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.
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Recently, when the Shiite holiday of Ashura was approaching, the streets were choked with residents shopping and passing out sweets and blanketed with black banners commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein Ali. But Christians live openly here, and they describe Hezbollah as a tolerant group that has steadfastly supported their presence, even sending Christmas cards to Christian neighbors like Gholam.Skip to next paragraph
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Gholam, who throws a party every year in honor of Nasrallah’s birthday and places a photo of him in her Christmas tree, is certainly an anomaly. But other Christian families also speak approvingly of their life under Hezbollah, especially when compared to its predecessor, Amal, which they say forced many Christian residents to sell their homes. In contrast, Hezbollah extended financial support to the Christian families when Dahiyeh needed rebuilding after the civil war and the 2006 war with Israel.
Rony Khoury, a Maronite Christian who was born in Harat Hreik and still lives in the same apartment, says he feels comfortable drinking alcohol on his front porch, in full view of members of Hezbollah, and his wife feels no pressure to don a head scarf or follow other rules governing Muslim women's attire. They have property in a predominantly Christian area of Beirut, but have no desire to move.
“After Hezbollah came, we didn’t have any worries,” Mr. Khoury says, citing safe streets. "The security is No. 1 in the world. I leave my car open, I forget something outside…. It's very safe now, under Hezbollah."
Only between 10 and 20 of the pre-civil war Christian families remain, out of the thousands who lived there before the fighting. While the numbers are low, Khoury insists that many would come back, if only they could afford it. But property values have climbed, and many of those who left can’t afford to move back.
Of course, there are calculations behind Hezbollah's magnanimity. Hezbollah’s political alliance with the Lebanese Christian political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, is important to the group, and it “bends over backward to keep those relations comfortable,” Mr. Salem says.
It might also be a way to one-up Sunnis in Lebanon, with whom Shiites are constantly vying for dominance. “They pride themselves on saying they’re more tolerant, more open than Sunnis. In Lebanon, it’s a point of pride,” Salem says.
Both Khoury and Gholam, as well as neighborhood Shiites who dropped by their homes, said there are far more issues with Sunnis.
"Shiite extremists like Hezbollah, they come to our church" as a show of support, says Khoury. "But Sunni extremists, like Salafis, they kill me, they kill you."
Things could change
Ultimately, it is Hezbollah’s foreign backers dictating the mood in Harat Hreik. If it became politically expedient for Hezbollah to abandon its acceptance of Christian neighbors, Hezbollah would be compelled to make life difficult for them.
“For Iran and Syria, their main backers, Hezbollah is mainly a strategic force against Israel. That’s the point – not creating an Islamic state or fighting a sectarian war," Salem says. “Hezbollah is a very top-down organization. If Iran decrees something else, something else will happen.”
But that’s not something Gholam can fathom.
"I will never even think about Hezbollah giving anyone a hard time. I can't even think about answering that question," she says.