Efforts to unify the Christians of Lebanon in order to protect the community from the worst of the fallout from regional and internal crises have so far proven futile, but the looming threat of a presidential vacuum could breathe new life into reconciliation attempts.
Christian political sources from across the spectrum discuss mounting concern within the community regarding what they see as the decline of Christian influence due to fragmentation and political bickering.
One source predicted that the general political vacuum would not be resolved anytime soon, pointing to the lack of any progress on the horizon to suggest a breakthrough in the formation of a government. At the same time, Parliament has stalled, and when President Michel Sleiman’s term ends in May it is not likely to be renewed.
Christian parliamentarians said they had seen a trend of increasing marginalization of the Christians within the political arena, especially when it comes to major decisions.
This was made clear most recently when Parliament decided to extend its mandate according to a Shiite-Sunni-Druze agreement. The sources blamed a general lack of cohesion among the country’s Christians for the passing of the mandate extension despite the fact that all major Christian parties were unified in their opposition to it.
The sources also complained Christians were sidelined in the negotiations over the electoral law, where, again, overwhelming Christian preference for the Orthodox Law proposal was not enough to save it.
Further evidence of Christian discord is the continuing struggle over top-tier government appointments generally reserved for Christians, which have remained empty since the government resigned.
The sources noted that when a position opens up that is typically filled by a Muslim, whether Sunni or Shiite, the main parties usually have very little trouble reaching a consensus. When the appointment is for a position that should go to a Christian, however, all sects have to agree due to the split in the Christian community between March 8 and March 14.
These sources said that Christian presence in Lebanon, and the community’s material and cultural contributions, cannot be overlooked or forgotten, emphasizing that the state should remain divided 50/50 between Christians and Muslims.
They blamed the Taif Accord for stripping the president of his powers. Although the text of the Taif grants these powers to the Cabinet, the sources said in reality they had been transferred to the prime minister.
The decline of Christian influence was exacerbated by the Syrian occupation and a lack of Christian leadership following the Civil War: President Amine Gemayel was forced into exile, as was Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, while Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea was imprisoned in Lebanon.
The major rift occurred in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Aoun’s FPM and Hezbollah. With time, the divisions have grown wider and more acrimonious, mirroring the polarization between March 14 and March 8.
Even former Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir was unable to unite the Christian community.
When President Michel Sleiman’s election effectively ended the political crisis of 2008, many held out hope that he would unite the Christians of Lebanon. But Sleiman too has been unable to halt the fragmentation, and rather than unifying the community, he has become another party to the division, with no love lost between him and Aoun over who would represent the Christians.
This merely weakens the Maronites and marginalizes the zaims, or traditional leaders.
The Vatican then realized the danger posed by divisions within the Christian community in Lebanon, the sources said, and pressed Sfeir to resign and allow for another patriarch who would work toward building unity.
However, the same sources admitted that not long after Beshara Rai’s election as patriarch in 2011, domestic and regional events spun out of control, and despite his best efforts, he failed to unite the Christians.
This failure was apparent in the election law and in Christian representation in the government. Even practical measures meant to unite their stances were met with half-hearted efforts, resulting in photo ops and joint committees which continue to follow up on the issue but have yet to yield any results.
A number of Maronite lawmakers from the March 8 and March 14 movements confirmed to The Daily Star that efforts to find common ground among Christians were ongoing.
They predicted that despite the obstacles, Christians should be able to at least agree that the next president should be a true representative of the Christians, and not the product of regional or international deals.