Diversity that protects Lebanese Christians is on verge of collapse, official says.
As the world watches the Islamic State group’s brutal persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq, the danger to Lebanese Christians is frequently overlooked.
Now, a demographic influx of Muslim refugees from neighboring countries is threatening the political balance that ensures the existence of this ancient Christian community.
Father Paul Karam, a Maronite priest who serves as president of Caritas Lebanon, visited New York this week to speak with United States officials about the humanitarian crisis in his country. The message is dire: the delicate balance of religious diversity that protects Lebanese Christians is on the verge of collapse.
“Christians are first in line paying the penalty in Lebanon, just as with ISIS in Iraq,” Father Karam told Aleteia, in the Manhattan office of Catholic Near East Welfare Association. “We are trying to maintain communities … to avoid internal immigration for Christians. In my hometown of Kartaba, which is considered a Christian sector, the statistics show 1,700 Syrian [Muslim refugees], which is a large number for our small village.”
According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, there are at least 1.2 million refugees from the Syrian civil war and the ravages of the Islamic State in Iraq, who now reside in Lebanon. But Father Karam estimates that there may be as many as 1.6 million refugees. The majority of these refugees are Sunni Muslims, but Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have also taken refuge in Lebanon.
“Lebanon is mosaic of different confessions,” Father Karam explained. “Such a mosaic will be destabilized when you do not have demographic balance. The conflict between Sunni and Shiite—the Sunni supported by Saudi Arabia and the Shi’a supported by Iran—has political consequences [for Lebanon].”
Father Karam believes that some refugees may have a radicalizing effect on native Lebanese, causing regional conflicts and sectarian tensions to spill over into Lebanon. If conflict arises between Syrian refugee groups, he is concerned that the small Lebanese army will not be able to quell the violence and protect minority groups.
In September, a band of Islamic militants spilled over the Syrian border, clashing with security forces and kidnapping and murdering several Lebanese soldiers. In response, Christians in the nearby village of Qaa organized a system of armed self-defense units to protect their community from violent marauders.
Lebanon’s unofficial “National Pact” system, established in 1943, created a multi-confessional system that guaranteed a Maronite Catholic President, a Sunni Prime Minister, and a Shi’a Speaker of the National Assembly. Since the Taif Accord, which brought an end to the Lebanese civil war in 1989, the power of the Christian president has waned in favor of the Muslim prime minister. Following the completion of President Sulaiman’s six-year term in March, however, deadlock in parliament has stymied the election of a new head of state.
To alleviate the humanitarian crisis on the ground, Caritas Lebanon has assumed many of the duties that the Lebanese government has not undertaken. Serving both Christians and Muslims, Caritas aids both refugees and local Lebanese who feel the brunt of the demographic influx by providing food kits, hygienic care, home assistance, and education programs for youth.
Bishop Gregory Mansour, bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron—the Maronite diocese in Brooklyn, New York—joined Fr. Karam to “showcase Lebanon as a place where Christian-Muslim dialogue is real.” Now, he believes that dialogue needs to turn into political cooperation and action.
“Christians are the salt of the earth keeping the balance,” Bishop Mansour said. “Lebanon is an experiment in fragile democracy in the Middle East. It is the only place on earth where Sunni and Shi’a are not completely at war with one another. Christians are essential to that experiment.”
“It is impossible to leave the Middle East without the Christians,” Father Karam concluded. “The Christians need to be protected by the international community.”
writes from New York.