TIBNIN, Lebanon: As sectarian and political tensions steadily rise, stoked mainly by the reverberations of the civil war in Syria, the southern town of Tibnin remains a model for peaceful coexistence, with education routinely cited as a key factor of stability.
Tibnin is located about 15 kilometers from the border with Israel, and is a large southern town with a Muslim majority and Christian minority. Residents are quick to cite the town’s record during Israel’s 18-year occupation, as they refused to bow to pressure and threats to collaborate with the Jewish state.
Roughly half of Tibnin’s population of 20,000 lives in the diaspora and one of these emigrants, Speaker Nabih Berri, rose to fame when he was selected to lead the Amal Movement in the early 1980s, before becoming a Cabinet minister, MP and speaker of Parliament.
The founder of the Amal Movement, Imam Musa Sadr, was famous for highlighting the need to maintain Muslim-Christian coexistence as a source of “wealth.”
While residents, local officials and others routinely hail the benefits of coexistence, even Berri himself seems to acknowledge that in times of tension, the term can also have a negative connotation – it can be interpreted as signaling differences, instead of unity.
When asked about interfaith coexistence during a 2009 election tour of Christian towns in the south, Berri said, “Let’s stop using the word ‘coexistence.’ We [Christians and Muslims] are one family.”
Irrespective of the problems that some might find with the slogan of coexistence, Nabil Fawwaz, the mayor of Tibnin, said his town’s encouraging history had a helping factor, namely education.
“ Tibnin is a model for peaceful and brotherly coexistence in Lebanon. The hallmark of coexistence is deep-rooted in the town’s daily life. Tibnin hasn’t witnessed any sectarian trouble even during the [1975-90] Civil War,” Fawwaz told The Daily Star.
What makes Tibnin distinctive from other towns and villages in the south, Fawwaz said, is the high level of educated people in it.
“Education is a special feature of Tibnin. The town has graduated a large number of Army officers, teachers, judges as well as MPs, ministers, including the current Parliament speaker,” he added.
The town’s Christian population is about 10 percent, mainly Catholics. The 15-member Municipal Council has one Christian member, while one of the six elected mukhtars for Tibnin is also Christian.
Perhaps the best manifestation of Tibnin’s sectarian harmony is the presence of a large imposing church located on a hilltop overlooking a newly built mosque in the town’s main square next to a majestic and stately government serail that serves citizens from several neighboring towns and villages.
Ali Fawwaz is the head of the Union of Al-Qalaa Municipalities, representing 10 nearby villages in the qada of Bint Jbeil.
He said the strong interfaith ties in Tibnin had been translated into cases of mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians.
“Both sides participate in joyful and sad occasions. The Shiites go to the church to attend funeral services, while the Christians flock to the mosque to offer condolences on the death of any Shiite resident,” he said.
Lewis Qatoura, a 21-year-old Christian native of Tibnin, said that getting along with others was a value passed down over generations.
“Our grandfathers taught us to love each other, and to cooperate with others. Amid sectarian tensions sweeping other areas in Lebanon and other countries in the region, I feel that Tibnin is the safest place,” he said.
As he spoke at his house a few meters from the town’s church, Herminer Aroyan, a 75-year-old widower who has been living in Tibnin for over 56 years, interjected, saying “Christians and Shiites love each other. There has been no security incident between the two sides during and after the Civil War.”
Abboud Labib Haddad, a 54-year-old Christian native of Tibnin, said the alliance in the Shiite political community was also a source of reassurance.
“As a Christian, I feel more secure in the south than in the north. The reason is that the Shiite community is united. Shiite unity between Hezbollah and the Amal Movement is a source of assurance,” Haddad said.
A father of three children, Haddad, who works for a humanitarian institution based in Tyre, said the town’s Christians came under pressure and even received threats from Israel and its agents during the Israeli occupation of the south to collaborate with the Jewish state.
“But we didn’t bow to these threats,” he said. “The Christians in the south are as patriotic as the Muslims.”
Mohammad Atallah Dakroub, an 82-year-old native of Tibnin, agreed with the town’s mayor that education was behind peaceful coexistence.
“Tibnin’s residents preceded others elsewhere in their rush to obtain an education. There is no sectarian or confessional fanaticism between the Shiites and Christians,” said Dakroub, now retired after serving as head of the town’s post office for nearly 25 years.
A father of nine children, Dakroub noted that Shiite expatriates in America donated money to help build Tibnin’s church.
According to Dakroub, the author of a book on the town’s history, Tibnin also boasts a strong connection to the Lebanese state, going back decades, when Ali Nasser Beyk Asaad served as agriculture minister under the French mandate in 1936.
Mohammad Ali Mustafa Ghotaimi was Tibnin’s first MP, in 1947, and was followed by Said Fawwaz, in 1960, and later by Abdullah Ghotaimi who won as a member of former Speaker Kamel Asaad’s ticket. The late Hamid Dakroub was elected to the long Parliament of 1972, and kept his post until 1996.
The late Ali Harajli, another native of Tibnin, served as public works minister in the early 1990s in then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s Cabinet.
While many rural areas complain about the lack of state services, Tibnin has come to benefit from a critical mass of facilities and institutions. A governmental hospital provides medical services to people in neighboring villages and towns, while the Social Affairs Ministry, the Red Cross, Civil Defense and the United Nations all have a prominent presence in this town in the extreme south of the country.
The sheer level of activity at the Tibnin government serail, with residents of all surrounding villages crowding its offices to process their formalities, signals how worries about coexistence can dissipate when strong links bind people, and services are made available to all.
Opened in 1998 in the presence of its native son Berri, the five-story building contains offices for the Municipality of Tibnin, the Civil Registration Department, the National Social Security Fund, a civil court, a Shariah court, Civil Defense, the Council for the South, General Security, the Social Affairs Ministry, Lebanese Army Intelligence and the Gendarmerie. It also has an Internet hall and a jail in the basement that holds about 100 inmates.
“We live like one family. There is no discrimination between a Shiite and a Christian in Tibnin. The Christians are our brothers and we treat them like we treat ourselves,” said Mustafa Mohammad Fawwaz, a 76-year-old Shiite native of Tibnin.
“Sectarian tensions in Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli haven’t affected peaceful coexistence in our town.”