The story of Lebanon�s shrinking non-Muslim population.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain wrote:
In 1982, Catholic Christians made up around one quarter of the population of the town of Baalbek. At school, our favorite teacher was Jean-Pierre, or Jan as most of us called him. He taught us math and science, was a talented pianist; he even played accordion on school outings.
In the late 1980s, he took a job as a radio host. When the holiday season came, he broadcast Christmas carols, which angered Shiite thugs � most probably from Hezbollah or Islamic Amal � who invaded his studio, destroyed his equipment and kidnapped him. After his release, he went into self-exile somewhere in Europe. He later told me that many years after his emigration, he made one trip to Baalbek to attend his mother�s funeral. Even then, he was told he was not welcome. He left and never looked back.
This is the story of Lebanon�s shrinking non-Muslim population.
When the French created Lebanon in 1920, they designed it as a Christian country. To dilute the Sunni majority in its Levantine territory, Paris created five states: A Christian Lebanon, an Alawite state in northwestern Syria, a Druze state in southern Syria, and two land-locked Sunni states in Damascus and Aleppo.
For Lebanon, France borrowed the emblem of the Maronite Church, the Cedar, and put it on a French flag, which was redrawn in 1943 as the Lebanese flag we know today. The French carefully calculated Christians made up over half of Lebanon�s population, with Shiites constituting one quarter and securing a comfortable non-Sunni majority.
In 1987, my family moved to Beirut, where we have owned property since 1965. The title lists us as the fourth owners since the land was first deeded to Druze Al-Hamra family, who gave their name to the capital�s famous street.
In the alley where we lived, there were two buildings with 21 apartments between them, only three of which were inhabited by Muslim families. The families that populated the alley included Maronite Bassil, Shartouni and Maani; Catholic Touma; Armenian Orthodox Qadayan; Greek Orthodox Bekhaazi, Nassar, Zewaneh, Saba, Majdalani and Abu-Dayyeh; Druze Monzer; and Jewish Hajjar.
When rounds of fighting between the various militias in west Beirut intensified, when Shiite Amal knocked on doors seeking Palestinians while Druze Jaish Shaabi and Sunni Murabitoun invaded houses looking for Shiites, the families in our alley devised a cunning tactic: they hid in the apartment that they figured was least prone to be hit by random shelling. When militia thugs knocked on the door, they sent the men who belonged to the same sect as the invading charlatans to answer. Druze would deflect their militiamen, and so did Shiites and Sunnis.
With political, economic and social nooses tightening, non-Muslims left west Beirut throughout the Civil War. They moved mostly to Christian enclaves in the eastern part of the country. In their stead came Muslims; mainly Shiites who were fleeing the inferno of southern Lebanon.
When the Civil War ended, the displaced Christians never came back. Syria�s Hafez Assad � Lebanon�s actual rule � propped up his Muslim allies, particularly Shiites, at the expense of Christians, who called the 1990s the decade of �Christian Frustration.� From the diaspora, Sunni billionaires like the Hariri family and Shiite millionaires, mainly from Africa, funneled money into the country, often buying out Christian stakes.
Between 1920 and 1975, Lebanon�s Christian population had swelled, at times infused by Christians like the Greek Orthodox, who relocated from troubled Palestine. But by 1990, Christians were bruised � their real estate outside of the eastern enclaves had been occupied and their population decimated.
By betting on the wrong regional and international horses, Christians found themselves beaten. They reluctantly accepted the constitution as amended by the Taef Agreement, which made them equal, rather than dominant, partners in the country that the French had made in their image.
In 2005, Christians � especially the followers of lawmaker Michel Aoun � made further mistakes. Instead of caucusing with the non-Shiite underdogs, Aoun took a shortcut and started using Shiite power to beat his Christian and Sunni allies. Aoun then became a junior partner in an alliance with a much stronger Shiite party.
Aoun was not the only shortsighted leader among the Christians. His rivals, those who stayed in March 14, proved worse. Instead of propping up March 14 for strategic purposes, they battled other March 14 factions to win small concessions. Druze Walid Jumblatt learned a lesson: March 14 was too unreliable for him to use as a strategic counterweight to Hezbollah. In 2008, he conceded and has since sat out the regional war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Jumblatt is the savviest Levantine politician. He understood that the problem of non-Muslims was structural rather than tactical. Decades of wars have taken their toll on non-Muslims, whose numbers have dwindled and their power, both economic and political, has weakened. Jumblatt now pines for the good old days when Druze and Christians, whom he calls �Red Indians,� reigned supreme.
With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) ravaging the Syrian countryside, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra deploying on Lebanon�s eastern border and with Shiite Hezbollah overrunning the once-Christian southern suburb of Beirut and now dominating the entire country, Lebanon and Syria are destined to become nations with absolute Muslim majorities.
There is nothing wrong with the Islamization of Lebanon per se, but it will mean that diversity is lost and tolerance minimized. Baalbek had already become intolerant of the likes of my teacher, Jan, and his Christmas carols long ago. Southern Lebanon started to go dry in the 1980s. And not to be outbid by Shiites, Sunnis in Tripoli and Sidon censored alcohol and banned its ads.
Islamization in Lebanon is creeping into Christian areas. Many Muslims have moved to Achrafieh and other neighborhoods that were once counted in the Christian column.
My friend Sam, a Greek Catholic in his late 50s now, hails from Tyre where he was born and raised. He fondly speaks about his memories in the southern town that, like Baalbek, has become completely Shiite today. Sam now lives in Beit Mery. With him, I share memories of how the predominantly Greek Orthodox Ras Beirut is now turning into an Islamic hood.
In the alley where I grew up in, only three of the 21 households are now Christian. The youngest of the three is past his retirement age. His two sons relocated to Rabyeh. His daughter moved to Geneva. The two other Christian households are widows in their 80s. When their day comes, their children in Europe and whoever else remains of the Christian enclave will remember our alley with a smile. When these children are gone, memories will fade away, and Lebanon will have become just another state in the Muslim Middle East.
*Source: Now Media
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrai Newspaper.
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