Christians in Lebanon See Hopes, Numbers Diminish

Pope's visit spotlights religious diversity in Mideast

Bkerkeh, the mountaintop seat of the Maronite Catholic church, juts out like a fairy-tale castle amid the clouds that surround Mt. Lebanon and its sister peaks. It will be one of Pope John Paul II's main stops in Lebanon's Christian heartland when he visits this weekend.

Since the 9th century, Maronite Christians have found shelter high in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, using their remote location as a shelter against invading Arabs, Mongols, and Turks. Maronites clung tenaciously to their Christian faith while much of the surrounding population was forcibly converted to Islam.

Today, most Maronites live in towns and cities. And the threat to their existence as a community is more subtle. Most are afraid of neighboring Syria, which now dominates Lebanon. And, above all, they are wary of Islam.

"Since the [civil] war ended [in 1990], we have been wandering in the wilderness, not knowing what will become of us or where we are going," says Antoine Haddad, a Maronite Catholic who lives in the rural mountain village of Achkout in the Kesrouan region, the Christian heartland.

"Our top leaders are either in jail or in exile, and those Christian politicians participating in the government ... are all allies of Syria," Mr. Haddad reflects bitterly, his eyes wandering over the craggy cliffs. Lebanon's Acting Prime Minister Gen. Michel Aoun (1988-90), its former President Amine Gemayel (1982-88), and failed presidential hopeful Raymond Edde all live in exile in Paris.

Samir Geagea, a Christian militia commander during the civil war, is in jail serving two sentences for murder in what his lawyers argue are trumped-up charges. Mr. Geagea earned the wrath of Syria for his wartime alliance with Israel.

The Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, complains stridently that an upsurge in non-Christian immigration to Lebanon, coupled with the government's recent decision to grant citizenship to a large number of Muslims, is "weakening the Christian voice in Lebanon."

"There is no place for us in this country anymore," says Maroun Antar, an Eastern-rite Melikite Christian from the Beirut suburb of Dora, who is waiting to leave for Australia with his family. "The United States sold us to Syria. Why should we stay here to one day be absorbed by Islam?"

President Bush is held responsible by many Lebanese Christians for allowing Syria to invade the Christian enclave north and east of Beirut in 1990. Some say Mr. Bush gave Syria the green light to do so in exchange for its participation in the Gulf-war coalition against Iraq.

Lebanese Christians make up roughly 1.5 million of the country's 3.5 million population, one of the largest concentrations of Christians in the Middle East.

But their numbers are dwindling. Not long ago, Cardinal Sfeir estimated the number of Christians who have left Lebanon in recent years at around 500,000. The French Press Agency calculates that there are 800,000 Maronites, 400,000 Greek Orthodox, 300,000 Eastern-rite Melikites, and 75,000 Armenian Christians in Lebanon.

Many Christians began fleeing the country after the civil war broke out in 1975. Over a 15-year period fighting erupted not only between and among Christian and Muslim factions, but also with invading Israeli and Syrian troops. The late President Suleiman Franjieh accused the US of deliberately encouraging Christians to leave in order to make Lebanon a Palestinian homeland. (Palestinians are mostly Muslim.) Even with the war over, thousands of Lebanese Christians emigrate each year.

Gloom grips the voice of Karim Pakradouni, deputy head of the most influential Christian political movement, the Kataeb. "We were once very strong, we were even the strongest militia during the civil war," reflects Mr. Pakradouni. But the Kataeb Party did not win a single seat in parliamentary elections held last September. "Now, our children are leaving the country in a slow trickle," he says.

One item on the pope's agenda during his two-day visit beginning tomorrow is to reaffirm the decisions of a bishop's synod for Lebanon, held at the Vatican in 1995. The synod condemned the lack of freedom and ongoing human rights abuses caused by the presence of Israeli and Syrian troops who occupy the country.

The 1989 Taef Agreement, signed by members of the Lebanese parliament, theoretically gave Christians and Muslims an equal say in running Lebanon. But "for all practical purposes," says former parliament member Albert Moukheiber, "it gave up all sovereignty to Syria."

"The people do not have a say in the composition of [their] government," Cardinal Sfeir complained recently. "Just because you have a [specific number] of people from different sects doesn't mean the government is representative."

Lebanon was carved out of Syria during France's brief League of Nations mandate (1921-43) and was later governed somewhat autocratically by Maronite leaders like former President Camille Chamoun (1953-58). While Maronites still nominally control the presidency, the role of the president has been diminished.

Lebanon's Christians, many of whom were staunchly pro-French, and Lebanon's Muslims, many of whom championed pan-Arab socialism and later Islamic nationalism, made a tacit pact during the pre-civil-war period not push their sectarian aims.

"The strength of Lebanon came from the acceptance by its leaders that neither Christians nor Muslims would impose their will on each other," says one Christian politician, who asked not to be named. "Everyone agreed to disagree," he adds.

Today, Lebanese leaders no longer appear to have enough cohesion even to agree about disagreeing. The Maronite Christian president, the Sunni Muslim prime minister, and the Shiite Muslim speaker of parliament have quarreled so frequently that their disputes have elicited the wrath of Syria, which usually arbitrates differences.

The pope's visit, however, does not appear to have created much controversy. John Paul II had first planned to visit in 1994, but an explosion that year in a Maronite church that killed nine people caused the trip to be put off because of security concerns.

This time around, the Vatican saw to it that the visit was cleared in advance with Syria. The Vatican sent diplomatic representative Jean-Louis Tauran to Damascus several times to prepare the ground and reassure Syria that the visit was "not directed against Syria."

Sheikh Said Shaaban, the fundamentalist Muslim leader of Lebanon's Islamic Unity Movement, initially threatened to disrupt the pope's visit. After Syria expressed displeasure, he canceled the rally.

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