Lebanon's divided Christians feel rudderless

Date: 09-22-06

by Sylvie Briand

BEIRUT (AFP) - The Christians of Lebanon, divided and marginalized, are struggling to build up a new political force which can defend their interests in the face of the growing influence of the Shiite group Hezbollah after its war with Israel.

"The danger with Hezbollah, which considers it won this war, is that we could see the system slide into a division between communities, which would increase the marginalization of the Christians," said Fadi Daou, a Saint Joseph University professor.

Such a trend also "risks creating a dangerous confrontation between the Sunni and Shiite" Muslims of Lebanon, warned the director of the institute of religious sciences at the university.

The Christian camp is itself split between Samir Geagea, former head of the Lebanese Forces, who has become an ally of Druze and Sunni leaders in opposition to the country's former powerbrokers in Damascus, and General Michel Aoun.

The general, who himself led an aborted "war of liberation" against the Syrians in 1989, heads a Free Patriotic Movement which has forged a surprise alliance with the Damascus-backed Hezbollah.

Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the largest Christian community in Lebanon, has been trying to walk a neutral line between Geagea and Aoun, whose forces clashed at the tail-end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

But tensions are bound to rise with elections for a new president, a post reserved for a Maronite in Lebanon's confessional system, which are only 10 months away.

The Christians, who make up around 38 percent of Lebanon's 3.5-million population, lost many of their privileges with the signing of the 1989 Taif accords which brought the 15-year war to an end.

The president's role has been marginalized, with current pro-Syrian incumbent Emile Lahoud boycotted by the West.

The Shiites, who make up Lebanon's largest's single community, feel their post of parliament speaker -- held by Nabih Berri, leader of another Shiite group, Amal -- does not give them enough of a say in the executive.

Richard Jereissati, 52, a former member of the National Liberal Party (NLP), said that "time is on the Shiites' side", with their numerical advantage over the Christians widening through demographic trends.

"The Christians have learnt nothing from the past. They continue to fight among themselves, through Geagea and Aoun," he said.

Maroun Helou, 52, a former colleague in the NLP and fighter during the civil war before becoming a successful businessman, said "the question of creating a new political force is being debated more and more by Christians" disappointed with their current leaders.

Young Christians have asked him to form a new organisation which could take up arms if needed.

"But the time for all that is over. What we need is a multi-community movement to counter the growing religious antagonism that works against the Lebanese state," he said.

Firas Maaluly, a 26-year-old member of Christian group Saint Ilige, said Christians needed "a real party, like Hezbollah or the Future Current of (Sunni leader) Saad Hariri with a vision for the country and that does not depend on alliances for its existence."

While acknowledging that Christian Phalangist militiamen carried out massacres during the civil war, student Teddy Aburjeily, 25, said "our idea is to conserve the flame of the Lebanese Christian resistance."

Hezbollah's war with Israel "was not our war. It's a party financed and armed by Syria and Iran. But nobody is supporting us," he lamented.

Simon Karam, a former ambassador to Washington, said what the Christians were seeking was "a more efficient state", less organized along confessional lines.

"No community can or should dominate, otherwise that's the end of Lebanon as we know it," Karam warned.


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