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from issue no. 06/07 - 2010

Between fears of the past and the search for new ways of co-existence

The wars are a past that does not want to pass, the peace is still precarious. Christians and Muslims are called to search for new balances and new convergences to stabilize a multiconfessional State that is of capital importance for peace in the Middle East

by Davide Malacaria and Lorenzo Biondi

Beirut [© Getty Images]

Beirut [© Getty Images]

Beirut is showing its opulent face: skyscrapers, heavy traffic, a forest of billboards, altogether identical to those of any Western metropolis. War, now, seems to be only a faded memory. Even if from time to time, going along the streets, some relic of the past resurfaces: ghosts of buildings riddled by bullets, flyovers smashed by bombs, skeletons of houses taken over by weeds. Of course, tension is still high as shown by the massive presence of soldiers in camouflage, everywhere, peeking out from red and white sentry-boxes with the cedar emblem or armored vehicles, attempting an impossible camouflage under frayed tarpaulins.
The recent history of Lebanon has truly been a troubled one. In 1975 began the long and bloody civil war that ended in 1989 with the Taef agreement. Years in which Israel and the Arab states, neighboring Syria above all, fought it out in this corner of the world, supporting the ally of the moment or sending troops to invade. Times when the line dividing friend from foe also passed through religious diversity, digging a deep trench between different communities. Then, after years of relative peace, the country seemed on the verge of plunging into the abyss again: in February 2005 Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated. A tidal wave of people poured into the streets of Beirut calling for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops still stationed in the country, followed by a similar demonstration organized by the Hezbollah opposition. An impasse that was resolved by the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s murder (the culprits have not yet been identified). Attacks on public figures, however, continued. As when, in June 2005 one of the founders of the Democratic Left movement, the journalist and intellectual Samir Kassir, was assassinated, and again in December of that year when the journalist and parliamentarian of the Movement for the Future, Gebran Tueni, was killed, or when – in November 2006 – the Minister for Industry Pierre Gemayel, a member of the Phalange Party was eliminated. An escalation of violence by killers who have remained faceless. But certainly the most traumatic fact of recent years was the war against Israel in the summer of 2006, following a surprise raid by Hezbollah against IDF soldiers.
Currently Lebanon is trying painfully to put the past behind it, in search of a stability that can hold together the eighteen religious communities that have co-existed here for centuries. In an area, the Middle East, where stability has long been something lastingly provisional.

A country with a multi-religious vocation
“The war is over, but the divisions remain”, explains Father Khalil Alwan, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, the most revered in the country. “Beirut is still divided into Muslim and Christian quarters. There are no longer actual boundaries, cut off by barbed wire, but there are psychological ones. It is rare to find Muslims in Christian areas and vice versa, even if lately things are changing... but it’s still early days”. Yet here at the sanctuary, set on a hill overlooking the capital, this unlikely coming together is an everyday event. Among the crowd of pilgrims today one can see girls with their heads veiled who, like the others, climb the steps leading to the top of the conical building to approach the statue of Our Lady, lay their hand on the plinth and bow their heads. And say a quiet prayer. Yes indeed, because Muslims also come here to the sanctuary from as far away as Iran. “Usually, Muslim women come here to ask for the grace to bear a child, but of course the Virgin Mary is asked for everything”, explains the rector, who belongs to the Congregation of Lebanese Maronite Missionaries. “For Muslims, Mary is only the mother of the prophet Jesus whom they do not recognize as God, though she is the object of deep devotion. In Muslim areas of Beirut, where there are churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it’s easy to see Muslims in prayer”. Father Ihab Chamoun, of the same Congregation as the rector, confirms his view. And he recalls the war, during which he was a parish priest in the south, where the majority are Shi’ite Muslims. Then it was easy to find Muslims in church during mass. And veiled women huddling near the statue of Our Lady...
This year the Annunciation was declared a public holiday, a government decision welcomed by Christians and Muslims. The stated purpose was to create a moment of encounter between different religious communities. “I welcome this political decision”, says Don Antoine Daou, Secretary of the Lebanese Bishops’ Conference’s Commission for dialogue with Islam, “but of course dialogue between religions needs to be built on firmer ground with respect for the various identities; by getting Muslims to understand the figure of the Mary of the Gospel, which is very different from that of the Koran”. Don Antoine gives us detail of his fruitful relations with Muslims and of how, in the past, he attended the commemoration of Ayatollah Khomeini as delegate of the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites. “In the field of inter-religious relations limited expressions are often used, such as ‘respect for others’, ‘tolerance’... The Gospel asks us for something quite different, that is, to love our neighbor, whether he be Christian or Muslim. In Lebanon there is a centuries-long history of co-existence between Christians and Muslims. Building a balanced society is not building just anything, but going back to that past of peaceful life together”. Centuries of co-existence that have led to creating a State unique in the world, neither theocratic nor secular. “The ‘Lebanese formula’ is equal participation of Christians and Muslims in Parliament, government and other institutions”, says Béchara Raï, Archbishop of Jbeil, the ancient Byblos, “so the Presidency of the Republic goes to the Christian Maronites, that of Parliament to the Shi’ite Muslims and that of the government to the Sunni Muslims. The problems of co-existence come from two ingrained and contradictory tendencies: Muslims lean towards Islamic theocracy and Christians towards Western secularism. External interference hammers on those keys”. Bishop Raï is at home in the Vatican, being a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and that of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. We met him in the ecclesiastical court in Beirut where he meets his people in little groups, or one by one, each with his own problem to set out and get resolved. One of them has a Muslim rosary in his hand and threads the beads while waiting. “The Eastern Churches are a bridge between Christianity and Islam”, he adds. “The West can’t dialogue with Islam leaving out the Eastern Christians. The latter say to Westerners that Islam is not in itself a source of violence and to Muslims that Western Christians are not agents of war and hatred. The Christians of the East would like Westerners to grasp that Islam is not just a religion but a theocratic political system that unites religion and State. You can’t deal with Muslims on the basis of a secular Western mentality”. The archbishop concluded his analysis by explaining that the instability of the Middle East, the economic crisis that accompanies it and Islamic fundamentalism are the cause of a steady migration of Christians from the country. It is common knowledge in these parts. And, at the same time, a fear: that the unrelenting draining away will reduce the Christian presence to an irrelevant minority. Which is also the fear of witnessing, sooner or later, the transformation of Lebanon into an Islamic state. Fears that are based, as is the analogous case in Israel of the Palestinians, also on the crude law of demography whereby the Muslims have more children than the Christians.
The shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa [© Lorenzo Biondi]

The shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa [© Lorenzo Biondi]

In the south, where Christians are a tiny minority, this issue seems more pressing. A zone with a Shi’ite majority, its streets are pasted with posters showing the bearded faces of those Hezbollah considers heroes. Especially the face of Nasrallah, the guide. A yellow and green celebration to remind everyone here that, to the bewilderment of the international community, a handful of shabby battle-hardened militants halted the advance of one of the most powerful armies in the world, that of Israel. Part of the world considers them terrorists, the other resistant fighters. Here in Lebanon, Hezbollah is simply a party like the others, although some are calling for its disarmament.
Elias Nassar, the Maronite Archbishop of Sidon, received us on a particularly sultry morning. He explains that in his region relations between Muslims and Christians are now peaceful and that the day before he had been invited to a meeting with the local mufti aimed at strengthening mutual relations. Nevertheless, the exodus of Christians saddens him. “The truth is that there is more solidarity among Muslims than among Christians”, he explains, while the air echoes with the prayer of the muezzin chanting from a nearby mosque. “The Arab countries send floods of dollars, then invested in enterprises that give jobs to Muslims. Whereas the Christians, I’m sorry to say, get very little, whether from other regions of Lebanon or from Western governments and Churches. And the Christians here can’t find work, nor does the local Church have funds to help them. So they’re forced to leave the region. In 1985 there were two thousand Catholic families in Sidon, now only one hundred and twenty. We don’t need economic help to create something against other communities, but so that we can stay here with them”.
In Tyre, another southern diocese, the situation is similar. “For four hundred years, for historical and geographical reasons, in our city and region, Christians and Muslims have been living together. Marriages are celebrated together, we go together to funerals: it’s part of everyday life”, says Monsignor Chucrallah Nabil-Hage, who is Maronite Archbishop of Tyre, after referring to the vicissitudes of his region which in the past experienced long periods of peace interrupted by bloody conflicts of a religious nature. “Unfortunately”, he says in concluding his historical digression, “since 1948 the south of the country has experienced continual warfare. And over time people have left the area both for economic reasons and for security. But while at the end of conflicts the Muslims return to their villages, Christians have preferred to go and build elsewhere a future for their children”. Thus the local Church is working in an area with a large Muslim majority. A tragedy, perhaps. Or maybe an opportunity for a different kind of life The houses of the faithful, but also Christian institutions such as schools, monasteries and even the Catholic headquarters of the Catholic and Greek-Catholic dioceses of Tyre took in refugees. “Nothing extraordinary”, the bishop hastens to say: “Our neighbors were in trouble, it was normal to help. There’s no merit in that”.
What happened in Tyre also happened in Sidon. And in Beirut. And in Tripoli. And in every village in Lebanon. As we are also told by Father Marcel Abi Khalil, formerly superior general of the order of the Mariamite Maronites, who now lives in Deir el Qamar. The village is a Christian enclave in the Chouf, a region inhabited by the Druze, a sect of Muslim origin with vaguely esoteric features. As he speaks, Father Marcel points to the large building standing next his house, in which, in 1860, Muslims murdered hundreds of Christians, one by one. Stories of the past, he says, and invites us to visit a large cross erected by Blessed Father Yacoub on the mountain overlooking the village. The cross is surrounded by what were once the Stations of the Cross which some overzealous soldiers (Syrians and Israelis came through here) saw fit to knock down. They also shot Jesus (as if He weren’t already on the cross...), so that afterward they had to plug the bullet holes. But that is the past, Father Marcel resumes, “now the situation is calm”.

The Maronite Cathedral of St George and Jami al-Amin Mosque, Beirut [© Lorenzo Biondi]

The Maronite Cathedral of St George and Jami al-Amin Mosque, Beirut [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Charity under the bombs
During the last war, Caritas Lebanon was the first NGO to come to the rescue of the Muslim population. Recalling those days, its president Don Simon Faddoul confides a small revelation: in that tragic climate Caritas received funding from Arab countries also. “It was the first time that such a thing had happened…” Currently, he says, Caritas is engaged to help the entire population, ignoring religious differences, and works within an association of NGOs bringing together Muslim and Christian relief organizations. He also speaks of the programs aimed at the Iraqi and Palestinian refugees who have been living for decades in camps within the borders of Lebanon and who are still denied the right to sell and buy (houses and land in particular). “Through social activities barriers can be broken down and bridges built”, Don Simon concluded. “In everyday life we are all Lebanese. It is politics that creates divisions”.
The Archbishop of Tripoli of the Maronites, Georges Bou-Jaoudé speaks in the same terms: “For us freedom of worship is not a problem, even in this city that is overwhelmingly Muslim: on religious feast days we take to the the streets safely, we can have processions and other things”. Tripoli lies in the north of Lebanon and most of the population is Sunni. While talking with the prelate in a large hall of the archdiocese headquarters, the city’s Sunni Mufti, Malik al-Shaar, comes in. His hug with the archbishop reveals an unusual fellowship. “All men come from the same root, that of Adam and Eve”, the mufti begins to explain in his wise way. “All the monotheistic religions are revealed by God Himself. The prophet Muhammad says that all prophets are brothers, sent by God. Secondly it is our religion, Islam, which requires us to live together with all, regardless of political views. Finally we all live in a single country. We live together as people, as believers and as citizens, so co-existence has a human dimension, a religious one and national one. The deepening of mutual relations brings us closer to the Creator. And socializing with others is a virtue for our Islamic faith: whoever rejects the other for us is a non-believer. There are eighteen different denominations in Lebanon, but with a common denominator, that of contributing together to the welfare of national life. Differences can’t be a reason for hostility: they concern faith, not human relationships. Since being elected mufti I have been working to facilitate this. We are not a photocopy of each other, we are complementary: Christians, Muslims and Jews.” As the Mufti talks he seeks with his eyes the Archbishop (who humbly serves as our Arabic translator) and gets nods of agreement. For there is no lack of assent. His harmony with the mufti does not seem to derive from anything extraneous to the role proper to a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, but from something that has to do with the very essence of his pastoral duty, where the search for ways to peace and harmony with all is for the benefit of the faithful and the community. In this city, in truth, there remain but few faithful, very few, the archbishop tell us, only fifteen thousand, “but the situation is beginning to improve”, he adds: “Among Muslims there is a wish to see Christians return to the city, also for economic and commercial reasons. The city can’t live without Christians. Until recently there was no Christian representation on the Municipal Council. We asked for it and now three members out of twenty-four are appointed from among the Christians, by general agreement. The tradition here is of co-existence. Extremists often belong to the poorest stratum of the population and are turned into fanatics by external influence from abroad”. On this point, the Mufti of the Republic quotes former president Elias Hrawi who, in his time, explained the conflict among the Lebanese in these words: “It’s the war of others on our land”. “In our country also, as throughout the world, there are fanatics”, the mufti resumes, “but the remedy must ensure an adequate response to the malady. Extremism is the reaction to an evil and sometimes the result of a poor understanding of religion. Poverty, injustice and instability are fertile ground for the emergence of extremism. Every time the political or social situation stabilizes, fundamentalism is weakened. That is why I would like to appeal to the world: help us find a remedy for poverty and instability, in that way we shall defeat fundamentalism”.
“There isn’t only Muslim extremism”, comments Monsignor Georges Bou-Jaoudé, “it may be the most visible, because the Islamic extremists are more numerous. In fact there are many fundamentalists in the world, just think of American policy under President Bush... One extremism invokes another extremism...”. To encourage general detente, the monsignor explains, he and the mufti present themselves together on public occasions. A line that has also enabled them to ward off dangers. As when in a Christian bookstore in Tripoli some copies of the Koran were found on the floor. Sacrilege by a Christian? Had that been so it would have caused an inferno. “But it was a Muslim who wanted to create an incident...”, our interlocutors conclude with their singular fellow-feeling.
“The local situation has its problems, but there are problems everywhere”, the Greek-Orthodox Archbishop of Tripoli, Ephraim Kyriakos notes seraphically. “Despite everything we are still here... thank God”. Where the stress in his phrase, falls (and remains), on that final thanksgiving. The fanatics in Lebanon are truly a minority, he adds, because here there’s freedom: the problem is external influences... “They won’t leave us alone”, he concludes and almost sighs behind his flowing beard, “but despite everything we’re still here”, he pauses and adds: “We pray that it continues so”. The problem, he complains, is that the Lebanese state is not secular... Relations with Muslims of his diocese carry on calmly, he says, and tells us of shared social initiatives, such as that for the handicapped. We ask him whether he recalls any particularly significant episode in his relations with the Islamics. “An episode?” he repeats and laughs... “Yes, certainly... when I was appointed bishop of this city I was better received by the Muslims than the Christians...”.

Cana. The shrine recalling the most tragic moment of the war of 2006 
when 29 people, mostly children, were killed during the bombing of this village in southern Lebanon [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Cana. The shrine recalling the most tragic moment of the war of 2006 when 29 people, mostly children, were killed during the bombing of this village in southern Lebanon [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Islam hijacked since 11 September
In Beirut we meet Professor Mohammed Sammak, secretary general of the National Committee for Islamic-Christian dialogue: “The Bush presidency and Islamic fundamentalism provided backing for each other through a culture of the rejection of the other. The result has been that moderate Islam is crushed between these two poles. The media have also encouraged these extremists: headlines for the attacks and not even a line for the great moderate majority. Islam has been ‘hijacked’ by the media and some Western politicians; our religion is the victim and not the source of terrorism, even if the terrorists claim to be fighting for Islam. Since 11 September the West has been engaged in collective punishment of all Muslims: a dangerous novelty for your culture that is based on the individual responsibility of the criminal”. The professor’s analysis is fluent and touches unusual chords. As, for example, when he explains that the very word “fundamentalism” has nothing to do with Islamic tradition, but arose in America, within the Christian evangelical movement. “In Islam there is the jihad,” he explains, “which is actually a defensive war. Unfortunately it has been misinterpreted by some Muslims and misunderstood by non-Muslims. A willful misunderstanding in the United States, functional to a precise political line...”.
Sammak took part in the Special Synod for Lebanon in 1995. On that occasion he was asked to prepare the draft of the final document on Islamic-Christian relations. “It was the first time that a document written by a Muslim was proposed as an official document of the Church...”, he recalls. Since then he has been a favored interlocutor of the Christian community in Lebanon. He explains that since the Regensburg incident was got over the image of Benedict XVI has been very positive among Muslims today, thanks to the calming words and gestures he has lavished. But thanks also to the historic visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to the Vatican in 2007. He adds: “Taking care of the Eastern Christians is a responsibility for us Muslims”. A statement that, in practice, entrusts to Muslims the protection of the Christian presence in Arab countries. A most surprising view, showing that God’s ways are truly endless. Sammak’s words echo similar statements by prominent leaders of the Islamic world. Can such reassurance suffice to dispel the fear of the gradual Islamization of the country that hovers over the Church of Lebanon? This is a matter that touches on the very essence of Christendom in Islamic lands (and beyond). That is whether the issue of numbers, and hence of the balance of power, is primary or whether it is possible to simply accept the status of being a small flock (as indeed is the case in the countries of the West) and offer oneself as – to quote the Archbishop of Beirut of the Maronites, Monsignor Paul Youssef Matar, – “leaven” within a by now Islamic society. It is a knot that the Church of Lebanon will have to untie over time. Now, perhaps, the wounds of civil war are still too fresh.
Meanwhile, however, politicians seem to have found ways of coming together, since the coalition that won the recent elections has brought into government, side by side, Sunni Muslims and Christians. Even more significant in this regard is what has happened in the minority (though it participates in the Government of National Unity) where the largest Christian party in the country, led by General Michel Aoun, is in coalition with Hezbollah. A striking alliance that was born in the years when the notion of the clash of civilizations was roaring ahead. Perhaps these groupings, so difficult elsewhere, reflect only the norm in a country that lives and thrives on a multiplicity of beliefs. Or perhaps, as so many told us, it was the help provided by Christians to the Muslims during the 2006 war that facilitated a rapprochement between the communities.
We don’t have the answers. Only a memory linked to Cana, a southern village in the diocese of Tyre. There a shrine houses twenty-nine graves. Arranged in a semicircle around it are the photographs of the faces of the dead, almost all children, in memory of a new slaughter of the innocents that was the most tragic moment in the 2006 war. Some people indicate this village as the site of the first miracle of Jesus. Probably an unfounded hypothesis. What is certain is that not far from that child sanctum lies a place that recalls it, that first miracle, in the depictions on an ancient stone that bear witness to Christian devotion. It saddens one a little to see that place of devotion now turned into an unknown tourist destination, but there you are. Cana is a Muslim village, but, like many other Muslim-majority localities, it is home to a Christian church. It’s closed, it’s the wrong time. To our help comes an old man with a smiling face, the keeper of the keys. And as he opens the door we are surprised to see his stubby blackened fingers nimbly threading a worn Muslim rosary. And suddenly everything becomes easier.

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