Lebanon — June 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

Lebanon is located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered to the north and east by Syria and to the south by Israel. The size of the population is estimated between 4 and 4.5 million. In addition, about 10 percent of its population is made up of refugees, including around 400,000 Palestinians and up to 60,000 Iraqis. Within this small population, there are 18 officially registered religious communities; the extensiveness of this has resulted in the existence of a special political system to distribute power as equitably as possible, making it the most complex state in the Middle East. Despite its size, Lebanon’s diversity baffles policy makers. Sectarian differences are at the root of the violent clashes that have impacted the country over the years — but the sources of conflict are not theological. Differences are exacerbated by deep political divisions regarding the representation of each factional group, who constantly jockey for power within the political system. As most have allegiances beyond the country’s borders, regional powers dominate internal dialogue and positioning.

The Lebanese civil war (1975-90) ended a relatively prosperous era in Lebanese history. Before 1975, Beirut was seen as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” and Lebanon as a country in which trade flourished and different religions could be professed. Nevertheless, Muslim discontent with the influence, power and wealth of the Christian community grew; tensions were mainly under the surface, but these became increasingly visible by 1975, particularly as the presence of around 300,000 Palestinians in refugee camps, most of them Sunni Muslims, became increasingly alarming.

The 15 years of intermittent violence and war destroyed Beirut, devastated much of the country’s infrastructure and drove hundreds of thousands of people into exile. The Taif Agreement, which was ratified in late 1989, ended this tragic chapter in Lebanon’s history and divided political power more evenly between Christians and Muslims. The lack of a strong central government, however, coupled with the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon invited regional tensions to continue to play out in the fragile country.

Other factors continue to destabilize Lebanon: The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 led to political crisis dividing traditional allies and forging new ones; the Israeli-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006 devastated the southern half of the country and revealed further Lebanon’s frailty.

Despite a wave of optimism in mid-2008 — which saw the election of a new president and the formation of a national unity government — significant factors threatening Lebanon’s fragile existence remain: increased regional tensions; remote, but potential conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel; increased pressure within the Palestinian camps; possible targeting of international peacekeeping forces and militia attacks.

By Lebanese standards, 2009 was a quiet year. The chief development was the drawn out government formation process, which concluded in November with the election of Said el Hariri to the premiership.

While a sense of optimism prevailed following the initial improvement in political stability, the economic impact of the politically disastrous period of 2005-08 (the assassination of Hariri in 2005, war in 2006, violent clashes throughout 2007 and 2008) — together with rising prices in consumer goods, fuel and food — has burdened the most vulnerable groups in the society, such as small scale businesses, women-headed households and the poor. Lebanon boasts of a gross domestic product (GDP) per head three times that of Syria and Egypt, yet there is a wide income differential between Lebanon’s small, urban elite and its poor, who live in rural areas and the outlying suburbs of major cities. The situation of the poor is particularly acute, as the government provides little social assistance.

Health indicators are relatively high for the region, with average life expectancy at 73 years. However, health care services are primarily privatized and, while of a high standard, also highly expensive and thus not available to a large proportion of the population. To compensate, nongovernmental organizations or social wings of political factions often provide subsidized health care for rural populations.

Despite its high numbers of emigration, Lebanon’s population is considered to be young. Due to a significant shift from rural to urban environments and an unemployment rate at around 20 percent, the younger generations are increasingly finding it hard to match their high educational level with job opportunities. Up to 40,000 Lebanese leave the country every year. Most are students or young professionals seeking what Lebanon fails to offer: economic opportunities in a stable environment.

Economically, Lebanon’s remarkable ability to prosper amid the global recession has boosted investor confidence, both at home and abroad. Yet the heavy debt burden continues to cloud the outlook; it is now estimated at $51 billion dollars, or 155 percent of the country’s GDP, and is expected to rise by a further $5 billion dollars this year. To address this issue, as well as concerns for education, health care and unemployment, economic and political reforms must move forward, as inefficiency and corruption are endemic in state institutions.

Prices continue to escalate at an unprecedented scale, public deficit increases and the deteriorating state of the electricity sector continues to be ignored.

Religious Situation

Lebanon is one of the most religiously diverse places in the Middle East and the only country in the region where Christians continue to play a major political role as a right reserved by the constitution — half of the members of parliament and the cabinet must be Christian as well as the president of the republic and the chief of the army. The ecclesiastical and demographic patterns of the 18 officially recognized religious groups are extremely complex. Divisions and rivalries between some groups date as far back as 15 centuries. The pattern of settlement has changed little since the seventh century, though there has been a steady numerical decline in the number of Christians compared to Muslims due in part to higher emigration rates among Christians and a higher birth rate among the Muslim population.

The main religious groups are Muslims and Christians. Muslim groups can be divided into Sunnis, Shiites and Druze, a sect that is not considered Islamic by orthodox Sunnis or Shiites. The Christians are even more divided and include Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Evangelical Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite Greek Catholic, Latin Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Christians. Of these communities, the Maronite is the largest. They have had a long and continuous association within the Catholic Church, but have their own patriarch, liturgy and customs.

The constitution of Lebanon provides for freedom of religion and the freedom to practice all religious rites, provided that public order is not disturbed, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Despite years of conflict and civil strife, tolerance and consensus among religions in society contribute to religious freedom. Consequently, thousands of persons fleeing religious mistreatment and discrimination in neighboring states have immigrated to the country, including Sunni Kurds, Shiite Arabs and Chaldean Catholics from Iraq, as well as Copts from Egypt and Christians from Sudan.

The position of Christians in Lebanon and their general condition throughout the Middle East were concerns at the heart of the meeting held last 20 February between Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Vatican. The pope stressed the importance of Lebanon, which for decades has been a model of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims and which will “remain a ‘message’ for the Middle East region and the entire world.” The pope also recalled “the importance of the work of Christians in the country” on behalf of “the entire society, especially through its educational, health and welfare institutions.”

In an interesting development, the Lebanese government recently announced that 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation in the Gregorian calendar, will be a Christian-Muslim holiday that will have a “national” rather than a “religious” stamp. The new holiday aims to strengthen the “symbol of unity” among the Lebanese in the name of the Virgin Mary — who is venerated by Christians and Muslims alike — and “encourage the image of Lebanon as a ‘country’ symbol of pluralism and tolerance,” as often repeated by John Paul II.

Despite internal displacement and emigration, Christians in Lebanon still represent up to 40 percent of the total population. Most view the church as their point of reference and expect from the various hierarchs a leading role extending into the political, economic and social spheres. As poverty increases, those in need are turning to the country’s many churches for help. But the churches’ resources have also declined, weakening their ability to respond to these needs. Instead, the churches have called for the government to take immediate action to reduce poverty and for nongovernmental organizations to initiate projects to improve the living conditions of the disadvantaged. Further, bishops and others Christian religious leaders have sought to reconcile Lebanon’s many factions, but they have noticeably failed in uniting their own.

Recent Posts

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español