In a land split by factionalism, a new drive for unity

Lebanon's National Gathering for Dialogue has met six times since its creation last year.

When Ahmad Mansour pulled out an AK-47 rifle and gunned down eight of his colleagues at an office of the Education Ministry here three weeks ago, the Lebanese authorities pinned the attack on a financial dispute.

But even before the bodies were carried from the office, Lebanese onlookers were offering a different – more sinister – motive for the killings: Mr. Mansour is a Shia Muslim, and seven of his eight victims were Christians.

"He killed the Christian employees. How can we live in this country?" yells Georges Saade, whose daughter-in-law, Rachel, was killed in the shooting.

Mansour later confessed to police that he had sought revenge after he had been ordered to pay back a $9,500 loan to the office. But his confession failed to halt talk that the shooting was sectarian.

There are 17 officially recognized sects, or confessions, in Lebanon, reflected in the complicated proportional power-sharing mechanism that effects almost every aspect of civil society.

For Tarek Mitri of the World Council of Churches, the public reaction to the killings merely underlines how the Lebanese cannot separate sectarianism from everyday events. "How do you overcome the temptation of reading sectarianism into every aspect of public life in this country?" he asks.

It's a difficult question for this fractious society to answer. But one group is trying. The National Gathering for Dialogue was established by the World Council of Churches a year ago, drawing around 25 prominent Lebanese including academics, politicians, and diplomats from across the sectarian divide. Many of the participants hold strongly divergent views, such as representatives of the Shia Muslim Hizbullah organization, which is supported by neighboring Syria, and members of the Christian Qornet Shehwan opposition group, which opposes Syria's hegemony over Lebanon.

"We look at this dialogue as just bringing solidarity between different groups of Lebanese," says Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, who is a liaison with the Christian community for Hizbullah. "It's very natural that there are differences between us, but we try to find common ground."

Mr. Mitri, who has co-chaired the group's six meetings to date, said that the idea behind the dialogue is to "deconfessionalize the system" and to examine how economic and political disputes turn into sectarian arguments. They have set themselves a challenging task, as sectarianism is deeply rooted in the fabric of this tiny Mediterranean country.

The traditional suspicion among the different sects frustrates attempts to forge true communal harmony. Shifting population demographics and a bitter civil war that pitted faction against faction in 1975 left Lebanon more divided than when the war began, opening wide chasms between communities.

"Before the war, sectarian sentiment was nuanced and subtle," says Samir Khalaf, professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut. "Now, not only is [sectarianism] pronounced but people indulge in it guilt-free."

The surge in sectarian sentiment in recent years has been exacerbated by a steadily worsening economy and the divisive debate over Syria's pervasive influence in Lebanon. The Christian community, comprising about 30 percent of the population, has felt marginalized and underrepresented since the end of the war in 1990. The most strident Christian leaders with strong grass-roots support either languish in jail or in exile.

"Sectarian discrepancies in Lebanon have so greatly increased that the long-term stability of the country is in doubt," wrote Lebanese political analyst Michael Young in the English-language Daily Star on Saturday.

The National Gathering for Dialogue convened in a hotel in the mountains north of Beirut a week ago to address the current mood. "There was a move to condemn extremists on all sides that tend to hold an entire community responsible for the actions of a few," says Mr. Mitri.

Despite their individual differences, there is little friction between the participants when they meet. "There's a kind of friendship between us even if we don't always agree," says Mr. Abu Ghaleb.

So far, the group has played it safe, limiting its discussions mainly to civil reform. Thornier issues such as the relationship with Syria and Hizbullah's anti-Israel activities along the Lebanese-Israeli border are at the bottom of the agenda.

With sectarianism so well-entrenched in Lebanese society, can one small group make a significant difference? "The spirit to make a difference is there, says Mitri. "Whether we will make a real difference, I don't know," he says. "But I believe dialogue is cumulative. We move forward and build on what has been done before."

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