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Minority Interest

Lebanon’s Maronites, threatened by Sunni power, will be the bellwether of the Mideast’s Christians. Could they face the same fate as the region’s Jews?

Lee Smith
January 04, 2012
A statue of Saint John Maron, the first Patriarch of the Maronite community, north of Beirut, Lebanon.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
A statue of Saint John Maron, the first Patriarch of the Maronite community, north of Beirut, Lebanon.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Being Christian in the Middle East has never been easy, but the wave of uprisings that has swept the region over the past year has made the situation for the region’s Christian minority almost unbearable. Violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians—particularly church burnings, which have become routine—has gotten the most attention. But for the best bellwether of where things are headed, look to Lebanon’s Christians.

Lebanon’s Maronite community has long been the region’s Christian citadel. “It used to be that when Christians around the region looked at the situation in Lebanon, it cheered them,” Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst, told me this week in Beirut. “They saw that here the Christians were equal to their Muslim counterparts. They were citizens and had the same rights as Muslims.” The citadel is now tottering. If Lebanon once served as a beacon for the region’s other Christians, the dimming of this light is making Christians in unstable countries like Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt even more vulnerable.

Lebanon’s Christian community comprises up to a third of the country’s total population. It is made up largely of Maronites but also includes Greek Orthodox and a number of other sects, like Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic. Christians were likely never a majority in Lebanon, and yet, says Fawaz, a Greek Orthodox, “the Christians didn’t act like a minority. They pushed their vision for an independent and sovereign Lebanese state.”

Historically, Lebanese Christians have provided some of the region’s most influential intellectual leaders, like Charles Malik, who helped write the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Michel Chiha, one of the authors of Lebanon’s 1926 Constitution. In the wake of Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the Christian vision was to build a sovereign state that would bring political and cultural modernity to the country and, eventually, to the broader Middle East.

That project stalled for a number of reasons. First, there was the relative demographic decline of the Christians in the post-independence period, due to the accelerated birth rates of Sunnis and Shiites. The French authorities that oversaw Lebanon during the mandate period created a power-sharing agreement that allotted Christians 50 percent of the parliament—the other 50 percent was split between Shia and Sunnis—and this struck Lebanon’s growing Muslim population as unfair. Most significantly, in addition to these domestic problems, the Christians were unable to protect Lebanon from the region’s furies, which culminated in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that pitted a number of different domestic players, as well as regional and international actors, against one another.

One of the main causes of that 15-year conflagration was the support of Lebanese Sunnis for the Palestinian cause, which attached these Sunnis to a larger Arab regional identity with a shared goal of eradicating Israel. The Sunni community’s political, diplomatic, and financial support of the Palestinians set them squarely against the Maronites, who resisted turning Lebanon into a forward operating base for the P.L.O. They sought to preserve their vision of a Lebanon free from the region’s destructive political currents and to avoid the Israeli reprisals they rightly feared.

What’s instructive is that the Christians fought in the war. “In 1975, mothers sent their kids to fight the Palestinians,” says Fawaz. “They had a vision for Lebanon.”

That changed when political calculation and greed shifted Christians’ focus from their war against the P.L.O. and Yasser Arafat’s allies to each other. The Christians split into different factions that faced off during the civil war. Two decades after the end of the war, the Christians are still plagued by this fissure, and they are still represented by the same political leaders who took them to war against one another more than 20 years ago. The result, says Fawaz, “is that today the Christians have no vision. They are definitely a numerical minority and acting like one—reactive and fearful.”

The Christian community here is suffering from a number of symptoms of minority psychosis. Consider that the head of the Maronite church has spoken out in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Patriarch Beshara Butros Rai called Assad “open-minded” in a September interview. “I am hoping Assad will be given more chances to implement the reforms he already launched,” Rai added. An unfortunately all-too-typical Christian fear and hatred of Sunnis has convinced many Lebanese Christians—as well as Syrian ones—that only Damascus’ Alawite minority regime can protect the region’s Christians from Sunni Islamists.

Obviously, a regime that has slaughtered protesters for almost a year hardly embodies the sort of values promoted in the gospel, or warrants the faith of a cleric. But more to the point: This is the same Syrian regime that waged an open-ended campaign of terror against Lebanon’s Christians starting in 2005. Christian politicians and journalists were assassinated; bombs detonated in Christian regions of the country. And the official head of Lebanon’s Christian community is now appealing to Assad for protection?

The Maronites had always distinguished themselves as among the region’s most stubbornly independent of confessional sects. But fear, resentment, and short-sighted political calculation have led them today to seek protection and patronage from the Middle East’s most dangerous and retrograde elements: Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. Recently, Fawaz explains, senior church officials came out in favor of the arms of Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance. “The Maronite church,” Fawaz says, “has taken a position defending the party that stands accused of killing the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.” Fear has compelled the Christians to abandon logic as well as moral scruple.

In the aftermath of the February 2005 assassination of Hariri, Damascus withdrew its troops from Lebanon after almost 30 years. That represented a golden opportunity for the country’s Christians. “They’d been resisting Syrian hegemony in order to regain a free and independent Lebanon,” Fawaz says. “With Syria out, the Christians had what they always said they wanted: Sunni leadership that had a Lebanon-first policy.” Some Christian parties did ally themselves with the largest Sunni party, led by the late Hariri’s son Saad. But the majority, under the leadership of Michel Aoun, the former head of the Lebanese army, partnered with Hezbollah instead.

In other words, today’s Christians seem less motivated by their vision of an independent Lebanon than by their hatred of the Sunnis. It’s true that Lebanese Christians, like other minority groups here, including the Shiites, suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Sunnis, who for centuries treated them as second-class citizens (at best). But Lebanon’s current Sunni leaders are not Ottomans, never mind jihadists. Like the Christians themselves, the Sunni leadership here promotes liberal values and a liberalized economy.

By openly siding against the Sunnis and allying with Hezbollah—and by extension Iran—the Christians have let identity politics and ideology, rather than interests and values, drive policy. The Sunnis are the regional majority, and no matter what sort of revolutionary project Iran has in store for the Middle East, the Sunnis aren’t going anywhere.

The question for the Christians is how to respond to the upheavals that have reshaped the region over the last year. Lebanon’s Christian population has the power to set the agenda for the rest of their regional co-religionists. Either they can identify and work with those Sunnis who share their same vision for Lebanon and the rest of the region, or they can let ancient wounds dictate a strategy of resentment that will ensure their demise.

Those inclined to discount the possibility of a Christian-free Middle East would do well to remember that Jews, in the recent past, had a significant place in the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Were it not for the birth of a sovereign Jewish state that took in Jewish refugees thrown out by countries that turned against them, this regional minority might well have disappeared half a century ago. Without an Israel of their own, if the Christians don’t get it right their era in the Middle East may be coming to an end.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.