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The Agony of Lebanon

Recent violence in Lebanon has created a new crop of Christian refugees in the Middle East.

Flying into Lebanon from the west, one is immediately struck by one of the most dramatic scenic sights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Beirut, the capital city, nestles on a long, narrow coastal plain in the shadow of a lofty mountain range rising from sea level a few miles to the east. But, besides contributing to the scenic beauty of the landscape. these twin geographical features have also determined much of Lebanon’s history and political structure.

Looking westward. the coastal plain faces Europe, thus accounting for Lebanon’s historic links to that continent. The mountain range to the east, however, has acted as a buffer, tending to seal the country off from the rest of the Islamic Arab world. The very contours of Lebanon make it a haven. And that is precisely what it has been for centuries, particularly for a large Christian community, which has been able to find there a life unhampered by discrimination and free of persecution.

While Lebanon proudly asserts its identity with the Islamic Arab world, its population includes members of twenty or so different religious sects. The proportion of Christians to Muslims generally is reckoned to he equal, but whether a Lebanese is Christian, Muslim or Jewish, he enjoys equal rights before the law. It is the major religious sects – rather than Western-style political parties – that are represented in the national Parliament.

For the Christian, this unique political structure has meant that Lebanon was the only country in the Middle East where the Christian community did not face the danger of becoming engulfed in an Islamic sea to the detriment of its political, economic and social rights. Whatever the defects in Lebanese society – and there are indeed many – it has managed to weld together a variety of religious and ethnic groups and promoted, to an astonishing degree, religious tolerance and cultural freedom.

But that society is now under attack, or so it would seem. Population balances have a habit of shifting, and the Lebanese Christian community no longer enjoys the tenuous majority it once had. For a Year, Lebanon has been in a state of intense turmoil induced by a vicious civil war that has taken at least 10,000 lives and left at least 30,000 others maimed. The reasons behind the carnage (if, indeed, irrationality can have its reasons) are many and complex. Among them is certainly the desire of the Muslim community (which now represents the slight majority of the population), and of not a few Christians, to change the political system by secularizing the national political life. Indeed, it must be admitted that the present political structure favors the Christian community – and one element of that community in particular, which for historic reasons still dominates the political, economic and social life of the nation.

Unfortunately, this civil war has raged mindlessly for so long, and the violence has escalated to such an extent, that all the ancient Christian-Muslim tensions and hostilities have resurfaced. Many Christians feel that they have their backs to the wall in a life-and-death struggle to preserve all they consider Lebanon stands for – including that concept of a free society which traditionally has been a haven for the oppressed. Many Christians are leaving the country in desperation or fleeing to predominantly Christian areas. In effect, the nation is becoming partitioned – a solution to Lebanon’s problems no thoughtful Lebanese really wants.

In a recent broadcast over Radio Beirut, the Maronite Patriarch Antoine Pierre Khoraiche gave voice to the anguish of the population. “Cries for assistance,” he declared, “are being daily raised by innocent citizens who want only to live in peace, but who find themselves living in a hell of fire, destruction and torture…” In view of all this, we can but raise our voices high and denounce all the aggression and atrocities that have been committed and are still being committed on the soil of Lebanon.

And yet compromise in the midst of all the violence of the past twelve months has surely been possible. There are responsible Christians sincerely in favor of secularizing a political system that is based on proportional religious representation in government, rather than on individual competence. Compromise, moreover, is what the majority of the “little people” – those who are usually condemned to bear the brunt of the effects of political violence – really want.

Who, then, is to blame for the long months of upheaval? Does the responsibility really belong at the door of the leaders of various political factions, each of which has its own heavily-armed militia? Certain of them have been quoted as saying that they would rather “reduce the nation to ashes” rather than yield.

The selfishness of the national leadership seems to have been uppermost in the mind of the Maronite Patriarch when he penned his recent Lenten pastoral. The tone of his message bespeaks a frank indictment of those who most certainly should have been in a position to halt the slow disintegration of the country. His message flatly denies that communism, Zionism, the Palestinian problem or the pressure for social and civil rights by the oppressed classes are the determining factors of Lebanon’s agony.

Citing Lebanon’s 10,000 dead and 30,000 wounded, he wrote: “Unfortunately, it is all too evident that we were too preoccupied with snatching the country from one another; each one was desirous of drawing from his own resources his own personal profit. We refused to give the services demanded for the good of the nation and the sacrifices needed to maintain the national good.”

What has suffered the most in Lebanon, the Patriarch goes on to point out, has been human dignity, which has been “lowered to the lowest scale of values by those who primed the flames of this civil war, whose brazier spared nothing.”

The underlying causes of Lebanon’s problems, he insists, are estrangement from God, the money cult, corruption in public life and lax morality. Since this was said in a Lenten pastoral, one must conclude that the Patriarch is also addressing certain easily indentified elements of his own religious community.

The tragedy brought about by those presumably bent on preserving the Lebanon they have known is paradoxical indeed. For the Lebanon they are attempting to save – that free, democratic society that has long been a haven for the oppressed – is now in danger of collapse because of the intransigence of the few.

Meanwhile, as Christians flee their homes and villages, a new crop of refugees is being added to an already tragic, worldwide list of such unfortunates. These are the real victims of Lebanon’s agonizing civil war.

Vincent S. Kearney, S.J. is an Associate Editor of AMERICA and has written extensively on the Middle East.

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