BRIH, Lebanon: Hundreds gathered in the Chouf village of Brih Saturday to solidify the reconciliation between Christians and Druze under the patronage of President Michel Sleiman, in a celebration that also acted as a farewell gathering to the head of state, whose terms expires May 25.
As soon as Sleiman arrived at the village celebrations erupted, with women throwing rice at the convoy and entertainers playing traditional music to welcome the president.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai also attended the event among a Christian delegation of bishops and priests, who joined other officials, Druze sheikhs and residents under a large tent in the village.
Head of the Progressive Socialist Party MP Walid Jumblatt received officials and was seated next to Sleiman and Rai.
The reconciliation plan seeks to bring back the Christians of Brih, who were displaced during the Civil War years when militias of the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Lebanese Forces in Chouf engaged in fierce clashes in 1983.
Brih was originally inhabited by both Christians and Druze.
The reconciliation efforts were given momentum following an historic 2001 visit by former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir to the mountainous region.
Sleiman has been adamant to finalize the work of the understanding during his term, with the help of Rai, who has also played a pivotal role in eliminating obstacles that could have hindered efforts.
Rai, Sleiman and Jumblatt also laid the foundation of two churches, to further encourage Christians to return to their original homes.
Druze residents told The Daily Star that Brih welcomed the return of the Christians to their homes and the start of a new phase of ties between residents.
“We open our hearts to all Christians returning to the village,” 36-year-old Maher Ali said.
A member of the organizing committee of the event, Ghassan Demashky, said Brih residents recognized very well what had happened in the past and have learned their lesson from it.
“People are coming back to live in their homes and work on their lands,” he said.
He also added that the committee was also preparing development projects in the village and that none of the residents enjoy "political cover."
"Any violators will be punished under the law," Demashky said.
The event was held in a location where a contested municipal center was dismantled last year, marking a significant step in the reconciliation efforts. The property belonged to Christians.
A man in his late 20s, who preferred to remain anonymous, said his family was forced out of Brih.
"I was born in Beirut ... but I came here today with my father to check on our property; my family has a big house in Brih," the man said, adding that some people who seek to return to the village might be afraid to do so.
Minister for the Displaced Alice Shabtini last week issued a decision for Druze residents to evacuate homes belonging to the Christians who were forced to leave Brih.
In her decision, Shabtini also tasked the “Central Fund for the Displaced to pay compensation owed to the occupants, and tasked the Office of Operations for the Displaced in Mount Lebanon to execute the decision in coordination with the ministry in order to hand over the houses to their rightful owners.”
“Today, we open a new page of coexistence ... and turn over yesterday's page, which represents pain and tragedy,” Jumblatt said in his opening speech.
“We begin a new path of working together, communicating, love and commitment to land," he added.
Jumblatt, who thanked Sleiman for his continued efforts in reconciliation, also said that his centrist position has proven valid amid "sharp division in the country."
Rai addressed Christians in Brih, reminding them of the need to forgive and reconcile.
“I want to remind Christians that reconciliation is their fundamental message ... we are the ambassadors of Christ and we should also focus on a spiritual, social, national and political reconciliation, so that Lebanon remains a country of partnership and love,” the prelate said.
Sleiman also delivered a speech for the occasion, urging the Lebanese to distance Lebanon from regional turmoil and commit to the Baabda Declaration, an agreement signed by rival groups to disassociate Lebanon from international and regional conflicts.
"Past experiences teach us to remain far away from foreign conflicts," he said.
"We stress the importance of returning to Lebanon and withdrawing from neighboring arenas," Sleiman added, referring to Hezbollah's presence in Syria.