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Christians in Lebanon repulsed by Israeli strikes

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  • Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock
    http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/palmbeach/sfl- palebanese230jul23,0,2384883.story?coll=sfla-news-palm Living in a state of shock Christians in Lebanon
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2006

      Living in a state of shock

      Christians in Lebanon repulsed by Israeli strikes.

      By Tim Collie
      South Florida Sun-Sentinel

      July 23, 2006

      Until last week, Antoun Aaraj would tell friends that he grew up
      in "the safest town in Lebanon," a Christian enclave called Zahleh
      that had prospered despite three decades of civil war, foreign
      invasions and guerrilla insurgencies.

      But Israeli bombs are falling just miles from his family's home, and
      on Wednesday missiles destroyed three trucks carrying rice and sugar
      toward the village. Shiite Muslims have been streaming into the town
      and other Christian areas seeking safe haven.

      "Growing up Christian in Lebanon, you'd always hear that it was
      Israel that kept us from being destroyed by the Muslims," said Aaraj,
      of Boca Raton, an Antiochian Orthodox priest. " ... My family had
      very close relationships with Muslims, and we admired the Jews. But
      if you bomb and bomb this place over and over again, you're going to
      destroy these relationships, and I don't know what comes next."

      That's the growing fear among Lebanese Christians in South Florida,
      who feel trapped between two far more powerful forces, Israel and the
      Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, that have turned the country into a free-
      fire zone. Hezbollah triggered this latest Middle Eastern war when
      their fighters mounted an ambush two weeks go in Israel and kidnapped
      two Jewish soldiers.

      Many Christians in Lebanon have traditionally aligned themselves with
      Israel. Both Lebanese Christians and Jews were ethnic and religious
      minorities vying for power amid Arab statehood movements and rising
      Islamic fundamentalism. Both had a foot in Western culture as
      European-influenced merchants and traders who lived along the

      Now the Lebanese are watching their country being humiliated, say
      those in South Florida.

      The fighting follows by just a year one of the most promising
      developments in the country's recent history, the so-called Cedar
      Revolution democracy movement. Triggered by the assassination of a
      popular former prime minister, Christians and Sunni Muslims rallied
      together to push Syrian troops out of the country. A key sponsor of
      Hezbollah, Syria had occupied Lebanon since 1990.

      Lebanon was coming back, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists
      and rekindling its reputation as one of the most liberal centers in
      the Middle East. A series of national dialogues between Christians
      and Muslims sought to disarm Hezbollah. Now that progress has been
      set back 20 years, say some Lebanese Christians.

      "The Christians right now are in a state of shock," said Robert
      Rabil, a Florida Atlantic University Middle East expert who was
      evacuated from Beirut last week. Many Christian leaders in Lebanon
      had urged Hezbollah to disarm, but few support the massive
      bombardment that Israel has unleashed on the country.

      "They've destroyed the airport, infrastructure, highways and all
      kinds of places that had been rebuilt over the last few years. People
      plowed their life fortunes into this construction boom, and now it's
      all gone," said Rabil, a Lebanese Christian who has studied
      extensively in Israel. "I don't think that Christians at this point
      become more supportive of Hezbollah, but the country has been
      destroyed, and you can see some Christian leaders already are
      reaching out to Muslims as Lebanese first."

      Throughout Christian circles in South Florida as well as major
      enclaves such as Detroit and Cleveland, the term "collective
      punishment" is being used to describe Israel's actions.

      "I certainly feel sympathy for Israelis being attacked and their
      kidnapped soldiers, but as a father of three children I cannot
      justify what's happening now," said Fadi Hardan, a transportation
      engineer who grew up in the ancient town of Byblos, Lebanon, and now
      lives in Aventura.

      Israel may weaken Hezbollah, he said, but a shattered Lebanon will
      only offer more opportunity for Syrians, Iranians and others like al-
      Qaida to infiltrate the region.

      "The problem with the country is that it's a house built on very weak
      foundations," Hardan said. "If you don't have a strong foundation, it
      doesn't matter what you're putting on top of it, it's all going to
      crumble down eventually. The people are divided, but it's a place
      where outsiders have interfered for their own reasons for many years.

      "Now, you have to ask, if things were so bad before, what could they
      be like after this?"

      Lebanon's government is run through a power-sharing agreement between
      three major religious groups. The country's three highest offices are
      reserved for these groups: the president must be a Maronite Catholic
      Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the
      parliament a Shiite Muslim.

      Smaller sects such as Alawite Muslims, Druze, Greek Orthodox and
      Melkite Greek Catholics also play an active role. Alliances shift as
      in any political system, and politicians routinely strike up
      coalitions across religious lines.

      Some Christian leaders have aligned themselves with Hezbollah, which
      is the main Shiite party with an ideology rooted in Islamic
      fundamentalism. The other main Shiite party, Amal, is more secular.

      Because of their higher birth rates, Shiite Muslims have gained power
      over the years, resulting in the rise of Hezbollah, or "Party of
      God," in the sprawling slums of south Beirut and southern Lebanon.
      The group was formed in the mid-1980s by Iranian troops seeking to
      create an insurgency against Israel. Hezbollah holds 14 seats in the
      Lebanese parliament and has two representatives in the country's

      Christians have watched warily over the years as Hezbollah built its
      military might with help from both Iran and Syria, and without any
      restraint by the Lebanese military. Few politicians wanted to
      confront Hezbollah, fearing a repeat of the brutal 15-year civil war
      that killed some 150,000 people and maimed more than 100,000.

      Instead, there have been efforts at negotiation largely ignored by
      the rest of the world, Christians say.

      "One of the saddest things about all of this is that there was a
      dialogue going on between the Christians and Hezbollah for them to
      disarm," said Samir Koussa, a Beirut-born anesthesiologist at Holy
      Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale whose mother was being evacuated
      from Lebanon on Friday.

      "There was an opportunity to prevent this, but the United States
      needed to get more involved," said Koussa. "You can't just stick
      Hezbollah and Shiites with the label of terrorists and bomb them. In
      the end, it's all Lebanese who are going to pay for this."

      What worries many Christians now is that Israel will achieve its goal
      of destroying Hezbollah's military reach into Israel, but leave it to
      dominate the region.

      "A pure traditional Christian-Muslim civil war is less likely, but
      internal strife is very likely," said Walid Phares, a leading Middle
      East expert on Lebanon who has taught at South Florida
      universities. "If Hezbollah emerges as victorious, it will attack the
      government, crumble it and oppress all the supporters of the Cedar
      Revolution, and bring back Syria to Lebanon."

      Tim Collie can be reached at tcollie@... or 954-356-4573.
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