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A Troubled Peace

Lebanon: Loss in civil war has left many Christians isolated. But some are again becoming active in civic life.

June 27, 1998|ANTHONY SHADID | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BSHARRI, Lebanon — Atop the stirring cliffs of St. Elias Mountain and a short drive from some of the last cedars of Lebanon, the Rev. Joseph Sukkar shepherds a service for one of the Arab world's oldest Christian sects--and perhaps its most frustrated.

The cedars and mountains near his Maronite Catholic church long symbolized Lebanon's Christians: their distinctiveness in a Middle East that is overwhelmingly Muslim and their salvation in village redoubts that protected them in times of trouble.

The times are troubled again. Today, though, those mountains and cedars provide another symbol.

They speak of a community's isolation, a growing fear that the Christians' place is more and more threatened in a country whose politics, culture and economy they dominated for 50 years.

Like the cedars that once blanketed Lebanon, the reach of Christians has receded, giving rise to anger and frustration that could endanger Lebanon's fragile, Western democracy, an experiment that virtually stands alone in an authoritarian Arab world.

"The Christians today are splintered. They are nowhere to be found in government or in politics," Sukkar said after his sermon at the church, bathed in soft sunlight and a mountain breeze.

Behind him, on the church's stone wall, a piece of paper echoed those worshipers who glanced at it: "Don't forget us, Mary."

Lebanon's Christians lost the 1975-90 civil war, a devastating conflict that some darkly hint is not yet over.

To stop the fighting, they had to surrender the authority of the once all-powerful presidency, a post that is reserved for a Maronite. In parliament, Christians lost their 6-5 majority for an even split between Christians and Muslims that better reflects the country's murky demographics, an explosive issue in itself because Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932.

Longtime Christian leaders are in prison, in exile or in the grave.

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Lebanese Christians also feel abandoned by their historic guardians in Europe, their Cold War protectors in the United States and their occasional patrons in Israel, which sought allies among right-wing Maronites during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Now, watching over them are Syria and its 35,000 soldiers in Lebanon, attention most Christians would prefer to do without.

"The Syrians are occupying our institutions and they nominate our ministers," said Albert Moukheiber, who served in parliament for 25 years but lost his seat by boycotting the 1992 election. "Nothing is done without the will of Syria."

Dory Chamoun, son of the late President Camille Chamoun, calls anyone working with the government a collaborator.

Not all Christians share that anger. Many Greek Orthodox, the second-biggest Christian sect, long sided with leftists and Syrian nationalists and chafe at Maronite dominance over other Christians.

In the ritzy Christian suburbs of Beirut, the nightclubs, restaurants and chic cafes exude a veneer of prosperity and a flashy materialism more common to the West than the Arab world.

And the Syrian presence, while widely unpopular, has secured Lebanon its longest peace in a generation.

But many Christians share the disgust that the only militia leader the government imprisoned after the civil war is a Maronite, Samir Geagea, head of the now-disbanded Lebanese Forces. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Christian rival, his wife and two sons in 1991.

Geagea's fate contrasts with other warlords whose shady war records equaled or surpassed his but today serve in the cabinet.

"Fifteen years of war, and there's only one criminal in the country?" asked Farid el Khazen, a respected Lebanese analyst and professor at American University of Beirut.

Others complain that the government, under Syrian pressure, has given preference to Muslims, gerrymandering voting districts and dragging its feet on resettling tens of thousands of Christians displaced by the war--charges the government denies.

In Geagea's home of Bsharri, a village overlooked by a barren mountain streaked with snow that was the home of Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran, Sukkar warns that the tension has reached the breaking point--for Christians and for Lebanon.

"The feud will start again," he said. "People are waiting for the right time and the right conditions to turn things around."

The potential exists, but many believe it is unlikely soon.

The Christians have few allies today. Israel is consumed by its simmering war with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. The United States and Europe seem more concerned with Lebanon's stability than its sovereignty.

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That reality has led a small but growing number of Christians to urge the community to reconsider its fate: Forgo their estrangement and become more active in a civic life that, while dominated by Syria, remains one of the Arab world's most vibrant.

A hint of that changing attitude occurred in May when Christian groups took part in Lebanon's first municipal elections in 35 years, making impressive gains. That followed a Christian boycott of 1992 and 1996 parliamentary elections that left the community without what it considered its true representation.

"The feeling that they have lost, the feeling that they are a minority, is an illness of which they have to be cured," said Ghassan Moukheiber, a lawyer and nephew of Albert Moukheiber, the former parliament member.

"But there is a new mood, which is slowly but surely getting back into the Christian community: Play a decisive role," he said. "That will be the true protection of Christians."

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