TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Both Christian and Muslim residents of Tripoli are considering leaving the volatile northern city in light of the deteriorating security situation and the rise of religious extremism.
Samir Khoury, a Christian, who grew up in the mixed Zahrieh neighborhood of Tripoli, decided to leave behind all the sweet memories of the city and look for a house in Koura, the closest qada to Tripoli.
“I am destined to leave Zahrieh after all these years because I cannot take it anymore. My liquor business has slowed down after my shop in the Tal Square was attacked for three consecutive times due to the rise of extremists,” Khoury told The Daily Star.
Khoury’s family, which hails from the Akkar village of Rahbeh, moved to Zahrieh in the early 20th century.
“My sons Jihad and Hanna have gone to the Gulf and Africa to seek a better future, and my wife and I are left with the option of leaving our neighborhood, people and friends due to the lack of security,” Khoury said.
Since the start of Syria’s civil war in March 2011, Tripoli has witnessed rounds of fighting between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the mainly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Moshen and their rivals in the predominantly Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Armed groups, some made up of hard-line Salafists, have proliferated in Bab al-Tabbaneh and other districts of the city. Personal disputes involving gunfights have become an almost daily occurrence.
Khoury said that when he traveled through the city everyday at 7 p.m. all he found was empty streets and closed cafes, which he blames on the absence of Army and Internal Security Forces patrols.
Khoury explained that he did not feel targeted in Tripoli because he was a Christian, but because he was a proponent of diversity in Tripoli.
“My friends and the friends of my sons are Muslims. I am secular and I go to church only for family occasions,” he said.
“The problem is not sectarian, but there are some groups who want to confiscate the life of Tripoli” and impose their own lifestyle, he added.
Khoury, previously a bank manager, said he couldn’t spend more than two weeks away from the city because he missed it too much.
“Even when there was civil war, there was passion for life and the city was bustling. On weekends, I used to spend the day in Tripoli and stay late at night before heading to sleep in my beautiful village in Akkar,” Khoury said.
Khoury is not the only Christian who has decided to leave Tripoli out of fear for his safety. Many have already moved to the village of Majdlaya in Zghorta and the Koura villages of Dahr al-Ayn and Barsa.
Victor Ibrahim is irritated by the clashes that broke out between gunmen over the weekend in Tripoli’s old quarter, during which fighters also looted jewelry shops.
One was killed and several others wounded in the violence before Army units intervened and restored calm Sunday morning.
“Is it acceptable that thugs control our lives because of the random proliferation of arms and because the Army and Internal Security Forces are not taking any action?” Ibrahim asked angrily.
Although a stun grenade was tossed at St. Georges Church in Zahrieh last month, Ibrahim said he didn’t believe that Christians in particular were being targeted in Tripoli. However, he acknowledged many Christians had left the city because of the security situation.
Yet despite all this, Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, the head of Zahrieh’s parish, is optimistic.
“Life is good,” said Sarrouj, whose historic Al-Saeh library containing 85,167 book titles was torched – reportedly by extremists – just last month.
“My library was not targeted because I am a Christian cleric. But I won’t hide my great fear that Tripoli is ceasing to be such an open city as a result of the daily security incidents plaguing the city for the last two years,” Sarrouj said.
He called on the people of Tripoli to defend themselves by sticking by their city and not losing hope.
He pointed to the murder of Mikhael Farah, who also owned a library in Tripoli, by gunmen during the Civil War.
“Farah was a Marxist and communist – not religious. But his name and sect were a reason for gunmen to stop him at checkpoint and kill him,” he said. “Up until today, many still recall the incident as an occasion to ostracize sectarianism.”
Another indicator of the lack of security and loss of confidence in authorities was the resort of some of Tripoli’s politicians to private security measures to protect themselves.
Sources told The Daily Star that one of the moderate politicians in the northern city who had previously championed calls for strengthening the state, had asked three of his aides to start building up a security team. Apparently, they have begun to recruit gunmen who will be paid LL1 million a month and have access to health insurance.
Ismail Nabulsi, a Muslim resident of Tripoli, also said he felt his lifestyle in Tripoli was being targeted.
“I don’t feel I belong to a city with no nightlife, where I cannot have alcohol and enjoy my time with friends,” Nabulsi said.
“I also cannot live in a city where I don’t have a Christian neighbor who is my soulmate. I would feel like a foreigner. Maybe I too will leave the city in the future.”