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Christian Lebanese caught in crossfire

Cardinal Sfeir

Lebanese Christians who have been the staunchest backers of Israel and the Bush administration are perplexed with Israeli shelling of their homes and businesses as the Jewish state attempts to defeat Hezbollah.

Sections of Beirut and certain towns throughout Lebanon are predominantly Christian Maronite and Orthodox. Other towns in the Muslim-majority country are in areas occupied and controlled by Druze, Shiites and Hezbollah.

Among the Christian cities shelled is Junieh, north of Beirut along the Mediterranean coast, regarded as the “Jewel of Lebanon” due to its natural setting. A towering statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the city, called “Our Lady of Lebanon.”

The city also is the home of the Christian patriarch of Lebanon, Cardinal Sfeir.

The Israelis argue they shelled the historic town because of concern over Hezbollah’s use of the port to bring in arms or take out the kidnapped Israeli soldiers.

Now, a predominantly wealthy Christian sector in Beirut has come under Israeli bombardment and the Israelis have shelled the small town of Zahle in the Bakaa Valley north of Beirut.

During the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, devout Christian residents in Zahle successfully repelled Syrians who sought to occupy the town. At the time, the Israelis were major supporters of the Christians.

Unlike Hezbollah, there is no Christian militia that can take on the Shiite terrorist organization.

“They watch TV, too,” one Christian Lebanese man living in the United States said, referring to Hezbollah. “If they see you criticizing them, they will kill you.”

Christian Lebanese sources for this story asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution against family members who remain in Lebanon.

One source said remarks by Cardinal Sfeir, who is visiting the U.S, may have prompted Hezbollah to retaliate by setting up Christians as a target of Israeli bombing.

“I have come to say that the Lebanese are determined to live far from terrorism, tyranny, corruption and despair,” the patriarch said.

Sfeir said he’s “very concerned and anxious” about the situation and condemns “Israel’s recent retaliations against Lebanon’s people and infrastructure” as well as hoping “Hezbollah will finally lay down its arms and join the other citizens of Lebanon in reaching political solutions to all of the Lebanese problems.”

“We look forward to a united, sovereign, free, and truly independent Lebanon, where the Lebanese government exerts its sole authority over all of Lebanon’s territory,” he said.

Within 24 hours of the patriarch’s statement, the Israelis attacked what was said to be two Hezbollah trucks carrying arms in a predominantly Christian section on the outskirts of Beirut.

“You cannot put it past Hezbollah from purposely running their trucks through a predominantly Christian area as retribution for what the Patriarch said about the Hezbollah,” the irate Christian-Lebanese said.

The source, who has been prevented from returning to Lebanon this week due to the conflict, pointed out that since the Christian population has became the minority in Lebanon, it has had no outside political constituency to support it.

Another source, a Christian Lebanese man living in the U.S., believes this lack of support is reflected in what he describes as the Bush administration’s slow response in evacuating Americans from Lebanon.

He argued other nationals already had been transported by ship before any Lebanese-Americans were evacuated. Most of the French and Norwegians evacuated days earlier, he pointed out, were natural citizens of their country.

In contrast, most of the U.S. citizens waiting to be evacuated are Lebanese-Americans, meaning they are naturalized U.S. citizens. They include many Shiites as well as Christians.

The source referred to a television interview with a U.S. admiral who insisted the delay in the evacuation was due to the need to move U.S. warships from the Indian Ocean.

“That’s ridiculous,” the source contended. “The Navy’s Sixth Fleet has been in the Mediterranean for years. They could have brought up ships immediately, or chartered ships like other countries did.”

The Christian-Lebanese source stranded in the United States can’t understand why the Bush administration isn’t providing more support to the Christian Lebanese against Hezbollah.

But he pointed out that among the Christian Lebanese, there are various factions that have their own constituency and agenda, complicating the issue of who are the leaders to work with.

Under the Lebanese constitution, a Christian-Lebanese occupies the presidency, while the prime minister is a Shiite.

A possibility for the lack of support from the Bush administration, he said, may be due to the presence on the political scene of Christian-Lebanese General Michel Aoun.

Once fervently anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah, Aoun recently returned from exile in France with the interest of becoming president of Lebanon.

However, Aoun recently signed a political agreement with Hezbollah, which represents the single most powerful bloc in the Lebanese parliament.

But the source asserted “signing such an agreement doesn’t mean that the Christian Lebanese support Hezbollah’s goals.”

“It reflects the political reality on the ground to acquire the support needed to survive in a country that is becoming increasingly Shiite,” he said.

The source believes, however, that the agreement between Aoun and Hezbollah may have cost the Lebanese Christians any support from the Bush administration.

Given the increased influence of Shiites and Hezbollah in Lebanon, he added, the Bush administration may have determined that the political future of Lebanon is bleak and the ability of Christian Lebanese to influence that process has become very limited.

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