If you climb Harissa Mountain at twilight you will encounter large groups of believers walking to reach the summit, where Our Lady of Lebanon looks to the horizon towards a sea crossed by ships travelling to Cyprus or to the nearby port of Beirut. Immersed in the greenery of cedar trees, this white and imposing statue of the Virgin Mary is sought out by thousands of pilgrims of several religious backgrounds from all over Lebanon. Christians, Druzes and both Shiite and Sunni Muslims assemble here to pray that the fratricidal wars that for years have brought bloodshed to this land are now a thing of the past.
In recent years, just like Our Lady of Lebanon, many sanctuaries, monasteries and Christian villages across the “Land of Cedars” have become places of peaceful coexistence amongst the predominant ethnic and denominational groups living here. Conflict elsewhere in the region provides a daily contrast. Political competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has become a religious conflict between Shiites and Sunnis across the entire Middle East region, and in the past decade has resulted in repeated episodes of political and armed conflict in Lebanon.
Forces loyal to the Shiite axis (Hezbollah, Amal and the Palestinian Ansar Allah Brigade) oppose those loyal to Saudi Arabia and its Western allies. In several areas that are also home to Christians, however, Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis have managed to achieve peaceful coexistence.
Even the Lebanese parliament is split between pro-Iran and pro-Saudi groups. Seats are assigned on a denominational basis and divided into two formations: the first is led by Hezbollah, Tehran’s ironclad ally in this country, the second consists of political parties that have at heart the interests of Saudi Arabia. In this context, the three main parties representing Christians have made opposing choices.
The Free Patriotic Movement, led by President Michel Aoun, has sided with Hezbollah and holds the largest bloc in parliament (29 seats); the Lebanese Forces (15 seats) have joined the pro-Saudi front while the Phalange, once Lebanon’s most important political party (now down to just 3 seats), has recently adopted an independent stance after supporting the pro-Saudi axis for years.
The Phalange’s decision not to side with either formation was made by the party’s current leader, Samy Gemayel, heir to the family dynasty that established the party. His grandfather Pierre Gemayel founded the Phalange in 1936 as an instrument of political and armed struggle against French occupation.
Pierre’s sons Amine (Samy’s own father) and his brother Bashir (Samy’s uncle) were both presidents of Lebanon and during the civil war led Christian militias against Syrian and Palestinian attempts to invade. Bashir was assassinated in 1982, an attack frequently ascribed to Syria. Samy’s brother, Pierre Amine, was killed in an ambush in 2006.
Who is Samy Gemayel
Samy Gemayel is of a younger generation, fluent in English, French and Spanish and a law graduate from St. Joseph’s University, where he earned an LL.M. in 2005. He is married to a woman from a Muslim family and is trying to lend the movement a new image. The weight of the past cannot, however, be wished away.
«The Assads consider us one of their provinces,» he recently said in his office in the heart of Beirut, adding that «until Damascus acknowledges Lebanon’s right to be independent, Syria will have designs as far as we are concerned and we will oppose this whatever the cost may be1.» In his eyes, the wounds still open since the days of the civil war make the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Lebanese allies the main threat to his country’s freedom. In spite of its independent political position, the Phalange still opposes the Shiite axis protecting Assad more than ever, preferring Saudi Arabia although the country is widely accused of having supported terrorist groups that have exterminated the Christian communities. «I do not believe that is the case; Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have fought ISIS in Syria together with the international coalition, bombing the terrorists’ bases,» Samy states bluntly.
This suggests there is no love lost among the various factions of Eastern Christians. Elias Murad is one of the Syrian Christians’ main representatives and for years was editor-in-chief of the Baath Party newspaper. He now has a seat in parliament in Damascus. He lives in the Christian city of Seydnaya, which in recent years has been besieged by rebel terrorist groups known to be linked to the Saudis. «The government supported us to the death,» he says sitting in the shadows of a monastery near his home, «They sent the army and Hezbollah to protect us and armed our young men so they could defend their homes2.»
Thanks to this Seydnaya never fell, as instead happened to Maaloula, another Christian town situated 50 kilometres further north and that was conquered by the terrorists in 2013. During the occupation, churches were destroyed, holy icons were disfigured and statues of the Virgin Mary decapitated. Those who did not flee and refused to convert to Islam were killed or enslaved. It was only after six months that the inhabitants, again armed by Assad, took back their homes. The first thing they did after their victory was to cover the walls of the city with posters depicting the Syrian president.
Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
Syrian Christian communities and patriarchates have always remained on the side of government. Since the times of Hafez, the minority-led regime has created a political system based on the defense of minorities, balancing out the Sunni majority (about 70%) while attempt to achieve integration and peaceful coexistence. In this context, the oppression of a minority threatens to undermine the entire political-denominational balance. Indeed, by attacking the Christian minority, the rebels and their instigators aimed precisely at demolishing this system.
Faced with their advances and attacks, it seems that the entirety of the Christian communities, even government critics, did not hesitate to side with Assad. It is a choice that many Western observers consider one of convenience, but this does not mean that apparent Christian consensus for the Syrian president is now more widespread and convinced than ever before — especially among the younger generations. Samy Gemayel is among those who accuse Syrian Christians of having sold out to the government.
«During the civil war, Syrian Christians were quite content to see Lebanese Christians massacred,» he observes. «In those years, Syrian Christians fought us as if we were the devil. Many of the Brigadier Generals who razed to the ground our districts in Beirut and Christian regions in Lebanon were Christians. These people are only interested in defending the privileges that their protector Assad bestows on them in Syria in exchange for their total servitude. They make do with being able to eat, sleep, work and pray. We Christians in Lebanon wish instead to live with dignity, not just survive. We have given too much of our blood to stop fighting. We are accustomed to fighting for our freedom against all enemies, and also against Syria.»
Things are now changing
Lebanese Christians’ hostility towards the Syrians is still widespread and is expressed politically by the anti-Iranian positions of the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces. This is driven by memories of the war and the 16 years of Syrian occupation that followed, when the Syrian army obstructed religious life in many Christian communities that it considered conduits for Christian political parties opposed to its presence.
It spite of all this, it seems that things are now changing. The alliance between the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah has turned the Phalange into the most important Christian party, despite its defense of the government in Damascus. For most Christians, the priority has become the fight against terrorism of Jihadist origin; since Assad is combating the same in Syria, personal aversion for him takes second place. At a political level, the ideas supported by Gemayel and the Lebanese Forces have become a minority.
The political rift between Christians is an element of powerful destabilisation for the entire region. Defending the Christian communities is in an element of unity for ethnic and denominational groups across Lebanon and the region, including among the vast majority of Sunnis who oppose jihadist terrorism.
The disappearance of Christian communities would undermine the very foundations on which the coexistence of various populations in the region is based. In the meantime, in Maaloula the inhabitants are rebuilding their churches, raising crosses on the tops of hills surrounding the town and putting up posters portraying Assad. Here the war is over; the juxtaposition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, remains and is ready to leave the Syrian battlefield behind and reignite elsewhere in a cycle of endless conflict, fratricidal war and new alliances.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Photo: PATRICK BAZ / AFP