In Lebanon, a crisis for Christians

Pierre Gemayel's murder is yet another blow to the Christian bloc, sidelined by a Sunni-Shiite political divide.

As this mountain town in the Christian heartland north of Beirut mourns the murder of one of its most revered leaders, Pierre Gemayel, its residents ponder a future that many fear is slipping toward civil conflict.

"The Shiites want everything now and they are armed and we Christians and the Sunnis are being pushed aside," says Charbel Tannoury, a baker who fought in Lebanon's 1975-1990 war as a militiaman for the Phalange Party, once the dominant Christian political body.

With Lebanese soldiers flanking the main street Friday, mourners lined up in the courtyard of the magnificent stone mansion, seat of the Gemayel family, to offer condolences for the death of the 34-year-old Pierre, industry minister and Phalange chief who was shot dead last week.

Gemayel's death has cast a pall over a community that once dominated post-independence Lebanon, but today feels marginalized and torn apart in a new confrontation defined by a Sunni-Shiite political faultline rather than the more traditional Christian-Muslim division.

"The Christians see themselves as an embattled community which is being targeted and whose leaders are being targeted," says Ghassan Moukheiber, a Christian member of parliament (MP) in the bloc of Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander in opposition to the government.

Gemayel was the latest victim in a sporadic campaign of assassinations and bombings that has shaken Lebanon over the past two years. All the bomb attacks have occurred in Christian neighborhoods and all but two of the assassination attempts have targeted Christian figures, both politicians and journalists.

But instead of uniting the historically divisive community, the killings and heightened sectarian tension has polarized the Christians even further.

"Today, there is a big difference of opinion among the Christians and I don't think anyone will change positions easily," George Adwan, an MP for the Christian Lebanese Forces party, said Sunday after meeting with the Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir.

Lebanon's political class traditionally comprised several feudal dynasties drawn from all the major sects – the Maronite and Druze families in the Mount Lebanon range, the Shiite clans in the south and Bekaa Valley, and the wealthy Sunni merchants of the coastal cities.

Following independence from France in 1943, the divisions between the Maronite families were largely defined by rivalry for the presidency that is reserved for the sect. After the end of the civil war in 1990, the militant Shiite Hizbullah and Rafik Hariri, the former Sunni prime minister, came to dominate their respective communities, overshadowing the traditional families. But the Christians emerged from the conflict weakened and split under Syria's postwar domination of Lebanon.

Many Christians hoped that the disengagement of Syria from Lebanon last year following Hariri's murder would signal the political revitalization of the community. Instead, they have found themselves caught in the middle of a worsening confrontation between Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities.

"The Christians are in a state of confusion. They don't know where they are going," says Abdullah Bouhabib, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington.

Some, such as the Gemayel family and the Lebanese Forces headed by Samir Geagea, have allied themselves with the March 14 coalition, the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority group of Sunnis, Druze, and Christians.

Mr. Aoun, a once fervently anti-Syrian Lebanese nationalist, won some 70 percent of Christian votes in parliamentary elections last year. But his popularity among Christians has since withered after he struck an unlikely political arrangement with Hizbullah when the March 14 coalition denied him a seat in the government.

Aoun's critics say the move was a self-serving gesture to win Shiite support to bolster presidential ambitions. Others say that having been shunned by the March 14 coalition, the former general had no choice but to embrace Hizbullah or risk political irrelevance. Still, it was a costly decision.

Amin Gemayel, father of the slain Pierre, refused to receive a telephoned offer of condolences from Aoun, although he accepted condolences from Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah.

The schism between Aoun and the March 14 coalition was evident at the funeral-turned-political rally for Pierre Gemayel in central Beirut last week. Christian supporters of the Gemayels and the Lebanese Forces burned pictures of Aoun and branded him an ally of Syria and Iran, the two countries backing Hizbullah.

"The Phalange and the Lebanese Forces used Pierre Gemayel's death to go after Aoun," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "They have made it such that one can hardly say they are an Aounist without being beaten up."

Cardinal Sfeir, the respected Maronite patriarch, is attempting to forge a resolution between the different political camps, but appears to be pessimistic of his chances. "We are going through miserable days, but we hope they will be followed by happy days in which the Lebanese will reunite.... We mean by that the Christians who are divided," Mr. Sfeir said Sunday.

Hizbullah has vowed to mount a series of actions, possibly including demonstrations and strikes, in the coming days to try and topple the government. The Aounists have yet to declare if they will join Hizbullah.

Mr. Tannoury, the ex-militiaman from Bikfaya, knows better than most the cost of civil war. "The young are angry and want guns," he says. "We older ones are trying to calm them down. We know war. We ruined our lives because of it. So it's up to us."

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