable statistics are infernally hard to come by in a place like Lebanon, but the best and most optimistic estimates place the Christians today at around 40 percent of the Lebanese population.

Given this alarming roster of perils afflicting the Christians of Lebanon, what can concerned American believers do to make a difference, both for Lebanon's Christians and for Christians throughout the region? I submit nine suggestions:

  1. Seek out the facts and overcome prejudicial stereotypes. To rediscover Lebanon's Christians firsthand and experience their joys along with their fears is a good start. Come to Lebanon more often and meet and live with Christians there. Enculturate yourselves with the region's Christians.
  2. Speak out candidly and forcefully on human-rights violations and the squeezing of freedoms to which the Christians of Lebanon and the region are being subjected. This should be their response to the oft-heard argument that always reduces the issue of Lebanese and Middle Eastern Christians to one of sheer numbers, and offers majority rule and numerical determinism as the answer. Without guarantees for minority rights, majority rule—especially in an Islamic context—is a sure recipe for injustice and oppression.
  3. When peace treaties are finally signed, support full and swift normalization between Lebanon and Israel. I am convinced that a very special eschatological role awaits the Christians of Lebanon with respect to the Jewish people. I certainly don't intend this to imply political support for the State of Israel, as some fundamentalist Christians in the United States would have it. I mean it rather in the straightforward sense of Saint Paul in Romans 9, 10, and 11. The fate of free Middle Eastern Christianity after peace ought to be the top priority for American believers involved in the affairs of the region.
  4. Coordinate efforts with other concerned Christians in the West. A unified Western Christian effort on behalf of Middle Eastern Christians is far more effective than a fragmented one.
  5. Promote a bold new mission to Islam through the continued use of all the latest technologies: Radio, television, satellites, faxes, computers, the Internet, electronic mail, and so on. None of these technologies, however, or others that may replace them in the future, can take the place of an active and direct and personal life witness in Christ aimed at Muslims. Once a genuine life witness in Christ is offered to Muslims, the rest is up to the Holy Spirit.
  6. Put pressure on the U.S. government to establish the principle of reciprocity for Christians living in Islamic lands. Today, Muslims can freely travel to the West, where they can choose to reside permanently, build Islamic places of worship, run their own religious schools, dress in their traditional apparel, publish religious material, and otherwise take full advantage of the liberal and open atmosphere prevailing in Western countries to live their faith and preserve their cultural identities. The same opportunities of self-fulfillment ought to be made available to Christians, either indigenous or coming from the outside, who already live or choose to live in predominantly Islamic domains and states.
  7. Criticize the U.S. government's leniency with the Syrian regime of President Hafez Assad, in particular with its flagrant excesses in Lebanon.
  8. Propose federalism as the only just and viable political formula for a heterogeneous and divided society like that of Lebanon, which contains communities embodying widely differing world-views living side by side. Peaceful coexistence within the framework of a federal system of government providing plenty of local, communal, and sociocultural autonomy is the preferred future course for Lebanon's Christians.
  9. Throw the spotlight on the plight of the Christian inhabitants of South Lebanon and the self-declared Israeli Security Zone there. These people are very afraid that once Israel withdraws as part of a final peace deal, they will become targets for vendettas and reprisals and punitive attacks by Hezbollah and other extremists. No peace deal should go through that does not offer the Christians of South Lebanon ironclad international guarantees against the possibility of such outrages.

Lebanon's history offers a unique example of peaceful and creative coexistence between Muslims and Christians. At a time when tensions between Islam and Christianity are increasing at many points around the world, it is imperative that Lebanon's legacy not be squandered.

Habib C. Malik is the author of Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and the Middle East Peace Process.

1. The Maronites took their name from an early Christian hermit, Maron, who died in 410. They moved into the area of North Lebanon following Maron's death. The Maronites are Uniat Christians; that is, they are in communion with the Roman Catholic church (since 1182) yet retain their own liturgy. They constitute the largest Christian community in Lebanon.
2. The Greek Catholics have retained many of the trappings of their Orthodox background. Since 1684 they have had a hierarchy separate from that of the Melchites, who remained affiliated with the Orthodox communion.
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