Lebanon’s northeastern village of Al Qaa, a Lebanese Christian village, was in a state of alert Tuesday as security forces expanded search operations after eight suicide bombers attacked the village yesterday — Monday, 27 June 2016. The bombers killed five and wounded over 30 people in the latest violent spillover of the five-year-old Syrian war into Lebanon.
A first wave of attacks involved four suicide bombers who struck after 4 a.m., killing five people, all civilians. The first bomber blew himself up after being confronted by a resident, with the other three detonating their bombs one after the other as people arrived at the scene. A second series of attacks, involving at least four assailants, took place in the evening. Two of the bombers arrived on motorcycles, hurled explosives and then blew themselves up outside Mar Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church — which has received support from CNEWA — as residents were preparing the funerals of those killed earlier.
Security sources said they believed Islamic State was responsible for the bombings but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
These events have revived fears of a return to the violence that had targeted the Lebanese army and Hezbollah areas in the past.Lebanon has been repeatedly jolted by militant attacks linked to the war in neighboring Syria. The last suicide attack to rock Lebanon was on 12 November 2015, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up on a busy street in the Burj al Barajneh neighborhood of Beirut’s southern suburbs, killing 47 people and wounding over 200 others. The attack was claimed by ISIS.
Local TV footage showed yesterday Al Qaa’s residents holding rifles calling on the government to support the Christian village in defending itself as hundreds of ISIS militants are holed up on the eastern outskirts of the town.
ISIS hopes to force Christian community to leave the village; by controlling Al Qaa, the fanatic militants will be able to create a corridor to the Mediterranean, as the Lebanese Army explained in a communiqué earlier.
ISIS had urged its followers to launch attacks on “nonbelievers” during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began in early June.
The area of Masharih al Qaa — a predominantly Sunni area near Al Qaa — is home to a large number of refugees who have fled the war in Syria.
Al Qaa is located about 30 miles north of the city of Baalbek, where Hezbollah holds sway, and about 90 miles from Beirut. It is a Christian village of 15,000 residents, mainly Melkite Greek Catholics — under the jurisdiction of the Melkite Greek Catholic bishop of Baalbek — situated several miles north of Ras Baalbek, next to the eastern border with Syria’s Homs district, in the Hermel area. Al Qaa and Ras Baalbek are the only two villages with a Christian majority in the predominantly Shiite region, where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.
For decades, this rural agrarian village has been lagging behind the rest of the country, having received less assistance from either the government of Lebanon or local NGOs. Consequently, it suffers from a high rate of poverty, limited economic and educational opportunities and dire health conditions. Around 80 percent of the inhabitants subsist on agriculture and thus are considered very vulnerable and poor, with unstable incomes. The remaining minority is engaged either in small businesses or in the army. During the Lebanese war, for security reasons, the majority of the Christians left the village for safer areas.
The village is poor in its supply of water. As one of the consequences of the civil war in 1976, the major source of water to Al Qaa coming from the Shiite village of Labweh was cut. CNEWA assisted in rehabilitating the village artesian well in 2013.
Due to the intense presence of Syrian refugees presently living in the village of Al Qaa — around 20,000, compared to 140 Christian families — the water supply represents a serious challenge to the local community, especially for irrigation.
CNEWA is coordinating with the Melkite Greek Catholic parish priest of Al Qaa, the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, and has spoken to him this morning, ensuring that he was safe.
Father Elian Nasrallah, a good friend of CNEWA and a long time partner in several projects, is not only an active priest of 28 years in his remote parish in Al Qaa, but also has been very vigorous and creative in finding ways to improve the educational growth and social development of his parishioners. What Father Nasrallah has been doing in his parish is a work of mercy. In his poor community, he keeps the youngsters off the streets and in schools, teaches them different skills, entertains them with music, theatre and sports activities, strengthens their spiritual lives and allows them to have fun, all the while providing impoverished families access to health services.
Since the 80’s, Father Elian has worked to create a stronger Christian community in a neglected region surrounded by a Muslim majority, where no economic, educational or health opportunities are available. In the village’s multipurpose hall, the father used to gather youth and provide activities — computer skills; technical formation; art, theater and music classes, including a choir; sports activities; summer camps; spiritual formation; and various other activities. He also provides the existing families with access to health services through the village dispensary, supported by CNEWA.
Following the huge influx of Syrians finding shelter in the village, and through funds from CNEWA’s generous donors, the father was able to extend his hands to the poor refugees and has provided them with basic emergency aid, including blankets, mattresses, food packages, fuel for heating, medical support and even education to young Syrian children.
Read more about the flight of Syrian refugees to Al Qaa in Crossing the Border from the Spring 2013 edition of ONE.