Damascus — Geographically and doctrinally scattered, a minority in the Muslim world, the Christian churches of the Levant often tug at the heartstrings of the West. Three centuries of bloody, quixotic crusades and almost two milleniums of pilgrimaging to the Holy Land by the world's Christians testify to the spell this parched piece of earth exerts over many.
Today, according to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and to some Lebanese Christians, the "survival of the Christians of Lebanon" -- and, indeed, the Christians of the entire Middle East -- is at stake. It's an alarming thought, conjuring up images of Muslim hordes overrunning churches and persecuting the faithful.
Is the description accurate?
Yes, there are Christians fighting in Lebanon, but they are not necessarily fighting for a religious cause -- except, perhaps, as they see it. But not all the Christians of Lebanon see things this way.
A Monitor study of the stands taken by the various church leaders in the Middle East shows that there is great reluctance to reduce the many-layered Lebanese conflict to sectarian terms. Though there have been frequent problems for Christians in the Middle East, most churches have coexisted with Islam for centuries. And as a group, Christians do not seem particularly threatened today.
The term "Christian" used by Mr. Begin in the Lebanese context actually refers to activists among the 400,000 Maronite Catholics of north Lebanon -- the Phalangists. In their drive for autonomy, the Phalangists are confronting Syrians, leftist Lebanese, and Palestinian forces, many of whom also are Christian. According to Israel, the Phalange also is receiving Israeli tactical and financial support and has an Israeli pledge of direct military intervention if needed (as occured already April 28).
"The way it [the Lebanese conflict] is represented is of enormous importance, " says Kenneth Ziebell, who manages a World Council of Churches retreat for Middle East Christian leaders in Cyprus. "In general other churches do not identify with that [the Phalangist] point of view. But they differ on Lebanon -- from taking sides to not getting involved."
Here are the basic stands:
The Maronite patriarch, Antonios Butros Khraish, who is on the ruling council of the Phalange-dominated Lebanese Front, supports the Phalangist cause. But there is dissidence within the Maronite community.
A group called "nationalist Maronites" appeared on the scene last year, campaigning against the "Judaization of Maronism through the establishment of unusual relations with Israel." Northern Lebanese leader Sulayman Franjiyah, a Maronite and former president of the country, along with Maronite political leader Raymond Edde and nine independent Maronite ministers of Parliament in Lebanon lead opposition to the Phalange line. President Elias Sarkis, a Maronite, gingerly steers a course between Phalange and anti- Phalange sides.
Other Christian leaders who have condemned Israeli involvement in Lebanon are Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, Greek Catholic Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, and the Greek Catholic League president, Elie Sawaya. Greek Catholic Patriarch Maximus V. Hakim has pleaded with Lebanese to avoid Christian-Muslim polarization.
Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox officials and leaders of other faiths have generally kept a low political profile in the conflict -- some clerics privately condemning the Phalange, others expressing mild support.
Overall, however, Christian leaders in the Middle East are bitterly opposed to Israeli policies -- especially policies that concern Jerusalem. Signatories to a resolution declaring Zionism "the new Nazism" were the Greek Orthodox patriarch to Antioch, alexandra, and Jerusalem; the archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church; the Syrian Orthodox patriarch; the Armenian Catholic archbishop to Damascus; the Maronite Catholic patriarch to Damascus; and other church officials.
The resolution, signed in Damascus at a meeting called by the Greek Orthodox patriarch, declares: "We -- Christian, Muslims, and Jews, believers and unbelievers -- are all equally concerned with the unfortunate consequences of Zionism."
In Lebanon, even Phalange officials now hesitate to refer to the conflict in Lebanon as Christian-Muslim, in part because they are attempting to cultivate links with the Shiite Muslim "Amal" movement and the Druze, an ancient Islamic offshoot group.
"We prefer to think of our cause as pro- Lebanon," Lebanese Forces spokesman Naoum Farah said recently.
"A look at Lebanon's Christian community will indicate that Lebanese Christians, sometimes even Christians of the same denomination, belong to different factions," Leopoldo G. Niilus, and official of the World Council of Churches, recently told the Beirut weekly magazine Monday Morning.
"Israel's claim that it is defending both Lebanon and the Lebanese Christians seems to contradict the actions it is undertaking. Israel may consider these actions to be dictated by its security interests, but one does not see why and how Israel should be the protector of the Christians in the area."
Western diplomats in Syria and Lebanon point out that Syria is one of the most secular nations in the Arab world and has no religious ax to grind with Phalange. Says a military specialist: "The Phalange started the fighting in Zahle [in central Lebanon] and the syrians were deathly afraid of having their troops in Beirut cut off."
Syrian officials hotly deny they see events through a religious lens.
"No Syrians think in religious terms on these matters -- except perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood [which is fiercely opposed by the Syrian regime]," says a Syrian information official who is Greek Orthodox. "I have never experienced a problem because of my religion, nor have my friends."
The role of Christians in the Middle East was described in an essay last summer by Dr. Charles Malik, former president of the UN General Assembly, philosophy professor emeritus at Beirut's American University, and a member of the rightist Lebanese Front.
For Christians, he wrote, "The irreducible position is to be exactly as free and secure as the Christians of Europe and America: This is their right, this is their heritage, this is their destiny."
He predicted a coming era of "genuine pluralism" in the Middle East, and concluded: "Jew, Christian, and Muslim must feel and be equally free and secure, for this new era and this new civilization to supervene. This is coming. The only question is to pray and work for it to come with a minimum of further estrangement and further shedding of blood."