Lebanon's Christians in danger of being overrun, losing access to politics

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil gestures after an interview with Reuters at his office in Beirut Sept. 10, 2015. Arab countries should share the burden in supporting and hosting Syrian refugees, Bassil said, highlighting the pressure a growing crisis has put on Syria's immediate neighbors. Bassil told Lebanese expats in the U.S. last week that pressure is forcing the Christian minority out of politics and, perhaps, soon out of the country.

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Lebanon's Christians are being overrun by Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq and are in danger of losing their place in their country, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told members of the Lebanese expat community in Connecticut during a visit this weekend.

"What is happening in Lebanon is an attempt to replace the people with Syrians and Palestinians," Bassil said, according to the Lebanese Daily Star.

Because Lebanon's Christian population is, and has historically been, a minority, Bassil said their rights are being threatened because "some are attempting to impose Muslims over Christians." He said that attempt will likely result in "consequences."

In Lebanon, we should have the diversity of all communities sharing the power through a real partnership, real power sharing. It's not happening now where the elements of the minorities are being gradually eliminated by not allowing them to ascend to power. There is a refusal to allow the real representatives of the minorities to gain power, comparable to an ideology of political extremism.
- Lebanon FM Gebran Bassil

Lebanon has, in the past, been sharply divided along religious lines. A 15-year civil war between Muslim militias, the Shiite Hezbollah terror group, and Christian factions left the country in ruin for the final decades of the 20th century. Many Christians fled the country during the civil war from 1975-1990.

In the United States for the 70th meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Bassil said his country could not absorb the number of refugees flowing into the country. Lebanon, he said, currently is housing 2 million refugees, of which three-fourths are Syrian. The remainder are Palestinian.

Bassil said he said he still believes Lebanon can have a future because Muslims and Christians were "destined" to live beside one another in peace. The only thing that stands in the way, he said, are the terrorists flowing in with the refugees. "Immigration results in terrorism and vice versa," he said.

"We in Lebanon are on the front lines of this battle and cannot make this confrontation if you don't support us," Bassil told the expat community. He also said it was their duty to help preserve the peaceful form of Islam that has traditionally been practiced in Lebanon.

"It is our responsibility as Lebanese Christians, especially in light of ISIS' advances, to defend true Islam," Bassil said.

Bassil's comments follow an extensive interview with the Middle East's Al-Monitor, in which he said the Christian community in the region, as a whole, has basically eroded "in large chunks."

"In Iraq, it happened over 20 years, and we saw that 90 percent of the Christians have left Iraq. In Syria, we don't have actual numbers because of the chaos. We cannot tell. We know that there has been a lot of internal and external immigration and displacement. Can we talk of figures and percentages? No. But definitely churches have been destroyed and people have left already," Bassil told Al-Monitor.

Lebanon may be facing a similar exodus of Christians if the pressure on them becomes too great. And the pressure is both internal, as well as external, he said.

"It's the same crisis of Daesh [the Islamic State]. It is not an exaggeration by saying this. You can see it in different means, such as in Lebanese politics where the diversity has been eliminated and it is not accepted to have the real representative of the Christians in a political position," Bassil said.

"This is similar to what Daesh is doing in the region by eliminating the non-uniform elements. In Lebanon, we should have the diversity of all communities sharing the power through a real partnership, real power sharing. It's not happening now where the elements of the minorities are being gradually eliminated by not allowing them to ascend to power. There is a refusal to allow the real representatives of the minorities to gain power, comparable to an ideology of political extremism," he said.

Bassil holds the United States partly responsible for the problem because, he said, the United States armed militant Islamic factions in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, the nation's long-serving dictator.

In a speech to the American Middle East Christians Congress in Detroit, Mich., in 2012, Bassil said, "Christians in the Middle East are disturbed and confounded by the U.S. support of extremist movements which does not only threaten the very existence of Christianity in the Middle East, but is also causing harm to the US citizens and US interests all over the world."

Bassil said in the speech he was fighting for a country in which "the right to be different" should be proclaimed as an essential element of democracy, opposite the culture of Islamic extremists based on the idea of the "elimination of the other."

"The decline of this role has only increased intolerance, extremism and denial of these rights. Some parties in the region have publicly declared democracy as 'a one way transportation vehicle,' and pledged stepping out of it once they reach their destination: power. That is the main motto for the Arab Spring; this is their means to achieve 'Justice and Development.' But, once reached, killing will be their means to eliminate their opponent, [or] the opponents of the Caliphate."

Bassil said the Lebanese people should see Christians not as "remnants of the Crusaders," but as descendants of the original Christian inhabitants of the land – those baptized by the apostles of Jesus Christ.

The same is true with Muslims, he said. He hopes the Lebanese will see peaceful Muslims as "people of jurisprudence and culture, mutual tolerance and understanding."

For some, that might be a naïve vision of what Christians in the country can expect should ISIS gain a foothold there. But the threat posed by ISIS could also result in temporary alliances – for now – between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon.

It has already happened on a smaller scaler.

In June, Hezbollah – aided by a Christian militia – repelled an ISIS attack along the border of Syria and Lebanon. And in April, a report surfaced of Catholics working alongside Hezbollah to defend Lebanese villages from ISIS fighters only two-and-a-half miles from their village.

"At the first sign of an intrusion," the report said, the "newly formed Christian militia has been instructed to contact the army post at the foot of the mountain, and then take positions around the town, alongside an unlikely ally: Hezbollah fighters. The members of the Shiite militia, which the European Union and the U.S. both consider a terrorist group, are concerned about the Sunni jihadis from Syria enough to make common cause with Christians. In fact, the Christians of Ras Baalbek and the Iran-backed militants are downright friendly to each other. In Lebanon's complex quilt of sects and allegiances, they are pioneering a new approach: Christians and Shiites together, against the Sunni extremists."