Lebanese Christians mourn a place lost in history and fear the future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MREJAT, Lebanon -- The homes of Christians are ruins here, jumble-blocks of broken concrete surrendering to weeds. Once-thriving towns are ghostly empty; their churches are splintered beams and dust, their schools are rubble playgrounds for rats.

A few sad people come to look. Some try to move back. They want to reclaim what they had before the wars burned the Chouf Mountains and drove so many Christians out of the one country in the Middle East they had dominated in modern times.

They don't move as bravely anymore: "The power is now all for the Muslims," said Kalil Ra'aed, a burly former police officer in a nearby village. "Now you are scared to say you are a Christian."

Pope John Paul II will visit Lebanon next month to try to reconstruct the shattered confidence, if not the homes, of the once-reigning Catholics.

He has called an extraordinary meeting, or synod, of the Latin churches in Lebanon to encourage them to regroup, spiritually and politically. He will encourage the 1,500-year-old mountain sect of Maronite Catholics, once the most powerful Christian community in the Middle East, not to leave Lebanon.

A Christian bastion

This is such a change. For much of its modern history, this was the single Christian bastion in the Middle East, a conspicuous cross standing before a tide of Islam.

Now, the Christians have lost their power. The Muslims and Druze who long ago became the majority finally have wrested it away. Christians are in a political free-fall, wounded by enemies within and without.

The civil war ended their rule. It was 15 years of fratricide, from 1975 to 1990. The war was a pack-fight in which each dog bit blindly at the next: Christians vs. Muslims, Druze vs. Christians, Palestinians vs. Israelis, Christians vs. Christians.

It still echoes. On Feb. 27, a bomb exploded in a north Beirut church, killing 11 Christians and wounding 60 others. In the extraordinary way that politics work in Lebanon, Christian elements have been accused of setting off the bomb.

Incidents such as the church bombing are infrequent now that the country is trying to rebuild in a multibillion-dollar program guided by Shiite Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Still, the Christian domination of Lebanon is over. Whether the Christians of Lebanon will stay to play the role of a minority is uncertain. The most optimistic estimates give them no more than 45 percent share of the population of 3.5 million.

"If Lebanon becomes a Muslim country, I can't stay here," said Nida Saber, 21.

"It's over," said Farid el-Khazen, an assistant professor at American University of Beirut. "The Christians today are beleaguered, leaderless, targeted."

The beautiful and rugged backbone of Lebanon, the Chouf Mountains, long offered sanctuary to the Maronite Christians and their neighbors, the Druze, an ancient offshoot of Islam. In vicious violence called the 1983-'84 "Mountain War," neighbors turned on one another. The Christians lost; killed, beaten and chased from their homes.

Under Syrian influence, the rules of government were rewritten in 1989, giving the Muslims long-denied equality. Incensed, Christians boycotted the 1992 elections, further sealing their loss.

"We have to accept that there is no more privilege for Christians," said Fouad Hobeika, editor of a Christian newspaper in Beirut.

"We are not the people making the decisions anymore."

Christianity in Lebanon is not just religion. It is politics, the sometimes life-and-death divisions of tribe against tribe. The Lebanese cling to religious groupings. The Maronite Christians may be marginally the largest single clan, followed by Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Druze.

Lebanon was carved out of greater Syria by the French in 1920 to give Christians a seat of power in the Middle East. Even though their claim to numerical superiority always was suspect, Christians did dominate economically and politically.

They were the business operators who gave Lebanese the reputation of international movers and shakers. They tapped a flow of goods, money and deals that made Lebanon the "Switzerland of the Middle East" and fattened their fortunes. They were better educated, more affluent. They were proud, even arrogant.

Looking to the West

"If it weren't for the Christians here, there would be no democracy," boasted one prominent Christian, an influential public figure who insisted it would be "dangerous" to be quoted by name. "We're more modern. The Shiia [Muslims] are not prepared to rule a modern country."

Christians flaunted their Western bent -- their education at foreign universities, their international business deals, their sophistication. They preferred French over Arabic.

"We have the same values as the Western world," said Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronites. "Christians cannot live in Lebanon with a lack of liberty. They are accustomed to liberty."

For themselves. But the Muslims of south Lebanon were left the economic and political scraps. The disparity fueled an increasing Muslim militancy.

Israel, to the south, exploited the tension. Israel enlisted the Christians in a heavy-handed bid to clamp down on the swelling camps of Palestinian refugees, who had been kicked out of Jordan.

It was a Pandora-like mistake. Civil war broke out April 13, 1975, when Christian militiamen and Palestinians clashed in Beirut. It set off a spiral of violence that soon pitted Christians against Muslims around the country.

Israel invaded in 1978 and again in 1982, unsuccessfully trying to restore order and prop up a compliant Christian government in Beirut. The centuries-old animosities between the religious clans Lebanon simply shoved more bullets into rifle chambers.

A bloody civil war

Nothing in their religion kept the Christians from their equal place in this blood feast. The Phalangist militia wing of the Maronite Christians were among the most brutal, and most feared. Sami, a Druze, recalls with chilling clarity the night they decided to kill his family in 1975.

"The Maronites wanted to kick everybody out," he said, remembering the neighborhood in East Beirut where Christians had lived together with Muslims and Druze. "At 4 a.m., my neighbor knocked on my door and said, 'Sami, please leave. The Phalangists will kill you.' "

Sami quietly bundled his wife and their three children into his car, coasted down a hill before starting the engine and left his home forever. The next day, neighbors told him, Phalangist gunmen kicked down his door and shot up each room with automatic weapons.

During the civil war, he said, he saw Phalangists gun down people in a square and later line up 10 people against a wall and crush them with a bulldozer. The massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in 1982 were the work of Maronite militiamen allied with the Israelis occupying Beirut at the time.

Such brutality was the craft of all factions in the war. But Sami, who will not give his last name because he says he is still on the Phalangists' "black list," has seen too much to want reconciliation. "I don't want to live beside Maronites. The Maronites are here," he said, grinding his shoe on the ground. "Everybody -- Druze, Shiia, Sunni -- sleeps with one eye open because we saw what the Maronites are like."

In the war, perhaps 200,000 Lebanese died. An additional 750,000 Christians, Druze and Muslims fled their homes. Some were occupied by their pursuers, many were destroyed.

The years of fighting split families, filled the cemeteries, created a legacy of poverty and crime and gave parts of Beirut and hundreds of smaller towns and villages a shell-pocked vacancy.

Stripped of much of their political power, Christians still wield considerable economic force and back-door influence. Many Christians have not reconciled themselves to a minority role. They say Lebanon will never emerge from its internal strife unless control is returned to them.

"If someone should be in charge, it should be Maronites," said Henry Sfeir, a relative of the patriarch and owner of a Christian television station and newspaper in Beirut. "If we are ruling the country, we can preserve the freedom.

"We shouldn't be taking the privilege from the Maronites and giving it to the Sunnis or Shiite or Druze," Mr. Sfeir said. "The Maronites do not want someone to impose on them. My understanding of democracy is not a dictatorship of the majority."

Some Christians see hope in a reversal of emigration. The end of the civil war, the economic downturn in the West and the opportunities opened by the government's ambitious reconstruction program has drawn back many Christians.

Renewed hope

Boutros Labaki, head of the council for reconstruction, gets sheafs of resumes from Christian engineers wishing to return to Lebanon. Christian Wa'el Kheir said church schools are suddenly overcrowded: "It's difficult to get your children into school."

"Just because they left doesn't mean they won't come back," said Albert Moukheiber, a Christian member of Parliament. "I am sure 100 percent of the power will return to the hands of the Christians."

But such optimism is offset by other signs. Christian East Beirut is flooded with ads for vacant apartments and offices, a combination of overbuilding and Christian migration. In Muslim West Beirut, building has been unable to keep up with the explosion of population, and houses are hard to find.

Christians fear revenge, said Mr. Kheir, who heads a human pTC rights group. "The Christians are considered the traitors. They cooperated with the [French] colonialists and with the Zionists."

If there were another civil war, he said, "there would be a swift massacre of Christians. It would be Bosnia in reverse."

In one of the ironies of reconciliation, the Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt was made a minister in charge of encouraging Christians to return to the homes they fled in the war.

In the Chouf War in 1983, his militiamen massacred 1,400 Christian civilians. The families of Druze fighters moved into the abandoned Christian homes.

But on his orders, the repatriation worked in some areas. In the Chouf Mountain village of Kfar Qatra, Mr. Jumblatt ordered Druze squatters out of Christian homes they had taken over a decade earlier and returned the houses to their owners.

"We can live together," said the town elder, or "muktar," Maruf Nasar Nasar. He is a Christian who was smuggled out of the town by a Druze neighbor when the Druze took over the village.

In other places, recovery is slow. At what was once Kfar Nis, a scattering of 110 houses on the steep side of a mountain, only a few families have returned. Maron Rasheed Khoury, 46, brought a statue of the Virgin Mary back as the first furnishing for his damaged house. Bags of Portland Cement were in the corner, testimony to his intent.

His family has erected a small open-air chapel, a humble place of benches and an altar built of bricks.

Mr. Khoury is determined: "My grandfather built this house of sand and rock. My father put stone and cement on it," he said. "We were afraid to come back, but this is our land."

Few other Christians will join him. Down the gravel road, the main church in the village square is rubble. The fruit trees in the area were cut, the houses demolished, all jobs are gone.

"We lost everything," acknowledged Mr. Khoury, slowly. "It's all very different now."

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