Lebanese Christians mourn a place lost in history and fear the future

April 03, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MREJAT, Lebanon -- The homes of Christians are ruins here, jumble-blocks of broken concrete surrendering to weeds. Once-thriving towns are ghostly empty; their churches are splintered beams and dust, their schools are rubble playgrounds for rats.

A few sad people come to look. Some try to move back. They want to reclaim what they had before the wars burned the Chouf Mountains and drove so many Christians out of the one country in the Middle East they had dominated in modern times.

They don't move as bravely anymore: "The power is now all for the Muslims," said Kalil Ra'aed, a burly former police officer in a nearby village. "Now you are scared to say you are a Christian."

Pope John Paul II will visit Lebanon next month to try to reconstruct the shattered confidence, if not the homes, of the once-reigning Catholics.

He has called an extraordinary meeting, or synod, of the Latin churches in Lebanon to encourage them to regroup, spiritually and politically. He will encourage the 1,500-year-old mountain sect of Maronite Catholics, once the most powerful Christian community in the Middle East, not to leave Lebanon.

A Christian bastion

This is such a change. For much of its modern history, this was the single Christian bastion in the Middle East, a conspicuous cross standing before a tide of Islam.

Now, the Christians have lost their power. The Muslims and Druze who long ago became the majority finally have wrested it away. Christians are in a political free-fall, wounded by enemies within and without.

The civil war ended their rule. It was 15 years of fratricide, from 1975 to 1990. The war was a pack-fight in which each dog bit blindly at the next: Christians vs. Muslims, Druze vs. Christians, Palestinians vs. Israelis, Christians vs. Christians.

It still echoes. On Feb. 27, a bomb exploded in a north Beirut church, killing 11 Christians and wounding 60 others. In the extraordinary way that politics work in Lebanon, Christian elements have been accused of setting off the bomb.

Incidents such as the church bombing are infrequent now that the country is trying to rebuild in a multibillion-dollar program guided by Shiite Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Still, the Christian domination of Lebanon is over. Whether the Christians of Lebanon will stay to play the role of a minority is uncertain. The most optimistic estimates give them no more than 45 percent share of the population of 3.5 million.

"If Lebanon becomes a Muslim country, I can't stay here," said Nida Saber, 21.

"It's over," said Farid el-Khazen, an assistant professor at American University of Beirut. "The Christians today are beleaguered, leaderless, targeted."

The beautiful and rugged backbone of Lebanon, the Chouf Mountains, long offered sanctuary to the Maronite Christians and their neighbors, the Druze, an ancient offshoot of Islam. In vicious violence called the 1983-'84 "Mountain War," neighbors turned on one another. The Christians lost; killed, beaten and chased from their homes.

Under Syrian influence, the rules of government were rewritten in 1989, giving the Muslims long-denied equality. Incensed, Christians boycotted the 1992 elections, further sealing their loss.

"We have to accept that there is no more privilege for Christians," said Fouad Hobeika, editor of a Christian newspaper in Beirut.

"We are not the people making the decisions anymore."

Christianity in Lebanon is not just religion. It is politics, the sometimes life-and-death divisions of tribe against tribe. The Lebanese cling to religious groupings. The Maronite Christians may be marginally the largest single clan, followed by Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Druze.

Lebanon was carved out of greater Syria by the French in 1920 to give Christians a seat of power in the Middle East. Even though their claim to numerical superiority always was suspect, Christians did dominate economically and politically.

They were the business operators who gave Lebanese the reputation of international movers and shakers. They tapped a flow of goods, money and deals that made Lebanon the "Switzerland of the Middle East" and fattened their fortunes. They were better educated, more affluent. They were proud, even arrogant.

Looking to the West

"If it weren't for the Christians here, there would be no democracy," boasted one prominent Christian, an influential public figure who insisted it would be "dangerous" to be quoted by name. "We're more modern. The Shiia [Muslims] are not prepared to rule a modern country."

Christians flaunted their Western bent -- their education at foreign universities, their international business deals, their sophistication. They preferred French over Arabic.

"We have the same values as the Western world," said Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronites. "Christians cannot live in Lebanon with a lack of liberty. They are accustomed to liberty."

For themselves. But the Muslims of south Lebanon were left the economic and political scraps. The disparity fueled an increasing Muslim militancy.

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