BAALBEK, Lebanon: The gold-plated dome and minarets, superimposed against the blue and turquoise arabesque tiles of the shrine of Sayyida Khawla in Baalbek, create a dazzling effect.
The shrine of Imam Hussein’s daughter, which was entirely remodeled thanks to Iranian funds, is so imposing that the nearby celebrated Roman ruins of Baalbek and the colonial-era Palmyra Hotel look as worn-out and neglected as ever.
Ever since the Shiite Harfoush clan took over Baalbek in the 18th century during the Ottoman era, Shiite presence and influence in the multi-confessional city and the surrounding rural area has steadily expanded.
Nowadays, Baalbek is considered a stronghold of Hezbollah, the most powerful Shiite armed group in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s first secretary-general, the firebrand Sheikh Sobhi Tufaili, hails from the Baalbek village of Brital. Also, within Hezbollah circles, fighters from the Baalbek region were considered the most ruthless in fighting Israel when it occupied south Lebanon, and later on in 2006 during the 34-day summer war with the Jewish state.
But the tight grip Hezbollah has held over the City of the Sun is gradually drawing the ire of residents from across the religious spectrum. Baalbek’s Shiite figures and scholars argue that it falls within the responsibility of Hezbollah, as the most prominent faction, to embrace and alleviate the fears of the city’s Sunni and Christian communities.
“It is an ethical and religious responsibility for Hezbollah to reassure the other religious communities who have been present in Baalbek even before it [the party] existed,” said Saoud al-Mawla, a professor of sociology at the Lebanese University.
According to Mawla, who hails from the Baalbek village of Harbta, Hezbollah must be ready “to make concessions” in a bid to safeguard coexistence.
Rami Lakkis, a professor of international relations and an active member of Baalbek’s civil society, noted that Hezbollah is “well aware that the spirit of accord and coexistence in Baalbek is sacred.”
He argued that Hezbollah’s key role in Baalbek is bolstered by the fact that the party enjoys support from various religious groups in the city, and not only Shiites.
In what many described as an unusual outbreak of violence, gunbattles erupted over the weekend between Hezbollah members and a group of men from the Sunni Shiyyah family in the city’s marketplace of Al-Qalaa, killing four people.
“There won’t be a repeat of Saturday’s events,” said Lakkis, who, through his Baalbek-based non-governmental organization the Lebanese Organization of Studies Training, is carrying out peace-building projects in his hometown.
“All groups were highly disturbed by what happened,” he said.
Although the two communities traded accusations over what sparked the clashes, the problem first started at one of the checkpoints Hezbollah has been manning in its strongholds in the aftermath of a spate of bombings that targeted its areas in Beirut.
By Monday evening and following accusations that it was undermining state authority by imposing “self-security,” Hezbollah had turned over dozens of checkpoints across the country to the police and Army.
“It’s kind of humiliating when you have guys whom you grew up with ask you for your identity documents every time you want to access your neighborhood,” said Marwan Solh, a mechanical engineer. “Many of my Shiite friends are complaining too.”
Marwan, who belongs to Baalbek’s most prominent Sunni family, the Solhs, said Sunni-Shiite friction has traditionally been absent in the city. “Unfortunately, Hezbollah has enshrined the difference between our two sects.”
Marwan’s closest friend, Hassanein Othman, said that Baalbek’s Shiites cannot live without their Sunni and Christian brethren.
“We can’t live without the Sunnis and they can’t live without us because we share the same traditions and suffering,” Othman said. “I think this is more important than religious beliefs or political allegiances.”
The governorate of Baalbek-Hermel has long been one of the country’s most neglected areas. The area’s socio-economic woes became even more pronounced with the start of the war in Syria some two and a half years ago.
After shelling from Syria hit the Baalbek-Hermel region this summer on several occasions, the organizers of the Baalbeck International Festival relocated to a venue in Greater Beirut, dealing yet another blow to the city’s suffering economy.
But despite the acute divergences the Syrian crisis has created among the residents of Baalbek and condemnation of Hezbollah’s role in the protracted conflict, Baalbek residents seem confident that their city will not become a breeding ground for extremist Islamist factions taking part in the fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Media reports over the weekend mentioned that fighters from the rebel Nusra Front fought alongside the Shiyyah family.
“The Sunni community of Baalbek does not favor extremism,” said the activist Lakkis. “It could be that a few Islamists have infiltrated the city, but they won’t find a favorable environment.”
Echoing Lakkis, the deputy mayor of Baalbek’s municipality, Omar Solh, said it was not in the interest of the Sunni community to embrace extremist factions.
“The first people who will be harmed by the presence of such organizations are we, the Sunnis,” Solh said.
Mawla argued that the first step toward easing the fears of Baalbek’s religious groups was for Hezbollah to put an end to “attempts to impose its own culture and thinking on the residents of Baalbek by trying to erase the city’s deep-rooted cultural heritage.”
“Look at all those mosques and places of worship they have built across Baalbek,” he said. “They lack the Lebanese character; you think you’re in [the Iranian cities] of Isfahan and Mashhad.”
Lakkis disagreed. He maintained that the much-criticized pictures of Hezbollah martyrs hung across the city and the opulent religious murals were also a “form of civilization.”
“Fighting occupation is a civilized act and building pretty mosques attracts other kinds of tourists,” Lakkis said. “The state should follow suit and revamp Baalbek’s traditional touristic sites, so that all kinds of tourists pour in to Baalbek.”