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Lebanese Christians need to shift stance for safer future

Minorities often benefit by identifying themselves more as citizens of a state than as members of a religious tribe

One of the paradoxes of the conflict in Syria is that many Lebanese Christians are as fearful, if not more, of victory by the opposition than they are of victory by the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

That this is odd should be understandable to any observer of Lebanon's recent history.

Unlike their brethren in Syria, most Lebanese Christians have long opposed the regimes of Hafez Al Assad and then his son Bashar. Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon, which ended in 2005, was characterised by the systematic dismantling of Christian power, the assassination of Christian leaders and the marginalisation of Christian electorates.

And yet today, fearing the triumph in Syria of an Islamist-dominated opposition, many Lebanese Christians, though very far from all of them, side with Mr Al Assad. They believe that as bad as the Syrian regime is, it is dominated by an Alawite minority that will always be antagonistic to the rule of Sunni Islamists and Salafists.

This rationale is based on false premises. The number of jihadists in the Syrian opposition is exaggerated and Mr Al Assad's suspicious former ties with the jihadists ignored. But many Christians in Syria and Lebanon have bought into the narrative of the regime, which holds that the Syrian uprising is the work of Salafist jihadists, not an initially peaceful revolt by Syrians seeking to overthrow a dictator.

Many Christians today are reacting solely out of fear. In the last three decades, they have become a minority in decline. Christian power in Lebanon was substantially reduced by the Taef agreement of 1989. Amendments to the constitution redistributed political power away from the Maronite Christian president to the Sunni prime minister and Shia parliament speaker.

Demographically, Christians in Lebanon are estimated today to make up around a third of the population. While no census has been taken since 1932, when Christians were 54 per cent of the total, the broader community (which is made up of the Maronites, the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, and more than half a dozen other sects) long ago lost its numerical advantage, with Sunnis and Shias each believed to represent a third of the population.

A sign of the times, the dynamics of Lebanese politics are being largely driven by Sunni-Shia interactions, and more disturbingly the growing hostility between the two Muslim communities.

The Christians, particularly the Maronites, have been divided, with their two most prominent leaders, Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun, respectively siding with the Sunni-dominated Future Movement and the Shia Hizbollah. This has covered the Christians politically, but it has also highlighted the subordinate role they have come to play.

The situation in Syria may well shift the demographics of Lebanon further, in some cases to the Christians' disadvantage. There are an estimated one million Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunni and many from the Homs and Damascus districts, both highly strategic for the regime. There are fears that, in order to maintain its grip on those districts, the regime may block the return of the refugees, effectively pursuing a policy of de facto ethnic cleansing.

By the same token, the refugees themselves may hesitate to return while the regime still controls their areas. From the Lebanese perspective, any delay in the refugees' return home poses the threat of making their presence in Lebanon permanent. While the situation was somewhat different for Palestinians, those who fled to Lebanon in 1948 have become a permanent fixture of Lebanon's landscape, and in the 1960s and 1970s created great instability in the country.

On the other hand, if the Assad regime is overthrown, a different type of population inflow may occur. Alawites may choose to flee to Lebanon, along with many Syrian Christians. Such a situation would only exacerbate Lebanese communal relations, given the likelihood of Sunni hostility to an Alawite community that, to the Sunnis, repressed their coreligionists in Syria, and whose natural allies would very probably be Hizbollah and the Shia.

Some have speculated that Lebanese Christians might welcome Syrian Christians if they boost their numbers. But things are not so simple. Iraqi Christians who came to Lebanon after the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime have not been received with particular warmth. Many live in poverty, and enjoy limited aid from Christian churches. They are perceived more as a burden than as a community that might reverse demographics to the Christians' benefit.

Ultimately, minorities are best served when they avoid playing to a constantly shifting balance of power, which at any moment can turn against them.

As Lebanon's Christians look around them, they can see the fate of communities, in Syria and Iraq, that wagered on one side, only to face the wrath of their opponents. Under the circumstances their best, albeit risky, option was to back national reconciliation and stick to principle, to avoid alienating one side or the other.

This is easier said than done, but minorities often benefit by identifying themselves more as citizens of a state than as members of a religious tribe. The future is hazy for those Lebanese Christians sympathising with Mr Al Assad, but nothing will be made clearer by tying their future to that of a butcher. Nor would Christians be true to the values they claim as their own if they continue doing so.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling