BEIRUT: Christians are tempted to flee Lebanon as the country becomes increasingly “Islamized,” according to the founder of the Center for Arab Christian Research and Documentation (CEDRAC). One-third of the nation’s Christian population has left since the beginning of the 1975-90 Civil War, and a recent surge in emigration means Christians now make up just 34 percent of Lebanon’s population, Father Samir Khalil, a Jesuit teacher at Beirut’s St. Joseph University’s CEDRAC department, told Vatican Radio last week.
“Christians used to make up 50 percent of the nation’s population; now experts think the Christians are probably not exceeding 34 percent, which is worrying,” Khalil said in the radio interview during a visit to The Holy See.
The Beirut-based researcher expressed concern that Christians in the Arab world are moving abroad to places with higher Christian populations, such as America, Europe and Australia, which is increasing the Muslim majority in countries like Lebanon.
“The same is happening [all over] the Middle East, and this is certainly a very tragic situation, and it will have great consequences in the future,” Father Khalil warned last week on the Vatican Radio station, adding that Christians must stay in the Middle East to keep numbers up.
Large numbers of Lebanese Christians are leaving as they feel their traditional influence in their country is weakening, while an increasing number of crucial political positions are going to Muslims.
In reference to Islamic extremism, Khalil claimed the power of the influential Christian minority to counterbalance it was waning, saying: “Lebanon has always been a bastion of religious tolerance, but now it is moving toward the model of Islamization seen in Iraq and Egypt.”
Christians have taken a backseat in recent times to dominant Sunni-Shiite relations, with key leaders Saad Hariri from the Future Movement representing most Sunni Muslims and Hizbullah of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah leading the Shiites, while the Christian community has less unified representation, split between the country’s rival political camps – the Maronite Catholic supporters of Lebanese Forces and Phalange parties with March 14 and those backing the Free Patriotic Movement led by retired General Michel Aoun, who has formed an allegiance with Hizbullah.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI this week called a special Synod of Bishops to discuss the challenges facing the church in the Middle East.
The Synod meeting, which has been scheduled for October 2010, will address the problems that Catholic communities in the Middle East have in common, the pope said during a meeting last week with the patriarchs of seven Eastern Catholic churches, including Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.
The patriarchs, coming from across the Middle East, requested the October meeting, saying that they wished to have more frequent contact with the bishop of Rome in order to “strengthen the communion of their churches with Peter’s successor.”
Benedict specifically mentioned their relations to other faiths – by implication Islam – and the phenomenon of emigration. Catholic prelates have long warned about that the pressures of living in a Muslim society, and the economic uncertainties facing the region have prompted many thousands of young Christians to leave their homes, imperiling the future of Christianity in the region.
The pope said the 2010 meeting is designed to help plan a pastoral strategy for Christians living in a region that is ever more heavily influenced by militant Islam.
The results of a poll released last year show that nearly half of all Maronites, the largest Christian denomination in the country – making up about 22 percent of the population – said they are considering emigrating.
In the survey conducted by Information International, an independent Beirut body, many Christians cited the growing influence of March 8 faction Hizbullah in Lebanon as a reason for their decision to leave.
Over 70,000 Christians have fled since the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hizbullah, many fearing more conflict between their southern neighbor and the Shiite group.
Christians, in particular Maronite Catholics, have historically played a major role in the development of Lebanon’s political, social and cultural institutions. Under the country’s sectarian power-sharing system, the post of president is reserved for a Maronite Catholic, while the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite.
Currently, the president, the army commander and the head of the central bank all are Maronites, and under the agreement that ended the Civil War, half of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s Parliament are reserved for Christians.