Aleteia

“They thought they were imprisoning me, but I imagined I was in a hermitage with St. Charbel”

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An exclusive interview with the executive chairman of the second largest Christian political party in Lebanon.

In Lebanon, speaking of the Maronites often means referring to the defense of freedom in the Middle East. In the year 685, with the arrival of their first Patriarch, Jean Maron, the Maronites led a resistance movement, the most determined, in order to stay in this part of the world.

“Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message,” Pope John Paul II said during his visit to Lebanon, a country he so loved so much that he compared it to his own native country.

The name “Lebanon” is mentioned dozens of times in the Bible; Maronites honor Mary Mother of God, and the perfume of St. Charbel is spread from his village, Enaya, throughout the world.

The modern country of Lebanon was constituted in 1920, and gained its independence from France in 1943. Since then, Christians and Muslims have lived together under the same constitution, in which all confessions are represented. But the pillars of this coexistence began to shake with the conflagration of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the exodus of Palestinians to Lebanon, and the organization of the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon, authorized by the Cairo agreements, back in 1969. It was, as they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Internal frictions have begun to appear, and these have been taken by some as the occasion to annihilate the Christian presence in this small country, presided over now and always by a Maronite president (as part of a long-standing national political agreement).

The war began in Lebanon in 1975, when Christians rose in arms to defend their presence. They always kept in mind the threatening remarks of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: “The road to Palestine passes through Jounieh” (a Lebanese Christian town on the Mediterranean coast), as well as the remarks of the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who, being in office at the time, proposed that Lebanese Christians should migrate to the United States, given the implantation of the Palestinians.

Day after day, instead of calming down, the military conflict is getting worse, and Christians have been progressively forced to organize their ranks to confront not only the Palestinians, but also the Syrian army, led for decades (until his death in 2000) by Hafez al-Assad. It is as if this war is trying to drive Christians out of Lebanon. A unification of military forces took place in 1976, thanks to Bachir Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Forces Militia, who was later murdered in Ashrafiye in Lebanon, a few weeks after being elected President of the Republic. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces remained in place, as a resistance group, until the arrival of Dr. Samir Geagea, native of Bcharre, North Lebanon.

The wars between Lebanon and its neighbors have not subsided. Nor have those among the Lebanese.

In spite of the dirty wars in Christian regions between the Lebanese Forces Militias and the Lebanese Army led by General Michel Aoun (the current President of the Republic), Samir Geagea, ready to forget his conflicted past with his adversaries, is now extending his hand to his opponents, becoming a symbol for Lebanese fighters—not only for Christians, but also for Muslim fighters all across Lebanon—and a solid pillar of the Revolution of March 14th. It was then, in 2005, when a way for Lebanon to recover its independence and freedom was finally opened, after a long period of Syrian occupation. That country’s intervention in Lebanon had resulted in the imprisonment of Dr. Geagea for 11 years (because of his opposition to the regime), the exile of General Aoun in France, and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, alongside dozens of political, civil and military activists.

After meeting in Rome with the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, and exploring the depths of his Christian life, Aleteia wanted to do the same with Samir Geagea, paradigmatic member of the Christian resistance, frontline fighter, defender of the Christian areas of Lebanon, and organizer of the political party that has the greatest support among youth.  He is also known for having come out of his 11 years in a cell at the Ministry of Defense as a Maronite “hermit,” having read dozens of holy books, having specialized in hagiography, and having lived freely, without bargaining his cause. He came out victorious and innocent from accusations of having caused the attack against the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance that caused dozens of Christian deaths; consequently, the enemies of Lebanon have been accused of having plotted that attack for the purpose of dissolving the Lebanese Forces and putting Geagea in prison.

Taking a climbing route to Meerab, atop the Keserwan mountains and overlooking the Mediterranean coast, and passing in front of the sanctuary of our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, the Aleteia team arrives at the headquarters of the Lebanese Forces. A fortress in the high mountains, covered with mist, which even so could not protect Dr. Geagea from ​​an assassination attempt, carried out by snipers but doomed to failure.

During this encounter, we also meet Miss Antoinette Geagea, director of the information office, and her deputy, Mr. Bernard Rizk.

From a large reception hall, Dr. Geagea appears, smiling and relaxed; he receives us for a friendly, 55-minute-long conversation, speaking frankly and openly, in a very different format from those of traditional interviews.

After arriving, Dr. Geagea gives brief answers to most questions on political subjects, and prefers to speak amply about his Christian life during the war, during his imprisonment, and now, in his current life in Meerab.

During our interview, he pauses for a moment to retrieve a book from his office, in which he narrates his imprisonment. We politely ask him if we can take a picture of the cover, but he prefers to keep his publication private until a later date. “You will enjoy it very much,” he added.

Our first question is a classic one, which might allow for non-Lebanese readers to have a general perspective on the ongoing situation in Lebanon, from the political point of view of Dr. Geagea, before getting into the heart of the matter.

 

Aleteia

 

Aleteia: At the heart of these bloody events that beset the East, the Christians of the region—and especially those of Syria and Iraq—suffer from persecution. What plan of action do you think should be put in place in order to ensure the protection of these groups and their return to their lands?

Dr. Samir Geagea: Before I get to the heart of the matter, allow me to make a small correction to the perspective we commonly use to deal with this. The approach that so far has been used is neither really correct nor precise, in my opinion. Everyone is suffering in Syria, Iraq, and wherever there is conflict in the Middle East. If we look at the number of Muslim victims, we see that this number is far more important than that of Christians. There is a major crisis in Syria and an even greater one in Iraq. Starting with Syria, where a crisis of the regime, in turn, turned against both Christians and Muslims.

By looking at the situation, some may imagine there is a war against Christians, but this is not true. In Syria, there is a war between two currents: a dictatorial extremist one, and a moderate and democratic one. Following this logic, it’s clear that both Christians and Muslims are victims of violence. That is why we must seek an approach that helps us save everyone from this crisis, which is affecting all of the Middle East. There must not be a “Christians only” solution. That is to say, we cannot work for the return of Christians to their lands in Syria before we find a solution to the Syrian conflict as a whole, finding ways to rebuild the whole country.

Aleteia: Today, it is clear that with all these conflicts afflicting the region, the tension between Muslims and Christians is also intensifying. This threatens peaceful coexistence. How can we restore it, and what do you propose in order to promote the social values ​​that, for a long time, were the peculiarity of this part of the Orient?

DSG: Coexistence between different components of communities is a crucial issue. Not only between Christians and Muslims, but among Christians, as well as among Muslims. And among certain categories of Christians and Muslims. To restore these relations, it is necessary to restore general order in Syria, moving to a free and pluralistic structure, replacing the present system. Again, the solution concerns not only Christians. One cannot rule out the crisis that affects Christians in the rest of the country: it is, of course, an integral part of a problem that encompasses all groups. But at the humanitarian level, support should be provided to the associations responsible for dealing with the living conditions of the displaced Christians who fled the areas of fighting.

Aleteia: (Concerning Syria) Don’t you think the Christians of Syria are supportive of the current political system, and do not wish to see the birth of this new State that you have just mentioned?

DSG: Syrian Christians certainly want a new State, but the majority that’s living in conflict zones is powerless and can express neither its will nor its political aspirations for the future. Looking closely, I think they all want this change.

Aleteia: As a Christian political leader in Lebanon and the Middle East, your words certainly affect the situation of Syrian Christians, as well as that of Christians in other conflict zones. To what extent do you take this into consideration, in order not to have a negative impact on them?

DSG: Let me go back a little bit in time and remind you of the events of World War II, during which Pope Pius XII issued no statement on the Vatican’s position on the bloody events that were then affecting the world. Even until today, the international media has criticized this neutrality.

Here, we are the real owners of this land. We are the natives. And we are determined to assume our responsibilities regarding the problems of this region. It is up to us to show determination in our principles, proposals, ethics and beliefs. There is no doubt that a real democratic and free pluralistic State will eventually be created in Syria, regardless of the price. We must have a clear opinion and a permanent moral position regarding the problems in the Middle East.

Aleteia: After the meeting of Pope Francis with the Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, and their joint statement condemning terrorism, what practical steps should be taken, in your opinion, to make this condemnation effective, now that voices are being raised in favor of an Islamic-Muslim dialogue, in order to re-examine extremist rhetoric and therefore have an explicit position in this regard, to curb the takfiri (Muslims calling other Muslims apostates, and thus claiming to justify Muslim violence against other Muslims) current?

DSG: I think that in recent years, a sufficient number of fatwas (religious edicts) have been promulgated and published to counteract the takfiri current. As for the encounter between the Pope and Imam Al-Azhar, and their joint declaration, nothing will happen as long as it is not framed as we have just seen; that is to say, we cannot refuse to say that the Christians of the Middle East suffer but, on the other hand, we must also say there is currently a problem moment in the Middle East between extremism and moderation.

I think moderate Muslims seek allies in the conflicts they are fighting against extremism. An ally that exhorts them and encourages them to re-examine a large number of concepts, in order to keep the new generations away from these erroneous interpretations of the Qur’an and of the discourses of the Prophet’s companions. The solution lies in the co-operation of all moderate groups to confront extremism. For example, Lebanese Sunnis are waging a war against terrorism, so we Christians must not isolate ourselves, but rather engage in the heart of the conflict, to strengthen the position of the moderates.

Aleteia: Over the years, Western organizations have considered the war waged by the Lebanese Forces, which embody Christian resistance in Lebanon, as part of “religious jihad.” In other words, for some Westerners, you rose in arms during the war because of a certain religious fanaticism. What explanation do you give to these people who, up until today, have not understood or have not known why Lebanese Christians took up their arms? Is it because of fanaticism or not?

DSG: This is a very grave misunderstanding. We did not take up arms because of any religious fanaticism.

At that time, in Lebanon, there was a well-established system, with its supporters and opponents. But it was neither possible nor acceptable to envisage an armed coup. This is exactly what non-Lebanese armed groups have done. They wanted to seize the State by force, and use Lebanon as a main base for the whole Middle East conflict. This is something we obviously categorically reject. Why did most Lebanese take up arms? The answer is clear: because they saw their regions and houses ravaged by the threat of an invasion. If the Lebanese had not taken up arms, the forces of the invasion would have seized a larger number of Lebanese regions. Did not one of the Palestinian commanders say, “The road to Palestine goes through Jounieh”? We took up arms because we were enforcing the right of legitimate self-defense, not because of any alleged religious fanaticism.

Aleteia: Can Christians engage in a particular jihad and kill in self-defense?

DSG: Absolutely. And the biggest mistake made to the detriment of the country in the years ‘75 and ‘76 was the flight of some Lebanese and the consequent abandonment of their land, during a time when others were slaughtered in several regions, when the State was in the brink of collapse, and another State which had nothing to do with Lebanon was about to be created; a State emerging from and related to the conflicts of the Middle East.

So morally speaking, who shows more patriotism and attachment to his homeland? He who gives up on everything and takes up his arms to defend his region, his cities, his people; or he who abandons his country and settles in the French capital or any other European country, proud to say that his hands have not been stained with blood? Their departure is the most serious crime they have ever committed against the country.

Aleteia: Why do you think this idea is still blurry for Westerners?

DSG: We are bombarded with criticism from many people. From those who oppose our project. Or from others, who claim to stand with us but turn out to be authentic traitors. From abroad, a number of them promote this false image of the Lebanese Forces and associate it with that of chaos and corruption.

Aleteia: It is clear that your image in the West is the result of poor communication. Does your team try to correct this mistake, in order to show your true goals?

DSG: It is very difficult to change an image that is already well entrenched in people’s minds. At the moment, as we are on the battlefield defending our identity, others, traitors, amuse themselves by distorting the image of the Lebanese Forces, representing us as factions seeking desolation and misery for Lebanon. Consequently, our determination to prevent the fall of our regions into the hands of others is completely distorted. At the end of the civil war, both the Syrian era and my imprisonment began. We were presented as criminals, awaiting trial. No one was interested in knowing the truth. Our compatriots, for whom we led the fight, denied us. We need not look far, when the media analysis of the war, its explanations, and the narrative of facts were distorted! It is a shame that the wars and confrontations led by Christians in Lebanon are still between groups united and integrated only against part of the Christians. Today, we are in the midst of political action, since the Lebanese Forces are in government, represented by 3 ministers and 8 deputies in the Parliament, and constitute the most significant representation of Lebanese and Christians. This is what allowed Michel Aoun to take over the presidency.

Aleteia: The fight against corruption is at the forefront of your agenda. What plan have you put in place, and how can we define Christian principles in this process?

DSG: Christian principles are the main drive for the fight against corruption. We cannot allow any kind of corruption to happen, precisely for that reason. It is enough to keep an eye on everything that happens in the Council of Ministers, and to stop any project that feels like corruption. If someone shows signs that put his impartiality or integrity in doubt, that’s something that must be taken into account to its last consequences. The most striking example is the recent action undertaken by the Lebanese Forces ministers in the current government. Have you ever seen, in the history of Lebanon, a minister who dismisses the employees of his ministry? In two months, the Minister of Social Affairs dismissed 400 civil workers, just like in the Ministry of Information, where Melhem Riachi dismissed 100 others who were not providing any useful service. That, while also keeping a close eye on the process of granting government contracts to bidders.

Aleteia: Who are the partners of the Lebanese Forces in fighting corruption in Lebanon? And what do you think of civil society, at a time when we feel a certain conflict between political parties and civil society?

DSG: We’re in conflict with no one. Our problem is the deterioration of the management of the country. We welcome any possible help we might receive to this end, as we also welcome any action that tackles corruption, with or without our cooperation. However, to achieve our goal, we must unite our efforts.

Aleteia: Because your Christian faith was the source of your strength and resistance during your period of imprisonment: how did Samir Geagea live this faith during his 11 years in prison, regarding sacraments, readings and reflections?

 

Aleteia

 

DSG: My life in prison was, sacrament-wise, “busy”: that is, I lived an active sacramental and prayer life. They thought they were putting me in a prison, but I imagined myself in the hermitage with St. Charbel. That’s the way I dealt with it. And thanks to this spiritual depth, I lived a rich and interesting Christian life, to the point where I was afraid of being released after two years.

I received the sacrament of the Eucharist once a month, without being able to go to confession. I meditated alone, and the parish priest would come once a month for a visit, bringing me the Eucharist. I spent hours reading the biographies of St. Charbel, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, spiritual books, and the Bible.

 

Aleteia

 

Aleteia: Do you believe that Christian principles are important in political life?

DSG: Personally, I am for the separation of the Church from politics and politics from the Church, but I encourage the application of Christian thought and ethics that strengthen principles in political life. How pleasant it is to live keeping in mind the famous phrase of Brother Stephan Nehmé, who says, “God sees me.”

Aleteia: What message can you give the readers of Aleteia?

DSG: Do not be afraid of anything, for justice triumphs in the end, and whatever may happen, God is present, and only His Will is done.

Before we end this visit, our team goes to the Meerab detention cell, similar to that of the Ministry of Defense, next to which one finds the church of the General Headquarters and the statue of St. Charbel, sitting with the Gospel in his hand.

And so our conversation ends—one during which we sought to understand the reason why Christians in Lebanon have taken up arms, and how a person can reconcile with himself and with others, especially after living a life like the one Dr. Samir Geagea has lived.

Interview by Haissam Chlomo Alchaer and Ronald Barakate.

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