BEIRUT: The small crowd is silent, pensive, exhausted by their trials. Just two weeks earlier some had been forced to flee their ancestral homes, making the trek to the Kurdish capital of Irbil before seeking refuge in Lebanon.The Iraqi refugees from Mosul were gathered at the Chaldean diocese in Hazmieh. They had similar stories of their homes being branded with the Arabic letter “noon,” for Nazarenes, an old Arabic label for Christians, by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Fearful for their lives, they fled. And now they were looking for help to get by from the church, until they manage to leave for the West.
“The people have been frightened,” said Michel Kassarji, the Chaldean bishop of Lebanon.
The exile of Iraqi Christians, a living, proximate reminder of the insecurities facing the region’s minorities, has revived fears in Lebanon of the spread of extremism in a region destabilized and disintegrating. The recent, brief takeover of the town of Arsal by militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front appeared to confirm such fears.
That insecurity has spread to some Christian border villages within range of rockets by Syrian militants on the border. And all the while, the presidency in Lebanon stands vacant, the post of the only Christian head of state in the Middle East left in a stubborn vacuum due to political division.
But religious officials insist that while rising extremism is a problem in the region, Lebanon is different, that it cannot succumb to this wave sweeping the area.
Christians in Lebanon have had a bigger role to play in the country than ever before, they said. Extremism is a problem they and their Muslim countrymen must fight together. And they must stay, because their future is here.
“Things are not at their best, neither for the Christians nor for anybody else,” Archbishop Paul Sayah said. “But let’s put things in perspective: Look at all the countries around us, look at the world, look at Missouri today, how black and white are fighting each other, look at Gaza, the world is mad.”
Sayah is the vicar general of the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkirki and the curial bishop of Antioch, though he insisted he was speaking in the interview in his personal capacity and not as a representative of patriarch.
He said the Christians in Lebanon tend to have a pessimistic view of where the country is headed, but that the community is doing “reasonably well within the present reality.”
Lebanese Christians historically have endured worse hardships, surviving persecution for centuries in the Qadisha Valley, for instance. And take the presidential void.
“The president is not elected by the Christians only, and whoever says the Christians are responsible on their own for the fact that Lebanon does not have a president is scapegoating,” he said.
Lebanon has not had a president since the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s term in May. March 8 and 14 Christians are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and no consensus candidate has emerged in the interim.
But despite that, Sayah says that Christians now have a greater say in how the country is run, being increasingly nominated and appointed in key positions in the state.
“At the same time, unfortunately the president does not have an awful lot to say in the running of the country,” he said.
And despite talk of declining Christian political power due to demographic changes, the Constitution preserves their role, he said.
“Look, if we leave aside the Constitution, the national pact, then the country has no reason to exist,” he said. “I don’t think any Muslim with some reason and moderation in his or her thinking wants that. I think the Muslims and Christians of Lebanon want a united country and I think this is why this country has been kept together.”
Indeed, when discussing rising extremism, Sayah frames it as a threat that faces both Muslims and Christians. He said that Lebanon’s inherent moderation is evident in the very fact that it has survived the persistent war across the border and its spillover without disintegrating.
Kassarji also insisted that Lebanon is exceptional, though the fearsome prospect of Christian exile is on display here at the diocese.
Fleeing persecution, insecurity and instability, the Iraqis come to Lebanon and the diocese provides them with identification papers, food coupons and even cash.
The basement of the diocese has sacks filled with donations and food provisions from those moved by the plight of Iraq’s Christians.
And the church needs what help it can get. Kassarji estimated that it had taken in 1,350 families from Mosul and its environs in recent weeks, fleeing the takeover of their homes by ISIS. Chaldeans are a minority among Lebanese Christians, but in Iraq, 30 out of the 35 churches there are Chaldean.
Of course, he said, recent events in Arsal, threats against Christians in Tripoli where some have fled their neighborhoods amid a Salafist resurgence, and insecurity in the Bekaa Valley remain a concern, but Lebanon’s Christians have a greater role to play and a greater impact on politics than, for instance, the Copts in Egypt.
“Lebanon is different from Iraq because it has a strong Christian component,” he said. “This is the last bastion of the Christians in the Middle East.”
Lebanese Christians also underwent the experience of fighting in their own Civil War, he said, and managed to stay in their lands.
But Kassarji grows pessimistic as he contemplates the state of Christianity in Lebanon and the region overall, and the feeling of insecurity bred here by regional turmoil.
“Are we going to fool ourselves? Even at the birthplace of Christ, in the Holy Land, there are barely any Christians,” he said. “In Jordan it’s the same thing. Iraq is falling apart. Syria is filled with problems. Lebanon has the advantage of its makeup but will the situation continue as it is?”
“It will be probably get worse, but I hope not, I hope not,” he said.
Still, the threat is real to those in Lebanese border villages. In Ras Baalbek, a town believed to have harbored Christians since the first century and which is roughly split in half between March 8 and 14, has set up a self-defense force that monitors the borders of the village and stands ready to defend it.
The town has been hit by occasional rockets and robberies.
It is unclear if these are perpetrated by actual militants or highwaymen, but residents say Christians have been selectively targeted in kidnappings and thefts. Kidnappers have told laborers they spirited away from the village that they pledge allegiance to ISIS, and residents fear hiking to a nearby holy cave named after a local saint.
Rifaat Nasrallah is one of those involved in the self-defense force. He is a Christian member of the Resistance Brigades, a wing set up by Hezbollah to allow non-Shiites to take part in the resistance against Israel. “We are defending our village because a group of people has decided that we are infidels who may be destroyed and erased,” he said in an interview before the Arsal events. “As a Christian, you are a target,” he said, adding that the battle was not about Hezbollah and the Syrian revolution.
But Sayah and Kassarji both agreed that the Christians must remain here.
Sayah’s voice rises as he recalls a statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the 2006 War, flippantly casting aside the suffering of Lebanese civilians as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
He said he agreed with what Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said in a weekend speech about how Christians who seek the West are delusional.
“States have interests and agendas and I think Christians or Muslims or Jews, whoever, will not be ‘protected,’” he added.
“And we don’t need protection, we don’t want protection. We want the West to stop sending arms to Syria and the region, stop the war, stop trying to create this so-called new Middle East.”
“We want Christians to be where they were,” Sayah said. “We want to them to be in their societies and villages, because the Christian presence has had its impact on society, culture, politics, you name it.”