BEIRUT, Lebanon ? Patty Babara, a 42-year-old mother of three from Beirut, has been praying for a miracle for her country. Ever since the latest outbreak of violence, the Melkite Christian has been hoping that ?Our Lady will do something for Lebanon? in this Marian month of May.
The month saw the worst outbreaks of violence since the end of Lebanon?s 1975-1990 civil war, but tensions have eased somewhat and there appears to be progress as a result of negotiations with a delegation from the Arab League.
Violence that raged for six days, beginning May 7, erupted after Lebanon?s Western-backed government?s decision to investigate Hezbollah?s telecommunications network and reassign the country?s airport security chief over alleged ties to the Shiite militant group. That decision, said Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, was tantamount to a declaration of war.
At first, battles between pro- and anti-government militants with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades were contained in largely Muslim Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. Then it spread to mixed Shiite-Druze areas in the hills to the southeast of Beirut and on to Tripoli and predominately Sunni areas in northern Lebanon. At least 65 people were killed.
Christians supportive of the government as well as the Hezbollah-backed opposition did not participate, and Christian areas were spared of the violence.
On May 11 Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to fighting and a return to serious negotiations.
?I feel a duty today to urge the Lebanese to abandon all logic of aggressive opposition, which would lead their dear country toward the irreparable,? he said.
?Dialogue, mutual understanding and the search for reasonable compromise are the only way to restore to Lebanon its institutions and to the population the necessary security for a dignified daily life,? the Pope said.
How did it reach this point? Tensions have mounted amid a deepening political stalemate the last 18 months, and the country has been without a president since Damascus prot?g? Emile Lahoud stepped down upon completion of his term November 2007. Although parliament chose a consensus candidate, Army General Michel Suleiman, feuding politicians have been unable to agree on the makeup of a new cabinet. The presidential post, under Lebanon?s confessional power-sharing system, is reserved for a Maronite Catholic.
?Government loyalists have been uncompromising because of encouragement from the outside, principally from the United States and Saudi Arabia,? said Habib Malik, a Catholic and author of Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace.
?Washington violated the traditional Lebanese penchant for compromise by insisting there is a winner and a loser. At the same time, the opposition increasingly became the mouthpiece of a joint Syrian-Iranian project to derail the international tribunal? regarding the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 ?and somehow restore Syrian dominance in Lebanon,? Malik said.
?Neither of these two scenarios works in a complex place like Lebanon. The name of the game has to be compromise, and maybe now, in light of recent events, all sides have arrived at this realization and are sober enough to make the necessary compromises to arrive at an agreement,? Malik explained.
Regarding Lebanese political leaders? allegiance to outside forces, Maronite Catholic Bishop Georges Bou Jaoude of Tripoli remarked, ?I wonder what Lebanon represents for them: the country that Pope John Paul II proclaimed as more than a nation, a message of coexistence for the Middle East and the West??
Approximately 33% of Lebanon?s population is Christian.
?If we resort to solving our problems by guns and force, it erodes Lebanon?s principals of coexistence,? said Beirut Maronite Bishop Paul Matar. ?It is important to preserve Lebanon?s tradition as a multicultural, multi-religious, open society. This is the concern of the Church. How can we rebuild the country if we are enemies of each other??
Hope for Dialogue
Clearly, the Lebanese people do not want to return to war. They have had enough.
?We are trying, as much as possible, to calm down the fears and worries of the Christians,? said Bishop Bou Jaoude. ?Many times we don?t succeed because of the painful and depressing experiences they have endured over the last 30 years.
?Our hope now is for all Lebanon to come back to dialogue,? Matar said.
Now that appears to be a reality. A delegation from the Arab League arrived in Lebanon May 14. The Lebanese government cancelled its measures against Hezbollah, and after a two-day meeting the league announced May 15 that dialogue between the ruling majority and the opposition would take place in Doha, Qatar, beginning the following day. Shortly after, all roads to the airport and seaport were reopened.
In the roller coaster ride of Lebanon?s politics, it seems the Lebanese have a new chance for a degree of calm and stability.
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Bikfaya, Lebanon.