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National Agenda : A Divided Community : Lebanon's Maronite Christians are struggling to recover after a top leader was arrested for allegedly ordering the murder of a rival.

August 16, 1994|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIRUT — The crime was hideous yet not unprecedented in a country that has specialized in dispatching its leaders in hails of machine-gun fire, car bombs, explosive letters and other examples of the annihilative arts.

In the dead of night, three men in military fatigues climbed up to the fifth-floor apartment of Dany Chamoun, a prominent Christian political leader. As Chamoun wrestled with one of them on the floor, his 7-year-old son ran to Chamoun's briefcase and pulled out a gun. His father's attacker cut the boy down with a bullet in the head. His 5-year-old brother, screaming, "No, no, no!," was shot in the eye.

Chamoun's German wife was hit 10 times in the chest and stomach. And Chamoun, one of the most important Maronite Christian political figures left in Lebanon after Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun's flight to exile in France a week earlier, collapsed and died with 15 bullets in him.

Coming on the heels of Syria's ouster of Aoun, the maverick former army commander who holed up for months in Christian East Beirut against both Syrian and rival Christian forces, the Chamoun murder on Oct. 21, 1990, seemed another notch in Syria's belt of domination around Lebanon.

But Lebanese authorities, after investigating the case for nearly four years and interrogating one member of the assassination team, have concluded it was not a Muslim hit squad but rival Christian leader Samir Geagea who was responsible. Moreover, the government has accused Geagea of masterminding the bombing of a Maronite Christian church in Zouk, north of Beirut, Feb. 27, a bloody attack that killed 11, injured 50 others and brought to peacetime Lebanon a disturbing echo of 16 years of a civil war that most thought had ended.

Geagea's arrest this spring has removed from the scene the most influential Christian political figure remaining in Lebanon.

And it has left the Maronite Christian community that for decades dominated Lebanese political life in a state of frustration and disarray.

Hundreds of Christians have fled the country since Geagea's arrest, adding to an exodus over the past five years that has further diminished the minority's representation in Lebanon. Although Christians are well outnumbered by Muslims (as much as 2 to 1, by some estimates), they still hold the presidency and half the Cabinet seats.

"At the moment, most Christians are completely disillusioned," said Christian political analyst Paul Salem. "Most feel they have lost the war. Lebanon is dominated by the Muslims and by the Syrians. They believe the Christians of the East are finished."

Unsure of where to turn, some of the Christian leaders have staked their political fortunes on calling for Lebanese resistance against Syrian domination. But not all.

While the most prominent leaders--Aoun, former president Amin Gemayel, National Bloc party leader Raymond Edde and Chamoun's son Dori--continue to harangue from exile in France against the presence of 35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, a number of key Christian leaders still in Beirut have, in the wake of Geagea's arrest, quietly begun making contacts with Syrian officials in Damascus.

An unprecedented visit by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir to Damascus may not be far away, pro-Syrian newspapers have reported.

"It is true that we must reorient ourselves. We have been passing through more severe periods than ever before, and yet instead of being united all as Christians, every one of us is criticizing the other," said George Saadeh, head of the Falangist Party, the largest Christian political organization, and a bitter rival of Geagea.

"First, we must start to make relations within the Christian community. Then a good Lebanese-Lebanese relation, and after that we will discuss about the outside, with Syria," Saadeh said. "The Lebanese are in three parts now: One part is with the Syrians, and whatever Syria says, they will accept it. The other part is against the Syrians, no matter what. And the third part, which is the part where we are, say if things are good with Syria, we say OK, and if it isn't good, we will oppose it."

This kind of pragmatic talk is a far cry from only four years ago when Aoun, barricaded in the presidential palace at Baabda, railed against Syria until the day Syrian tanks literally blew him out of his hiding place and into refuge at the French Embassy. (Aoun was later granted exile in France in exchange for five years of political silence--which is nearing its end.)

Yet Geagea, 42, a bitter enemy of Aoun who brought war to relatively unscathed Christian East Beirut when the two Christian leaders' militias began slugging it out, carried on long after Aoun retreated to his elegant chateau outside Paris.

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