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The Christians of Lebanon and how the fighting is affecting them

19 July 2006

Lebanon: Demographics and brief history

Lebanon is one of the most complex countries in the Middle East, its population composed of a mixture of Christian communities, Sunni Muslims, Twelver Shi’a Muslims, Druze and others. Within living memory, it held a unique place in the Arab world as the only Christian-majority country. Now however Christians are a shrinking minority in Lebanon.

There have always been tensions between the various communities over political and economic power in the Lebanese state as well as over the Lebanese national identity. Lebanese communities are adept at jockeying for power and at forging ever-changing alliances, often with yesterday’s enemies, to strengthen their positions.

Lebanon’s current population is estimated at 3.85 million (2005). It is roughly divided along religious lines as follows:

- Shi’a 40%
- Sunni 20%
- Christian 33%
- Druze 7%

The Christians in Lebanon are themselves divided among a variety of ancient churches (except for the small Protestant communities), the main one being the Maronite Church. Although Christians formed a large majority a hundred years ago, emigration and the small size of Christian families mean that their proportion in the population is now greatly reduced. The one time Christian majority of 55% (1932) has been gradually reduced to a significant minority of 33% (2006).

Under the Ottomans, Druze princes wielded power for several centuries. With the increase in Maronite Christian power and wealth, Christians became the dominant political force in Lebanon, supported by European powers. Following the First world war, Lebanon came under French mandate until its independence in 1943. Its constitution divided political power along confessional lines.

Sunni Muslim regimes and states in the region always resented the preponderance of Christian power in Lebanon, seeing it as unacceptable in a historically Muslim dominated region. As a result, there have been continuous efforts to reduce Christian political influence in Lebanon, including the long civil war (1975-1990).

Present situation of Christians

The current fighting in Lebanon is between Israel and the Islamic militant organisation Hizbullah. However, Christians are caught up in the conflict as victims of the violence, along with other civilians, and some Christians are among the casualties. Israel’s main target areas for bombing have been the Shi’a areas of the south, the Shi’a areas of Beirut and the Beka’a Valley. Yesterday there was an air attack on the Ashrafiyeh Christian quarter of Beirut which targeted trucks that may have looked like Hizbullah rocket launchers and caused damage to several houses.

Christians form a substantial proportion of the estimated 500,000 refugees fleeing the violence. Given the suddenness of the crisis, there has been no time to make preparation for such large-scale humanitarian needs.

Barnabas Fund is assisting with the needs of the Christian refugees. To donate click here: [Link] or email [Link] .

Our partner Nabil Costa of the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development and of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary reports that, as well as the needs of the displaced, there are also many needy Christians who were in low-paid jobs, hired out and paid daily. They now have no work and cannot afford to buy food.

Our partners in Syria report that the most urgent need is milk and food for babies and children. The main medical needs include: Under-nourishment, weakness and illnesses as well as physical injuries (wounds and infection). Some need hospitalisation and others need on-the-spot medical help. Tents or other shelter are needed too, although this is less vital than it would be in winter.

Possible repercussions on Christians in Lebanon and elsewhere

Radical Islamists in Lebanon, as elsewhere, see indigenous Christians as allies of the Christian West and of Israel and therefore as permanent enemies of Islam. In recent years they have come under increased attacks from Islamic extremists. In February 2006, at the height of the Muhammad cartoons crisis, radical Islamist crowds were incited to attack a Christian area of Beirut including a church building. Stones were thrown, windows broken, and cars overturned. The present conflagration will heighten such animosities and may lead to more such attacks on Lebanese Christians.

Around the Muslim world, especially in places prone to such anti-Christian violence like Pakistan and northern Nigeria, Islamist radical preachers are likely to manipulate the news from Lebanon to whip up crowds and turn them against the local Christians. A main aim of all radical Islamist groups, including Hizbullah, is a polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims that will fuel jihad and help re-establish Islamic dominion world wide.