Christian Lebanon Lost to Radical Islam
by Richard Jansen
Lebanon is now a predominately Muslim country. However, this wasn’t by any means always the case. Until relatively recently Lebanon was primarily a Christian country in an Islamic world. The Muslim invaders in the 7th century were not able to conquer the Christian presence in the mountains of Mount Lebanon. This has been well described by Walid Phares in his 1998 book Lebanese Christian Nationalism: the Rise and Fall of an Ethnic Resistance (Lynne Reinner Publishers, London).
Lebanon is an ancient country mentioned sixty-five times in the Old Testament. Christianity was introduced into Lebanon in the Apostolic period or shortly thereafter, and considerable evangelizing started in the 4th century. The predominant Christians were followers of the Syrian Priest Aroun and were, and still are, known as Maronites. Today there also are in Lebanon Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics. The American University of Beirut was founded by American Protestants.
The first Christian Mardaite State was established in the area of Mount Lebanon in 676 AD and was 90% Christian. The state encompassed Mount Lebanon but also included most of present day Lebanon including the littoral in the west along the Mediterranean Sea and the Bekaa valley in the east. The Christian presence shrank continuously with pressure from Arab encirclement, but with help from the Christian Crusaders survived until 1305 AD. As the Crusaders were driven out at the beginning of the 14th century, the Third Mardaite state collapsed under attack from Mamluk Muslim armies. Prior to this collapse the Muslim presence in Lebanon had split into Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and several heterodox sects including the Druze and the Alawites. By the end of the 15th century Lebanon had become part of the Ottoman Empire, where it remained until the end of World War I.
World War I resulted in tremendous changes in the Muslim world including Lebanon. The Ottoman Empire joined forces with Germany and both were defeated. At the end of the war the Ottoman Empire was divided into the British Mandates of Iraq and Palestine, and the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon. The remainder of the Empire was saved by Attaturk as the secular Republic of Turkey. Within the French Mandate of Lebanon a strong nationalist movement developed. This movement resulted in a movement to expand Lebanon beyond Mount Lebanon, predominantly Christian, to the Bekaa valley and other areas that were predominately Muslim. What developed was a religiously divided state, planting the seeds of problems which continue to this day.
Political power and the government bureaucracy were organized in the 1926 constitution — as amended by France in 1927, 1929, and 1943 — according to religious groups. This arrangement became known as confessionalism, and resulted in a communal Lebanon. Independence from France came during World War II with The National Pact, an unwritten covenant providing for a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shi’a Muslim speaker of parliament. It also provided that the ratio of seats in parliament would be six Christian seats for every five Muslim seats, and other government posts would be allotted on similar sectarian criteria. When Muslims later became the majority, they sought greater power, but Christians refused to make significant changes.
– – – – – – – – –
In1956, under the Christian President Chamoun, Lebanon refused to break diplomatic relations with Great Britain and France over the Suez crisis. This stand infuriated the Arabs and caused tensions within the Lebanese Republic. The Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Abdallah Yafi resigned because the Christian President refused to take action against the two Western powers. Opposition against Chamoun grew stronger as Lebanon accepted protection under the Eisenhower doctrine for the Middle East in 1957.
The situation in Lebanon began to heat up in 1958. At that time armed civilian partisans of President Chamoun were important supporters of the government. The multi-religious Partie Populaire Syrienne (PPS) and the Christian Phalange party were the most prominent and strongest groups in Chamoun’s defense force. The basic division in the country was between Muslim and Christian interests and forces. The Lebanese army was a reflection of Lebanese society. General Fuad Chehab, a Christian, feared a holocaust between the two religious factions. He was afraid that any attempt to put down the disturbances by the armed forces would mean the dissolution of his army and its division between Christian and Muslim armed groups.
On May 12, 1958, the leaders of the Muslim section of Beirut, the Basta, called a general strike. An armed stalemate developed rapidly. Rebels under the leadership of Rashid Karami controlled mostly Muslim Tripoli. Muslim interests in the Muslim southern city of Sidon and in the Bekaa valley controlled these areas. The Druze under Kamal Jumblatt controlled central Lebanon and opposed the government of President Chamoun. On May 14, President Chamoun requested American assistance under the Eisenhower doctrine. President Eisenhower agreed to do so. His orders were carried out by amphibious units of the Sixth Fleet and on May 16 American Marines landed on the beaches of Beirut among the bathers and immediately seized the airport.
Another seminal event for Lebanon was Black September in Jordan in 1970. Fatah and other Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) factions had been active for a long time among the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war still living in refugee camps. During the 1960’s the center for armed Palestinian actions had been Jordan. In September 1970 Yasser Arafat and the PLO tried to take over the government of Jordan. King Hussein in three weeks of bloody fighting succeeded in evicting the bulk of the PLO fighters from Jordan. Most migrated to Lebanon and settled in the refugee camps. They soon established a “state within a state” where they have become a major destabilizing force ever since.
Along with developing armed resistance to Israel the PLO demanded political, police and economic control of the refugee camps, much of south Lebanon, and the Bekaa valley in the east. Military training activities occurred in these areas causing increased friction within Lebanon. Armed clashes between the Palestinians and Lebanese military and security forces occurred especially in the south and around Beirut. For the residents in south Lebanon, PLO rule was a disaster. Many Lebanese in south Lebanon when interviewed by Western journalists told of rape, mutilation and murder committed by PLO forces.
In 1975 Civil War broke out in Lebanon after a Christian partisan in front of a Maronite church in Beirut was shot by Palestinian gunman. Shortly thereafter a bus full of PLO fighters was ambushed by Christian militiamen a few blocks away. War between Christian and Muslims spread throughout all of Lebanon. Syrian forces entered the war in 1978 and allied themselves with Muslim forces. The country became divided into areas controlled on the one hand by Christian forces and, on the other, by Muslim/Palestinian/Syrian forces. The Civil War lasted until 1990, during the last year of which another civil war between two rival Christian forces was fought. The civil wars ended in 1990 after Syrian intervention and occupation.
Meanwhile, in 1978 25,000 Israeli troops invaded Southern Lebanon on March 14, in a campaign to stop raids into Northern Israel by the PLO. The Israelis withdrew in June and turned over Southern Lebanon to the South Lebanon Army (SLA) led by Saad Haddad, a former Lebanese Army officer who established his own militia. In 1981 Israel began bombing PLO targets in Lebanon. On June 6, 1982 Israel again invaded Lebanon in response to two specific attacks: the bombing of a bus in Northern Israel and an assassination attempt on Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Shlomo Argov. Israel occupied Lebanon as far north as Beirut and drove much of the PLO out of Lebanon.
Hizbullah was formed in Lebanon in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion. This radical Shi’a group takes its inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teaching of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Hizbullah is dedicated to Liberating Jerusalem, destroying Israel and establishing Islamic rule in Lebanon. Between the spring of 1983 and the summer of 1985 Hizbullah launched an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings which included the 1982 assassination of the Christian President of Lebanon Bashir Gemayel, and the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut with the loss of life of over 200 U.S. Marines. From 1982 to 1992 ninety six foreign nationals including twenty-five Americans were kidnapped in Lebanon by Hizbullah and its associates. Hizbullah succeeded in driving Israel out of Southern Lebanon in 2000 giving rise to the disintegration of the South Lebanese Army and further destabilization in Lebanon.
The 1989 National Reconciliation Charter, commonly known as the Ta’if Agreement, brought an end to the civil wars and most of the fighting, and required amendments to the Lebanese constitution, which were passed in 1990. The constitutional amendments preserved certain confessional allotments but gave Muslims increased power, for example, by dividing parliament’s seats equally between Christians and Muslims. The new constitution also made the Shi’a speaker a member of a troika (executive threesome) with the Maronite president and Sunni prime minister. The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act was passed by the United States Congress, and signed by President George W. Bush in 2003. The act’s purpose was “to halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, and cease its illegal importation of Iraqi oil and illegal shipments of weapons and other military items to Iraq”. This act restored the importance of supporting Lebanon’s independence by stating that the full restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity is in the national security interest of the United States.
The international community was growing convinced that the Syrian regime did not play any positive role in Lebanon, not to mention its negative role in supporting the regime of the ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, and the insurgents in Iraq against the new Iraqi government. The Syrian control of Lebanon was very obvious when the Syrian government wanted to renew the expired term of the Syrian-appointed president in Lebanon Emile Lahoud. The Syrian regime worked to amend the Lebanese constitution which at that time prevented the re-election of presidents. The United States and France drafted a resolution that was adopted by the United Nations Security Council on September 2, 2004 as Resolution 1559. It supported a free and fair presidential election in Lebanon to be conducted according to Lebanese constitutional rules, devised without foreign interference or influence, and called upon all forces to withdraw from Lebanon. The resolution called also for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias in the country. The Syrian regime ignored the resolution and forced the puppet parliament in Lebanon to amend the constitution of Lebanon and extend the Pro-Syrian’s president term for three more years despite the wide public opposition to Lahoud. The Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council in the end of September 2004, and stated that the Syrian regime refused to pull its troops and security forces from Lebanon, and that neither the Syrian government nor its proxy government in Lebanon was working to disarm the country’s militias, such as Hizbullah and the radical Palestinian militias.
The United Nations resolution demonstrated regional and international interest in the case of Lebanon. Arabic media sources from several Arabic countries broke the conventional taboo of criticizing other Arabic regimes. Terms such as pro-Syrian government in Lebanon, Pro-Syrian president of Lebanon and Syrian-appointed president were utilized in the Arabic media joining the international community in describing the Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Voices from Jordan and the Arabian Gulf countries called openly on Syria to implement Resolution 1559.
By the end of 2004, the public opposition to the Syrian occupation and its proxy regime in Lebanon had grown substantially and attracted many political leaders, including even some of those who were previously allied with the Syrian regime such as the prominent Muslim-Sunni leader Rafik Hariri, and the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. The Lebanese opposition formed a wide Christian-Muslim opposition front and decided to participate in the general elections in May 2005. The conflict regarding resolution 1559 in Lebanon remained ongoing between those who were hoping to implement it, and those who were afraid of losing their major power in the country, their martial force. As the resolution called for full withdrawal of Syrian forces, and the disarming of Hizbullah and radical militias, the latter three parties are still striving to prevent its implementation so they can maintain an exceptional power through the use of physical control.
Former premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on February 14, 2005 by a massive car bomb that killed sixteen other people. The opposition met after Hariri’s assassination later that night and publicly accused the pro-Syrian government and Damascus of being behind the assassination. They called for the Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon, demanded an international protection for Lebanon, and called on the pro-Syrian illegal government to resign. On February 18, 2005, the opposition launched the “Independence Peaceful Uprising” to liberate Lebanon, motivating the Lebanese masses to support its move. The Lebanese in occupied Lebanon and in the Lebanese diaspora held mass rallies to support the freedom of their occupied motherland. The protests continued until the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon resigned on February 28, 2005. Syrian troops finally did pull out but Syrian interest was far from ended. Today the threat to Lebanon comes primarily from Iranian backed Hizbullah.
According to UN Resolution 1559, Hizbullah was required to disband its militia. This it refused to do and no one in Lebanon or outside Lebanon was strong enough or willing enough to force Hizbullah to take this step. On July 12, 2006 Hizbullah ground forces, without the knowledge or permission of the government of Lebanon, crossed into Israel and killed several Israeli soldiers, wounded several others and took two Israeli soldiers prisoner. The Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, declared this to be an act of war, and attacked with small units of ground forces Hizbullah positions along the Israel Lebanon border. By also attacking with air power civilian targets near Beirut, Israel’s response was not only weak but counterproductive. The military action ended several months later with pretty much the status quo ante, with the two Israeli soldiers still prisoners and Hizbullah as politically and militarily strong as ever.
Since the 2006 war the government of Lebanon has been under siege by Hizbullah. A truce was signed in Doha, Qatar in spring of 2008 between the government of Lebanon and the opposition led by Hizbullah. This is a truce in name only and in fact Hizbullah, with its strength in Parliament, its powerful militia, an unreliable Lebanese army, and a divided opposition now controls the government of Lebanon. A 1986 estimate by the United States Central Intelligence Agency of the confessional distribution of the population showed 27 percent Sunnis, 41 percent Shi’as, 7 percent Druzes, 16 percent Maronites, 5 percent Greek Orthodox, and 3 percent Greek Catholics. These data were, at best, informed estimates but they translate into a population that is three quarters Muslim.
It is a fact that many if not most Christians had left Lebanon. For example, most Lebanese in the United States are Christian, not Muslim. It is likely that the population of Lebanon today in religious affiliation is more than three-quarters Muslim. A Lebanon predominantly Christian for nearly two millennia appears to be lost, perhaps forever.