BEIRUT, Lebanon — When the bell of 153-year-old Our Lady of the Annunciation Church in west Beirut was broken, a Muslim neighbor requested that it be repaired.
“We need to hear the voice of the Church,” he told the pastor, Father Jean Marie Riachi.
“The Church is a kind of security for Muslims,” said Father Riachi, “because the Church is here as peacemaker in the region. “They know that we don’t belong to any political party. We are with Jesus.”
Despite an ongoing political stalemate, a presidential vacuum and a series of bombs targeting Christian areas, day-to-day life in Lebanon is still testimony to Pope John Paul II’s declaration that it is “more than just a country. Lebanon is a message of liberty and an example of pluralism and coexistence for the Middle East as well as for the West.”
Christians account for approximately 33% to 40% of Lebanon’s total population of about four million.
“In Lebanon we have a very high level of understanding of each other — Muslim and Christian,” said Melkite Bishop Elie Haddad of Sidon in south Lebanon, a diocese that is about 90% Muslim.
“We have already established a lot of common customs and virtues, such as respect of the human being, liberty and especially religious liberty, which is not the case in other Arab countries. So that’s why Lebanon can be a good example, for all the world, of coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”
“Many in the Western world don’t trust the Islamic world,” pointed out Bishop Haddad. “But we have a relationship with the Islamic world that the West can’t understand easily.”
Coexistence is embedded into the heart of Lebanese culture. Muslims and Christians conduct business together and socialize together, attend the same universities and intermarry. Many Muslim children are still educated in Catholic schools. It’s common for Christians to celebrate Ramadan feasts with their Muslim friends and associates.
This normal exchange “creates bridges between people and makes coexistence less difficult,” said Father Fadi Daou, Director of the Lebanese Foundation for Interfaith Studies and Spiritual Solidarity, or Adyan (religion in Arabic).
But the Christian presence in Lebanon is endangered.
Already, the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war marginalized the authority of the president, a post reserved for a Maronite Catholic under Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system.
Now the country is without a president. Feuding political leaders failed to elect a successor to Emile Lahoud when his presidential term ended Nov. 23. After 13 cancellations, it is likely that the next scheduled Parliament session for the vote on Feb. 11 also will be scrapped.
The presidential vacuum is “like a war without weapons,” said Bishop Haddad.
The political landscape is further complicated because the ruling majority is supported by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and other European allies and the Hezbollah-led opposition is aligned with Syria and Iran. Christians are divided between both camps.
The Maronite Council of Bishops has repeatedly admonished Lebanon’s politicians for their selfish self-interests, lack of unity and allegiance to regional and foreign powers. Intense shuttle diplomacy into Lebanon by various foreign representatives has failed to resolve the political impasse.
“What we are living now, in this crisis of the presidential vacuum, is the result of ‘the Lebanese virus’ of listening to foreign voices,” said Bishop Haddad.
Lebanon has a reputation as a playground for foreign powers and various factions to carry out their own interests and is paying the price of discord in the Middle East. Whether it’s from direct interference or provoked movements, stability is on tethers.
Attempts to “put fire in Lebanon,” said Bishop Haddad, will not succeed, because the Lebanese people “are conscious now that their land is not to be offered as a land of war.”
Plagued by a string of bombings and assassinations during the last three years, Israel’s war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, a dire economic situation and political instability, more and more Christian Lebanese are emigrating. The numbers are particularly high among educated youth who cannot find jobs in their homeland.
Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, recently warned that Lebanon is “on the brink of an abyss.”
Recalling Pope John Paul II’s appeal for prayers for Lebanon in 1986, Father Daou said, “I think the Pope was prophetic in his point of view. He said, ‘If we lose Lebanon one day — as a culture, as a positive partnership between Muslims and Christians — all the world will regret it.’”
“Now we are facing this issue,” said Father Daou.
“And if we lose the Lebanese culture of coexistence it means that all the Christians in all the Arab world will progressively leave this region. It also means that Muslims in the Western world will not feel secure, because when Christians leave this region, the West will look at the Arab world as an intolerant world and they will associate this with Islam,” Father Daou explained.
“My feeling is that it is very dangerous if the West begins to look at Christians in the Middle East as a minority that the West should protect. It means that Islam is dominant,” Father Daou warned.
Father Daou believes in a pluralistic approach to the issue. The West, he said, should not only help support Christians in Lebanon and the region, but also become involved in initiatives that promote coexistence between Muslims and Christians, to show that living together is possible.
There are plenty of such initiatives and movements in Lebanon. Adyan (the Lebanese Foundation for Interfaith Studies and Spiritual Solidarity) is just one example. One of the organization’s main activities is hosting interfaith conferences.
“In my diocese we have at least three institutions that talk about dialogue, charity and coexistence between Muslims and Christians,” said Bishop Haddad.
The 47-year-old bishop founded the Islamic-Christian Institute with St. Joseph University “to explain to the Christians the theory of Islamic religion from the mouth of Islamic sheiks and vice versa.” St. Joseph University also offers a masters program in Christian and Islamic Relations.
“Lebanon means Muslims and Christians, together,” said Bishop Haddad. “Without this, there is no Lebanon on the geographical map.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from