“What is the Role of Christians in Lebanon Today”. Interview with Fouad Abou Nader
Luca Steinmann 21 January 2019

His manner is calm, discrete and polite, and he is dressed elegantly. Yet his refined attire conceals the scars of the more than 20 wounds he received during the war in Lebanon in his many clashes with Palestinian militias, Syrian soldiers and their local allies. Dark and composed, his face nevertheless lights up when he recalls “sheik Pierre”—otherwise known as Pierre Gemayel. A national hero in Lebanon, Gemayel also happens to be his grandfather.

Perhaps more importantly, the older man was the founder of the Lebanon’s Christian nationalist party—the Phalange—which played a major role in the liberation of Lebanon from the French Mandate in the 1930s and early ‘40s. “Pierre Gemayel was a man of the people, a patriarch,” recalls his grandson, Abou Nader. “He was the only leader in history who could not make a decent speech in public. He had to compensate for that limitation by remaining close among the people”.

Fouad Abou Nader is himself a prominent figure in Lebanon, the former head of the Lebanese Forces and nowadays one of the main leaders of the country’s Christian community. The story of the Gemayel family, to which he belongs, is strongly tied to the history of the entire country. His ancestors fought against the Ottoman empire, his grandfather against the French. His two uncles, Bachir and Amine Gemayel, each served as president of Lebanon at different times. Bachir was assassinated in 1982. Shortly before his death he said: “If I had had the chance to bestow a medal of honour on behalf of the Resistance, I would certainly have given it to the greatest fighter for the cause—Fouad Abou Nader.”

The resistance that Bachir spoke of is the war fought between 1975 and 1990 by Christian militias—first against the Palestinians, then against the Syrian Army and its Lebanese supporters. “This was not a civil war” states Abou Nader, matter-of-factly, “but a war of resistance against foreign invaders during which there was fighting between Lebanese”. Everything started in 1948 with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing Israel, who settled in makeshift camps spread out all over the country.

This arrival upset the very fragile balance between the different religions and ethnicities that comprise Lebanese society. Back then, Christians were about 50% of the population, the rest divided up between the Druze, the Shi’ ites and the Sunni Muslims. The arrival of the Palestinians—of whom the great majority was Sunni Muslim—was seen by some Lebanese Muslims as an opportunity to dilute the influence of the Christians and strengthen Islamic influence in society. “The Palestinians are the Sunni army of Lebanon” the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon noted at that time.

 

Palestinian camps

 

In this context, the Palestinians were relegated into camps that slowly became permanent settlements. More than this, they began to take the form of autonomous “states within the state”. From 1967—sponsored by their Lebanese and international supporters—Palestinian groups acquired arms and training, transforming the camps into militia strongholds. The militias then used these as bases to launch attacks against neighbouring Israel.

The Lebanese army was soon unable to enter the camps due both to the military skills of the Palestinians and to the political support they had among the Muslim population. Now and then, clashes broke out between the army and the Palestinian militias, which had begun to broaden their military presence outside the camps. This triggered tensions with locals, especially with the Christians.

Abou Nader remembers it very well. “The Palestinians became more aggressive and haughty. They started to move out, beyond the camps, taking much of the land and the houses of the Lebanese. They would steal cars and then return to the camps—beyond the reach of any external authority. They would stop us at makeshift checkpoints, extorting money and insulting us for being Christian. It was daily harassment”.

According to Nader, the aggression of the Palestinians reflected a combination of petty crime conducted by some as well as the objective of their militias to take over Lebanon. They wanted to turn Beirut into a “Palestinian Hanoi”, from where they could launch their return to Palestine.

Having seen the passivity of the Lebanese army, some Christians started to organize themselves into volunteer militias to confront the Palestinians. The Phalange’s youth movement spearheaded these efforts, acquiring weapons and training young people to use them. Abou Nader was one of these youth militiamen, and well remembers the moment in which he decided to join the armed cause. Back then, he was a 19-year-old university student.

“I was with a friend in Beirut and we had the misfortune to cross paths with a pro-Palestinian demonstration. We were stopped by a group of protesters who started to lay into us when they realized we were Christians. After they beat us up, they delivered us up to the Palestinian authorities—to the main headquarters, actually. We were taken into a large room where Yasser Arafat was seated, surrounded by his generals”. Abou Nader recalls Arafat looking at the two and saying: “You know you Christians, the day will come when you are the ones who will be dwelling in camps and you will understand what it is like to live in a tent”.

 

War between Palestinians and Christians

 

A couple of weeks later, war between Christians and Palestinians officially broke out. Abou Nader joined the Phalange’s military division as a volunteer and became the head of its special unit, in charge of infiltrating the enemy lines and undertaking reconnaissance and other intelligence-gathering. In 1984, he assumed command of the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella group of different Christian militias. Abou Nader was seriously injured in clashes in 1975, 1976 and 1983. Then, in 1986, he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt and barely survived.

Those were years of very cruel and bloody fighting, with many massacres perpetrated against civilians, Lebanese and Palestinian alike. Lebanon suffered waves of invasion and occupation by foreign armies. The Syrians entered the country—first to support the Christians, then switching over to the Palestinians.

“Assad’s family has always considered our country as a Syrian province,” explains Abou Nader, “so they would play us off against one another, always shifting support to the weakest player to prevent any one army taking control of the whole country. They wanted the country to be divided so that they could launch an annexation”. He says that Israel played the same game, invading Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982, establishing its own proxy Lebanese force, the South Lebanon Army. Virtually the entire Arab world accuses the Christians of forming an alliance with the Israeli occupiers, Abou Nader insists.

Indeed, the Lebanese Forces did make contact with Israel at the end of 1976 seeking assistance and purchasing vehicles and weapons; some of their militia took military training from the Israelis. “They had an ambiguious relationship with us,” explains Abou Nader. “Sometimes they would help us, at other times opposing us. We never fought with them; our cooperation was always indirect. They always fought their missions alone”.

It was during the second Israeli occupation that Bachir Gemayel was assassinated, shortly after being elected president and promising to expel all the occupying forces from Lebanon. Abou Nader remembers him very well. “He was just eight years older than me and was like an older brother. He was a very charismatic leader, a good speaker, and was very close to the people. He never thought of himself above them. When you have confidence in yourself, you don’t need any official glorification”.

 

A buffer zone between Shiites and Sunnis

 

After Bachir’s death, Abou Nader assumed command of the Lebanese Forces, but had to face an internal revolt against his leadership led by Elie Hobeika and Samir Geagea. So, he relinquished power to them, refusing what he considered a fratricidal venture. “My priority has always been the protection of the Christian presence in Lebanon,” he says, explaining that decision.

Despite this move, intra-Christian conflicts continued to roil the movement through the ‘80s, which contributed mightily to the defeat of the Christian resistance that led to the occupation of Lebanon by the Syrian army between 1990 and 2005. During this time, the Syrian intelligence forces (Mukhabarat) made life very difficult for the former Lebanese fighter, seen as a national focus of opposition to the Syrian presence. At one point, Abou Nader had to leave the country for a year.

Nowadays, the situation in Lebanon is very different, presenting many threats and challenges for the Christians but also new opportunities. The main fracture is no longer between Muslims and Christians, but between the Muslim groups—Shi’ite versus Sunni—a sectarian conflict that has brought bloodshed across the Middle East. Within this new balance, the Christians have assumed a rather unfortunate role—that of buffer between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

In Lebanon, there are around 2000 villages, none of which is a pure mix of Shi’ites and Sunnis. “These two sects coexist peacefully only where Christian presence is strong,” explains Abou Nader. “Nowadays, the Sunnis want Christians around because they represent a buffer zone between them and the Shi’ites, without which sectarian fighting would kick off. For their part, the Shi’ites fear the departure of the Christians because if they did leave, their homes would likely be occupied by Syrian refugees, 99% of whom are Sunni”.

This is why Abou Nader has decided to channel his activism for the Christian cause into a humanitarian mission. He founded Nawraj, an NGO that encourages Christians not to abandon their houses and lands. “Nawraj is neither a party nor a militia,” he explains. “It aims to be a common platform between different parties to foster stability. We need to keep the Christians where they are, because we are the cement of this country”.

Nawraj also aims to spread the voice of the Lebanese Christians all over the Middle East and also in Europe. “During wartime, Christians felt forgotten by the world, which today often disregards how deeply our people suffered,” he notes. “People should know about the importance of the Christian presence in Lebanon, because we are the cement holding this country together”.

 

Photo: PATRICK BAZ / AFP


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