Christians in Lebanon face an existential battle, as their country increasingly has become controlled by Hizballah terrorists who answer to Iran, prompting a mass exodus. Over the years Lebanese Christians have faced multiple attacks, now they also face a new threat in the form of a rapidly declining proportion in relation to the Islamic element in the country.
Violence targeting Christians is consistent:
- In 2018, the Hizballah-affiliated Amal movement attacked the headquarters of a Christian political party in east Beirut, throwing stones and firing gunshots. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.
- In November 2019, Hizballah and Amal members attacked a Christian neighborhood in an effort to intimidate Christian protesters who were demonstrating against Lebanon's political leadership. In the recent past there have also been Islamist-inspired suicide attacks against Christians.
On top of those threats, many younger Christians are leaving the country because of its broken economy. Many "unfortunately now feel like strangers in their own home country," Maronite priest Jad Chlouk said in 2021. "This is negatively affecting the whole Christian community, because it is losing most of its brightest and best, and especially its young people, who are supposed to be the future of the Christians here. Hence, the number of Christians in the country is decreasing day by day, and this is badly affecting the situation and causing still more pressure for those who remain, in a situation where they might soon suffer from persecution."
After a decade of Syrian civil war and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita and per square kilometer of any country in the world. The vast majority of these newcomers are Muslims. Syrian refugees in Lebanon have put a great financial burden on the state's already fragile economy, and have increased anxiety of Lebanese Christians who fear that they will be overwhelmed by the newcomers. As a result, both church authorities and political parties are calling for the refugees to be repatriated.
In his Easter message, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai warned that Syrian refugees were increasing Lebanon's inherent problems by "draining the state's resources, disturbing social security, and competing with the Lebanese for their livelihood." Similar views were voiced by the Christian Front of Lebanon, a platform uniting the various eastern Christian communities in an effort to defend their religious, social, cultural, linguistic and national rights. "Lebanon is not for settlement and cannot receive 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its lands. Since the war in Syria has ended, they must be returned to their country, as the reasons forcing them to stay in Lebanon have ended," the Christian Front said in an April 26 statement.
"They have become an actual threat and a demographic bomb that is about to explode, due to the material support they receive from the United Nations."
Lebanon's Christians are concerned not only with the financial cost, but also with further change of the country's delicate demographic balance. In 1932, the last year Lebanon had a census, Christians were in the majority. But Christian emigration, especially during and after the bloody 1975-90 civil war which killed 90,000 people, combined with higher Muslim immigration and birth rates, have flipped the numbers.
Lebanon remains the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, with 18 state-recognized religious sects – four Muslim, 12 Christian, one Druze, and one Jewish -- in a tiny territory of 4,036 square miles. Lebanon features by far the largest proportion of Christians of any country in the Middle East, but both Christians and Muslims are sub-divided into many splinter sects and denominations with often competing relations. Lebanon's Christian population include Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian and Armenian. Now, Lebanon's unique religious diversity is under threat; the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, hyperinflation and government corruption have created existential challenges for Lebanese Christians.
A 2010 study conducted by Beirut-based Statistics Lebanon and cited by the U.S. Department of State found that Lebanon's 4.3 million-person population was 45 percent Christian, 48 percent Muslim and 5.2 percent Druze. The downward trend continued. The CIA World Factbook estimates Lebanon is now 67.8 percent Muslim, 32.4 percent Christian and 4.5 percent Druze. That figure does not include Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. "Lebanese Christians perceive their situation in the country as an existential battle. Surrounded by Islamic populations they have themselves adopted a siege mentality. If the current patterns of emigration and lower birth rates continue, their percentage could shrink to 20-25 percent and Lebanon will lose its historical character," a Greek diplomat told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).
Lebanon has been the only Arab state where Christians hold equal political power with Muslims. The country's confessional system divides power by religious affiliation. The presidency goes to a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament to a Shia Muslim. "Since the founding of Lebanon, the interplay between religion and politics has been a dominant feature of the country, defining its identity and political system. Citizens are grouped according to religious affiliation or confession. This sectarian system preserved the importance of religion as the primary carrier of values and the vital function of the sect as the primary social organization through which political security has been maintained," Robert Rabil, a Florida Atlantic University political science professor and an expert on political Islam and Lebanese politics told the IPT. "Christians in Lebanon face multiple external and internal challenges: Syria's external influence, local Salafist networks and incompetent state authorities. Salafist networks have been largely disbanded by the Lebanese authorities, as it is Shia Hizballah that exerts considerable influence. Hizballah has managed to determine the fate of the whole Lebanese nation [by] bringing down governments, [and] facilitating Syrian and Iranian penetration of the country."
The dysfunctional Lebanese system is dominated by an inefficient, if not corrupt, political class organized along sectarian lines and a militarized party, U.S.-designated terrorist group Hizballah, a proxy of Iran that is on the verge of controlling Lebanon on a political level. Christian political parties have already warned about an impending political clash with Hizballah if it gains major political influence.
"Lebanon as a state was originally conceived as a safe haven for Christians in the Middle East. Today, it is in a dire situation due to the internal political situation and mingling of external actors," Richard Ghazal, executive director of In Defense of Christians (IDC) told the IPT. Ghazal's organization, an ecumenical nonprofit foundation in Washington DC , has worked tirelessly behind the scenes throughout the Middle East to insure the survival of Christian communities and other oppressed minorities. Ghazal has an impressive pedigree, having served as a Judge advocate in the Air Force, as a top Air Force intelligence officer. and as a strategic Missions Operations Commander. His credentials speak to the extraordinary commitment of public servants in the West like him who refuse to let the Christian communities in Lebanon in particular and the other ones in the Middle East be forced to fend for themselves against overwhelmingly more powerful Islamist forces that are serving as proxies of ruthless jihadist regimes, namely Iran.
Besides the political deadlock and widespread state corruption, the ongoing economic crisis has worsened the status of Lebanese citizens, especially of middle-class Christians who often are more affluent. Lack of prospects force Christians who belong to the middle class to emigrate.
"Christians of Lebanon are victims of corrupt political elites which are largely responsible for the country's down spiral in the last decades. As a result, Christians who as a rule belong to the middle class, see no future but emigration. This is a change from previous patterns, now young people are actually encouraged by their families to seek better life abroad," Rabil said. Lebanon's fate stands as a dire warning for viability of highly fragmented states.
IPT Senior Fellow Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine.
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