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Minority Interest

Lebanon’s Maronites, threatened by Sunni power, will be the bellwether of the Mideast’s Christians. Could they face the same fate as the region’s Jews?

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A statue of Saint John Maron, the first Patriarch of the Maronite community, north of Beirut, Lebanon. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Being Christian in the Middle East has never been easy, but the wave of uprisings that has swept the region over the past year has made the situation for the region’s Christian minority almost unbearable. Violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians—particularly church burnings, which have become routine—has gotten the most attention. But for the best bellwether of where things are headed, look to Lebanon’s Christians.

Lebanon’s Maronite community has long been the region’s Christian citadel. “It used to be that when Christians around the region looked at the situation in Lebanon, it cheered them,” Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst, told me this week in Beirut. “They saw that here the Christians were equal to their Muslim counterparts. They were citizens and had the same rights as Muslims.” The citadel is now tottering. If Lebanon once served as a beacon for the region’s other Christians, the dimming of this light is making Christians in unstable countries like Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt even more vulnerable.

Lebanon’s Christian community comprises up to a third of the country’s total population. It is made up largely of Maronites but also includes Greek Orthodox and a number of other sects, like Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic. Christians were likely never a majority in Lebanon, and yet, says Fawaz, a Greek Orthodox, “the Christians didn’t act like a minority. They pushed their vision for an independent and sovereign Lebanese state.”

Historically, Lebanese Christians have provided some of the region’s most influential intellectual leaders, like Charles Malik, who helped write the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Michel Chiha, one of the authors of Lebanon’s 1926 Constitution. In the wake of Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the Christian vision was to build a sovereign state that would bring political and cultural modernity to the country and, eventually, to the broader Middle East.

That project stalled for a number of reasons. First, there was the relative demographic decline of the Christians in the post-independence period, due to the accelerated birth rates of Sunnis and Shiites. The French authorities that oversaw Lebanon during the mandate period created a power-sharing agreement that allotted Christians 50 percent of the parliament—the other 50 percent was split between Shia and Sunnis—and this struck Lebanon’s growing Muslim population as unfair. Most significantly, in addition to these domestic problems, the Christians were unable to protect Lebanon from the region’s furies, which culminated in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that pitted a number of different domestic players, as well as regional and international actors, against one another.

One of the main causes of that 15-year conflagration was the support of Lebanese Sunnis for the Palestinian cause, which attached these Sunnis to a larger Arab regional identity with a shared goal of eradicating Israel. The Sunni community’s political, diplomatic, and financial support of the Palestinians set them squarely against the Maronites, who resisted turning Lebanon into a forward operating base for the P.L.O. They sought to preserve their vision of a Lebanon free from the region’s destructive political currents and to avoid the Israeli reprisals they rightly feared.

What’s instructive is that the Christians fought in the war. “In 1975, mothers sent their kids to fight the Palestinians,” says Fawaz. “They had a vision for Lebanon.”

That changed when political calculation and greed shifted Christians’ focus from their war against the P.L.O. and Yasser Arafat’s allies to each other. The Christians split into different factions that faced off during the civil war. Two decades after the end of the war, the Christians are still plagued by this fissure, and they are still represented by the same political leaders who took them to war against one another more than 20 years ago. The result, says Fawaz, “is that today the Christians have no vision. They are definitely a numerical minority and acting like one—reactive and fearful.”

The Christian community here is suffering from a number of symptoms of minority psychosis. Consider that the head of the Maronite church has spoken out in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Patriarch Beshara Butros Rai called Assad “open-minded” in a September interview. “I am hoping Assad will be given more chances to implement the reforms he already launched,” Rai added. An unfortunately all-too-typical Christian fear and hatred of Sunnis has convinced many Lebanese Christians—as well as Syrian ones—that only Damascus’ Alawite minority regime can protect the region’s Christians from Sunni Islamists.

Obviously, a regime that has slaughtered protesters for almost a year hardly embodies the sort of values promoted in the gospel, or warrants the faith of a cleric. But more to the point: This is the same Syrian regime that waged an open-ended campaign of terror against Lebanon’s Christians starting in 2005. Christian politicians and journalists were assassinated; bombs detonated in Christian regions of the country. And the official head of Lebanon’s Christian community is now appealing to Assad for protection?

The Maronites had always distinguished themselves as among the region’s most stubbornly independent of confessional sects. But fear, resentment, and short-sighted political calculation have led them today to seek protection and patronage from the Middle East’s most dangerous and retrograde elements: Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. Recently, Fawaz explains, senior church officials came out in favor of the arms of Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance. “The Maronite church,” Fawaz says, “has taken a position defending the party that stands accused of killing the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.” Fear has compelled the Christians to abandon logic as well as moral scruple.

In the aftermath of the February 2005 assassination of Hariri, Damascus withdrew its troops from Lebanon after almost 30 years. That represented a golden opportunity for the country’s Christians. “They’d been resisting Syrian hegemony in order to regain a free and independent Lebanon,” Fawaz says. “With Syria out, the Christians had what they always said they wanted: Sunni leadership that had a Lebanon-first policy.” Some Christian parties did ally themselves with the largest Sunni party, led by the late Hariri’s son Saad. But the majority, under the leadership of Michel Aoun, the former head of the Lebanese army, partnered with Hezbollah instead.

In other words, today’s Christians seem less motivated by their vision of an independent Lebanon than by their hatred of the Sunnis. It’s true that Lebanese Christians, like other minority groups here, including the Shiites, suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Sunnis, who for centuries treated them as second-class citizens (at best). But Lebanon’s current Sunni leaders are not Ottomans, never mind jihadists. Like the Christians themselves, the Sunni leadership here promotes liberal values and a liberalized economy.

By openly siding against the Sunnis and allying with Hezbollah—and by extension Iran—the Christians have let identity politics and ideology, rather than interests and values, drive policy. The Sunnis are the regional majority, and no matter what sort of revolutionary project Iran has in store for the Middle East, the Sunnis aren’t going anywhere.

The question for the Christians is how to respond to the upheavals that have reshaped the region over the last year. Lebanon’s Christian population has the power to set the agenda for the rest of their regional co-religionists. Either they can identify and work with those Sunnis who share their same vision for Lebanon and the rest of the region, or they can let ancient wounds dictate a strategy of resentment that will ensure their demise.

Those inclined to discount the possibility of a Christian-free Middle East would do well to remember that Jews, in the recent past, had a significant place in the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Were it not for the birth of a sovereign Jewish state that took in Jewish refugees thrown out by countries that turned against them, this regional minority might well have disappeared half a century ago. Without an Israel of their own, if the Christians don’t get it right their era in the Middle East may be coming to an end.

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David B. says:

This is the Islamist apologist Juan Cole’s take on a similar topic

I read somewhere that 800.000 Copts have left Egypt in the last 12 months, although I have no idea wether this number is accurate.

Either way, Christians are screwed in an all Muslim world. Nasser kicked out the Greeks in the early 50s and then of course the Jews, in effect decapitating Egypt of its mercantile base. The nation has never recovered from this, never. Kicking out the Greek Egyptians was such a huge error that it is difficult to comprehend.
It robbed the nation of a cosmopolitan group of people who had been contributing relative to their size, a vast amount of culture and money to a society that castrated itself. But just like the Jews were in essence cosmopolitan so it fed into Nasser’s national socialist rhetoric just like the Communists in 1917 in Russia raged against “Cosmopolitan” Jews. Well, and we all know how that ended.
Wether you are an Islamist or a hard core socialist, there is a supremacy in the thought process which spells the end of any who do not comply.

There is no doubt in my mind that Islam is a religion of Hate. If they can murder there own fellow Muslims with impunity what do you think they would o to the Christians and Jews if given the chance.

MethanP says:

And yet, the local Christians still support the Muslims against Israel.
Every time.

Gary Silverman says:

Why don’t the Maronites have an Israel of their own…Israel? Unless anti-Israel or with a history of anti-semitism or otherwise somehow inimical to the Jewish state, why not hold the door open to them. Were we not once in the same position as they? Just a thought. Back to work.

David B. says:

Behind closed doors the Christians in the West Bank complain about how they are treated by Hamas and Fatah. But they can not do this in public. It is pure MuslimStalinism. There is no nuance. If they do, they are branded as traitors by the Palestinian’s.
Similar to the anti-Normalization movement that is sweeping the WB. Where thugs break up meetings and make concerts etc impossible. You don’t even have to be religious any more. The secular Pals will violate you as well.

Though Plato had some reservations about democracy, “majority wins” is today the one (and perhaps the only)political concept that everybody viscerally understands, and perhaps too well — because there are other important elements of political and legal philosophy worth examining. For example, as Lee Smith admirably explains, the Muslim and Arab Middle East has significant minorities that urgently need protection. And, relative to the Muslim Arabs, many of these minorities are “aboriginal” in the sense that they antedate the Muslim conquest of the 7th century CE. Within this precise context, we can meaningfully speak about “aboriginal rights,” including the aboriginal rights of the Jewish People. This topic is explained in “Jewish Aboriginal Rights to Israel” at Today the ancient Jewish People and the newborn Palestinian People both have the right to self-determination. However, in addition the Jewish People also has its aboriginal rights which were internationally recognized in a series of declarations, resolutions and treaties from 1917 to 1923. Intellectually, it is now high time to stop spinning our tires in the snow! We need to deepen our philosophical and legal understanding of what is now transpiring in the Middle East, including with regard to the long-standing dispute occasioned by stubborn Muslim and Arab unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as “the” Jewish State, i.e. as the political expression of the Jewish People in a part of its larger aboriginal homeland. When this language ceases sounding strange to your ears, you will know that you are beginning to understand more deeply some of the fundamental issues at stake between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but also more generally in the region. In the Middle East, there are other Peoples like the Copts, who are also aboriginal to their homelands and urgently need rights and protection.

David B. says:

Allen Hertz,
and the Kurds, and the Ba’hai, and the Parsi, and the Beduin, and the Berber, and the Blacks…..
Looks like we have an apartheid problem in the Arab/Muslim world.

David B. says:

they have no choice in the matter. Imagine if they did NOT support the Muslim’s? It would be suicide.

Joel Veldkamp says:

Thank you for this piece, Mr. Smith. The extinction of Middle East Christians is a very real possibility, and it would be devastating to a region wracked by extremism.

A human rights group called Christian Solidarity International has launched a petition campaign to President Obama, asking him to act to make the survival of Christianity and other minority religions a priority in his Middle East policy. I’d encourage my fellow readers to sign it, and push the president to break his silence:

hayyim says:

“Were it not for the birth of a sovereign Jewish state that took in Jewish refugees thrown out by countries that turned against them, this regional minority might well have disappeared half a century ago”

this is not entirely true. many of the jews were expelled specifically because of regional conflicts with israel and would not have been expelled otherwise. this is not to say that jews wouldn’t have suffered greatly under the rule pan-arab nationalist ideologies that were arising at the time, but this is not the same as expulsion.

Adam W says:

Sadly too few Jews (and Christians) are aware of the devious ways of the Coptic Christians.

They may be Christians, but they are not Western Christians, they are the Arab varient. The beneficial analysis is that of cowardice, rather than malice; they attack Jews and Israel as ferociously as they do because of the ‘alligator theory'(feed the alligator in hopes that he’ll eat you last).

The less charitable explanation is that of the common vein of Jew-hatred. It could, of course, be a combination of the two. But even if you opt for the more generous interpretation, it still makes the Arab Copts like really bad.

I won’t say I look on with glee, human suffering is never pretty, but the Copts are no friends of Jews nor Israel, yet they get loads and loads of coverage in the Jewish press because of a misplaced loyalty and sense of duty to show kindness to Christians as many show to us and in some publications that reach both religious groups, these articles serve as a way to build togetherness, by showing ‘yes we care about you too’.

But, alas, not all Christians are created equal, and a prime example of that is that of the Coptic Christians.

Binyamin in O says:

Charlie Rose: If you were Iran wouldn’t you want a nuclear weapon?

Ehud Barak: Probably, probably. I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They have their history of 4,000 years. They look around and they see the Indians are nuclear. The Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear as well as [North] Korea, not to mention the Russians. (at 1:52)

Tom Lauer says:

I am broke, old, crippled and sick but I know some few would, given a cheap shot, nail adler to the ground in a heartbeat.

Shalom Freedman says:

I do not know enough about the situation in Lebanon to properly evaluate the situation of the Christians there.
Lee Smith does not mention the murder of Bashir Gemayel and the effect that had on the dynamic of Lebanese politics. At one point it appeared that there might emerge an Israeli- Lebanese alliance but that time unfortunately has long since gone. Another unmentioned and quite shameful for us in Israel ‘chapter’ relates to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and virtual abandonment of our South Lebanese Christian allies. Today the south is completely controlled by Hizbollah.
It seems unlikely now that the Lebanese Christians will again have a military force which will enable them to truly hold their own in Lebanon. On the other hand the population is large enough to almost guarantee its continued presence in Lebanon.
However on the whole the situation does not look very bright for anyone who is not an Islamist, whether Shiite or Sunnite.


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Minority Interest

Lebanon’s Maronites, threatened by Sunni power, will be the bellwether of the Mideast’s Christians. Could they face the same fate as the region’s Jews?

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