Dilemma for Lebanon's Christians

Dilemma for Lebanon's Christians
5 min read
20 May, 2015
Comment: Christians dominated Lebanese politics for decades until the civil war broke the status quo. Now, the community is split on what path it should take, says Saad Kiwan.
The Lebanese political landscape was altered in the wake of the Arab Spring [AFP]
The state of Lebanese Christians resembles the state of the country they consider they founded.

For many years they were Lebanon's most influential community, at the heart of the idea of Lebanon as an entity and a later as a state.

The community lived through Lebanon's "golden age" between independence in 1943 and in 1975, until civil war broke out and altered the country's balance of power. 

Christian hegemony

The war eliminated many of the privileges the Christian community once had, for a myriad of reasons.

In 1989, a national reconciliation charter, known as the Taif accord, was concluded and put an end to the civil war.

The agreement was based on the principles of coexistence and partnership, and government would be restructured on the basis of checks and balances. This would be away from demographics and the size of respective religious  communities, whose rights and roles the constitution was supposed to guarantee.

The president would no longer enjoy absolute powers, but was a guardian of the constitution and acted as a referee between the different branches of power and the Lebanese people.

Since the implementation of the Taif Accord, during the period that Syria controlled Lebanon, the Christian community was treated as the defeated party, leading to its marginalisation and isolation.

A segment of the Christian community rebelled and called for restoring Lebanon's sovereignty and independence.

Following the liberation of south Lebanon on 25 May, 2000, the Christian Maronite church and its former patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, led this battle for sovereignty. 

On 20 September, 2000, Sfeir made a now-famous demand for the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon.

It laid the groundwork for the emergence of the political  grouping known as the Qornet Shahwan Gathering.

The gathering reached out to Rafic Hariri to restore relations with the Sunni community that the Syrian regime had previously withheld.

On 14 February, 2005, Hariri's assassination sparked crisis in the country, leading to the "uprising for independence" on 14 March, 2005.

This event practically meant that the Sunni community finally endorsed the slogans that the Christians had championed for three decades, specifically the call of "Lebanon First".

The Christians had brought the Sunnis back into the political game.

However, each time they retreated, appeased, or compromised on core principles their fate would be marginalisation or disenfranchisement, which remains the situation today.

Even after the Syrian army withdrew, the battle for sovereignty and independence never ended.

Some Christian forces chose to ally themselves with those who have established a state within a state - such as Hizballah, which is said to be defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Iranian orders.   

These Christian groups were drawn into regional alliances, once again looking to limit Lebanese decision-making and prevent the state functioning properly. One example of this was the hindering of a new president being elected.
     Aoun's equation is simple: either I will be president or no one shall be president.

The grouping has pitted itself against the international community and resolutions that supported  Lebanon's "second independence" through UN resolutions 1559 and 1595. 

Resolution 1701 also restored the authority of the Lebanese state and army in the south.

So how did the Christian community in Lebanon deal with  these developments?

Following the Syrian withdrawal, there was a climate of suspicion where Christians believed that Muslims intended to take over the state and monopolise power. 

The battle therefore was for quotas, posts and other spoils.

Battle for power

Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, rode this wave and is understood to have manipulated certain sections of the Christian community on the eve of the 2005 general election.

Soon enough, Aoun moved from being a pro-sovereignty leader to allying with the March 8 alliance - led by Hizballah and pro-Syrian in its outlook.

Aoun sought to justify this, by alleging he was protecting the Lebanon's Christians. In truth, the alliance did not support Aoun's dream of becoming president.

Nevertheless, Aoun stepped up his campaign against the Sunni political forces and the leader of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, and aided Hizballah when it toppled Hariri's government in 2010.

Aoun is once again seeking rapprochement with Hariri, in the hope of getting his support for Lebanon's top job.

The post of president has been vacant for a year now, and Aoun will continue to disrupt the presidential election by  making sure that the legal quorum (88 of 128 MPs) is not met.

Aoun's equation is simple: either I will be president or no one shall be president.

In other words, he considers the rights of the Christian community and their role to be embodied in him. Anyone who opposes him is accused of conspiring against the Christian community.

The Maronite Church, which has consistently played a crucial role at a national level, is stuck in limbo.

The current patriarch, Bishara al-Rai, deviated from the pro-sovereignty path that his predecessor Sfeir followed for more than two decades.

Instead, Rai sought to appease the March 8 movement and cozy up to Hizballah and the Syrian regime when the uprising against Assad on started in Syria in 2011. 

Rai flip-flopped countless times with his political attitudes, until the presidential palace became vacant. When that happened, he called for a new president, but found no support from any of his allies - despite the promises they had made.

In June 2014, Rai came under fierce attack - bordering on accusations of treason - for agreeing to escort the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, on his visit to the Holy Land.

On the other hand, it does not seem that the Christian parties of the March 14 alliance (the Lebanese Forces, the Phalanges, and independents) have a clear or convincing project for government.

Does their support for the pro-independence camp exempt them from playing a leading role, particularly in light of the radical changes taking place in the region?  

They have not yet realised that there is no longer one community in Lebanon preferred by outside powers. 

Nor have they understood that Christian concerns must not be narrow, factional, or partisan, or that their role is to attach themselves with Shia or Sunni dominated political parties. At the same time, they can't be neutral either.

Government should be central and inclusive of all Lebanese citizens, and all, including Christians, should seek to rebuild the state.

Saad Kiwan is a writer and editor based in Lebanon.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.