Chapter 6: Causes of the Decline of the Christian status in Lebanon 

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Chapter 6: Causes of the Decline of the Christian status in Lebanon


The decline of the Christian role in Lebanon was caused by four factors. Firstly, the typical strife with the Muslim foes, secondly by internal Christian division and fighting, thirdly by foreign intervention and fourthly by voluntary and forced emigration of many Christians.


The political and social Christian decline can be traced to their struggle with the Muslim majority. Christians were exhausted by their war with the Muslims. Fawaz Gerges noted that Latif Abul-Husn believed that the 1975 war revolved around three main issues: Reform of the political system, the national identity of Lebanon and Lebanon's sovereignty[1].


According to Abul-Husn, the Christians could have been in conflict with the Muslims over the three above issues. The Muslims wanted to reform the political system, which favoured Christians. They wanted to translate their numerical superiority into political power. They wanted a system, which they could control. Moreover, they saw Christians as an obstacle to the formation of an Islamic state similar to the rest of the Middle Eastern states. The Muslims chose war instead of dialogue, due to the fact that the Christians continued to ignore their grievances. The war was more destructive to the Christians than to the Muslims.


In 1983, a civil war erupted in the mountains between the Phalanges and the Druze on a large scale. The Druze defeated the Christians. They drew no distinction between their Christian supporters and opponents. Around sixty villages were devastated, thousands of civilians were murdered, and tens of thousands were driven out or had fled. The spiritual leader of the Druze, Sheikh Abu Shakra, summed up the brutality of this phase of the civil war stating that the Christians would never again live in the Druze Mountain[2]. For the Christians, the episode was a disaster of a similar magnitude as in the Chouf, where about fifty Christian villages were razed to the ground in 1983[3].


Theodore Hanf noted that there had been radical changes in the southern section of Mount Lebanon, the upper Metn, the Aley region and the Chouf. In 1975, the Christians comprised a good half of the population, a decade later about 1 per cent. The Christians were expelled from the coastal strip in the first two years of the war[4]. They were eradicated from certain areas and replaced by Muslims. There were several wars between Christians and Muslims but the 1983 Mountain war stands as the most significant war, which caused the death of thousands of Christians and expelled them from the Mountain area.


At the end of the civil war in 1990, as Christian-Muslim relations improved, many Christians started to return to their villages. The government even started to financially aid them to renovate or build new houses.


The struggle with the Muslims caused the Christians to slowly surrender their traditional hold of power and opted to emigrate seeking a better future.


The decline of the Christian power in Lebanon can be also traced to internal divisions and infighting among the Christians themselves. The Phalanges saw that the Maronite political pluralism ought perhaps to be tolerated, but the community's military power had to be under one authority, and that authority had to be theirs[5]. For this reason the Phalanges sought to break the independent power of their two principal partners, the Franjiyya and the Liberal National Party. The relations with Franjiyya worsened after they disagreed over relations with Syria.


The Phalanges sought to expand their party organisation into Northern Lebanon and to undermine the Franjiyya family's economic base by disputing Franjiyya's right to raise levies in the heavily industrialised region around Chekka, South of Tripoli[6]. Franjiyya responded to the challenge by killing the chief Phalanges organiser, Jud Bayeh. The Phalanges retaliated by shelling Tony Franjiyya's home in the village of Ehden, killing him and his immediate family in June 1978[7]. Itamar Rabinovich questioned whether or not his assassination had been planned; it is obvious that excessive brutality divided the Christian camp[8]. Franjiyya accused Lebanese Forces of collaboration with Israel and opted to side with Syria[9].


In 1980, Bashir Gemayel's militia destroyed the military infrastructure of the Tigers, the National Liberal Party's militia, in the Beirut area. The Phalanges sought to expand their mandate and their demographic and territorial bases by becoming the representative authority for all Lebanese Christians not just the Maronites[10].


On 31 January 1990, after the Lebanese forces announced its reluctant endorsement of the Ta'if Accord, Michel Aoun had to consolidate his position with his Christian constituency. He attempted to wrest control of the small Christian area between Beirut and Jebail, but in the process inaugurated a Christian civil war in January 1990[11]. Kail Ellis commented that the conflict lasted until July of that year and ended without a clear-cut victory for Aoun[12]. Before the fighting stopped in mid-March, nearly 750 civilians had been killed and 3,000 wounded, but the Lebanese Forces continued to support the new accord[13]. Ellis noted that the war had negative political consequences for the Christian community and that it was estimated that the war had caused $1.2 billion in property damage[14].


Another reason for the decline of Christian influence in Lebanon is that not all Christians shared the dream of a Christian state. For example, Christian members of both Lebanese communists and the national progressive parties aimed for a non-secular political system and called for the abolition of the religious based political system. Theodore Hanf noted that the civil war between the Christian communities had weakened them more than all the previous attacks of Lebanese and foreign foes[15].


Christian relations with foreign powers have also contributed to their decline. In the words of Lebanon's premier columnist, Ghassan Tueni, it was the others' war. Lebanon was used as a battlefield for the ongoing clashes in the Middle East and the superpower rivalries resulting from the cold war[16].


Eyal Zisser commented that stronger relations between Israel and the Lebanese Maronite community inevitably led to the civil war in Lebanon in 1975[17]. Eyal added that such relations were founded on the common belief that Jews and Maronites must forge a strong alliance to ward off hostile Muslim-Arab attacks[18].


Brenda Seaver outlined that without Palestinians; the Lebanese system might have persisted:



At the very least, if the Palestinian problem had never existed, there would have been more time for strong elites to emerge who could have dealt with the difficulties of modernisation by carrying on the Shihab tradition of social reforms and instituting moderate political reforms[19]



Brenda Seaver gave an accurate analysis of the Palestinians contribution to the collapse of the Lebanese political system. The Palestinians might have tried to turn Lebanon into an alternative permanent state, as compensation for their homeland. The Palestinians' interference worsened the already tense relations between Christians and Muslims. Despite the several episodic civil wars between Muslims and Christians, the whole population had co-operated together for many centuries.


Syria has also played a big role in the decline of the Christian's role in Lebanon, despite its initial intervention militarily in their favour in 1976. When in 1976, the Lebanese National Movement LMN that was fighting Christian forces was about to gain victory over the Christian; the Syrians intervened, explicitly stating that their reason for doing so was to help the Christians[20].


Ghassan Hage explored the reasons behind Syria's help for the Christians in 1976:



Undoubtedly, however, it aimed to avoid the creation of a mini Christian state that the Christians would have proclaimed in all likelihood in the areas that remained under their control[21].



It is important to note that Syria helped the Christians to secure a foothold in Lebanon. However, the Christian leaders, who governed Lebanon at the start of the civil war, failed to predict the implication of Syria's initial friendly intervention in Lebanon. Rex Brynen noted that the massive Syrian military intervention in Lebanon served to Arabise the Lebanese civil war, substantially shifting the conflict from its initial Lebanese social and political bases to the broader regional arena[22].


The honeymoon between the Christians and the Syrians was short lived. Ghassan Hage said that following Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem, an Israeli conceived peace plan (what became known as the Begin plan') emerged allowing for a role of the Christian Right, namely the Phalanges. They did not hesitate to grab the opportunity and quickly turned against Syria[23].


On February 7, 1978 a limited armed confrontation between the Syrians and some Christian elements of the Lebanese army took place. Soon after, this confrontation developed into a full-scale war[24]. The Begin plan allowed Israel to invade and stay in South Lebanon until a permanent solution prevented the Palestinian guerrilla from returning[25]. Here, the Christians represented by the Lebanese Front, took its most extremist stand on the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and called for the elimination of the Palestinians armed presence[26]. Syria was furious at the Christians' apparent siding with Israel and so began bombardment of the Christian quarters of Beirut[27].


Ghassan Hage presented the reasons for the Syrian aggression against the Christians:



It was a reflection of the frustration of Syrian President Assad to see the Christian rightists, whom he had basically saved, and whom he had attempted to handle with the utmost care, move away from him with ease[28].



There was some notion in 1978 that Syria and the Muslims wanted to eradicate the uniqueness of Lebanon and the Christian presence in it. This led Camille Chamoun to call on the ”civilised world” to stop the Syrian bombardment of the Christian area[29].


Christian civilians paid a high price for the political mistakes of their own leaders. Those leaders did not foresee that Syria would demand full support for its policies, which shifted again to support the Palestinian presence in the South, something that is against the Christian's principle of a free Lebanon. The civilians were bombed every time their leaders disagreed with Syria or the Muslim militias, namely the Lebanese national movement.


The conflict was between Christians and Muslims, more precisely between Christians in Libanon against Muslim Syria and and thousands of Iranian revolutionary guards[Hezbollah]:



- the struggle for Lebanon was conducted between Maronite leaders in East Beirut and Hafiz al-Asad in Damascus[30].



Following the end of the civil war in 1990, the political power of the Christians declined even further. Alan George described how the Maronites were marginalised:



- Their selective representation in the political hierarchy and the exile or imprisonment of leading political figures[31].



The Christians' position declined even further, when a major ally of the past, the United States, refrained from urging Syria to withdraw. In 1958, the United States rushed to help president Camille Chamoun to quell a rebellion, which was staged, by Muslims and followers of former Egyptian president Abdel Nasser. Later, however, The United States abandoned its role in Lebanon, owing to the fact that in 1983 the American embassy in Ain al-Mreisse was demolished by a suicide bomb attack that killed more than 60 people[32]. Six months later, suicide bombers made simultaneous attacks on the multinational force that arrived a year earlier at the request of President Amin Gemayel. The results of the attacks were devastating when 58 French paratroopers and 241 Americans marines were killed. Finally the Americans pulled out of Lebanon.


The Christians in Lebanon felt uneasy about the United States failure to demand Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Jose Navalpotro wrote that the United States believed that the timetable for the Syrian withdrawal was a matter that should be resolved between Damascus and Beirut[33]. He added that Washington does not regard this question as an important issue in the overall stability of the Middle East, or a pivotal matter to be resolved in the Arab-Israeli peace process[34].


Christian Emigration from Lebanon, in large numbers, also contributed to the decline of the Christian influence in Lebanon. Both Muslims and Christians fled Lebanon, but far more Christians left. From a pre-war Lebanese population of roughly 4 million, 500,000 of the 700,000 who emigrated were Christian. Just how many Christians remain in Lebanon is in dispute. There are no official population figures for Lebanon. Some estimate that about 1 million residents or 25 percent of the country are Christians. This figure is less than half of the nearly 60 per cent majority of the early 1970s.



William Harris saw that Christian numbers declined in Lebanon as the years went by [35].

1911 79% Christian

1921 55%

1932 51%

1943 52%

1970 42%

1990 35%

(2008 25%)



It is hard to see the Christians current decline in status to be reversed in the view of Harris's statistics. It is very plausible that the number of Christians will become negligible in 50 years and thus their presence in the Middle East will be in jeopardy. Christians need to have the numbers in order to have a legitimate claim to sharing power with the Muslims. Charles M.Sennott quoted a Christian lawyer Nehmatalla Abi Nasr talking about the effect of Christian migration:



"The Christians leave for opportunity in the West or to get away from the war,'he says,'Then they lose more and more influence here, and then they are increasingly afraid to return. This process feeds on itself."[36].



The migration of many Christians from Lebanon has indeed contributed to their political decline in a nation, where they used to be the majority. The voluntary migration adds to the fact that thousands and thousands of Christians died in a war or faced expulsion from their own houses and lands. The Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nsrallah Boutrous Sfeir, complains stridently that an upsurge in non-Christian immigration to Lebanon, coupled with the government's recent decision to grant citizenship to a large number of Muslims, is weakening the Christian voice in Lebanon,[37]




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