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In Hezbollah stronghold, Lebanese Christians find respect, stability

In a Christian home in a Shiite suburb of Beirut, images of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah share mantel and wall space with the Virgin Mary. 

By Staff writer / December 21, 2012

Randa Gholam, a Christian living the Hezbollah stronghold neighborhood of Harat Hreik, stands next to a poster of Hasan Nasrallah in her home on November 15, in Beirut, Lebanon. Gholam supports and admires Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and says she feels free to worship as a Christian in a predominately Shiite neighborhood.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Dahiyeh, Lebanon

In a home in a Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut, images of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah share mantel and wall space with the Virgin Mary

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The face of the revered Shiite militant leader appears on posters, a calendar, and in several photographs nestled amid those of Christian homeowner Randa Gholam's family members. Mr. Nasrallah is, Ms. Gholam asserts amid a string of superlatives, “a gift from God.”

Lebanon’s sectarian divides are legendary, and the residents of the historically Christian neighborhood of Harat Hreik, now a Hezbollah stronghold, remember well the civil war that set Beirut on fire. They were literally caught in the middle of some of the most vicious fighting, with factions firing shots off at one another from either side of their apartment buildings.

But in the intervening years, as Hezbollah cemented its control over the suburb of Dahiyeh, which includes Harat Hreik, the militant group has been an unexpected source of stability and even protection for the few remaining Christian families. Just a few blocks away from Nasrallah’s compound is St. Joseph’s Church, a vibrant church that Maronite Christians from across Beirut flock to every Sunday. 

“I feel honored to be here. They are honest. They are not extremists. It’s not like everyone describes,” Gholam says. “I can speak on behalf of all my Christian friends. They would say the same thing." 

The Christians living in Harat Hreik are a bit of an anomaly, to be sure. Christians represent a sizable population in Lebanon, though no census has been held in decades. And while Beirut's neighborhoods are gradually becoming more integrated, they still divide largely along religious lines. The fragile peace is under deep strain as regional tensions swirl because of the conflict next door in Syria.

Not fanning the flames

In Hezbollah's early days, its creed was "virulent," and in the past, it may have been responsible for fanning some of those flames. But as Hezbollah gained power and joined the political system, that changed, says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center.

“It doesn’t carry with it an anti-Christian strain anymore," he says. "That’s almost entirely gone. It’s not in their rhetoric, it’s not in their creed.” 

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