BEIRUT: Mohammad Awwad and his fiancee, both Muslims, recently found an affordable apartment for rent online in a town southeast of Beirut. The 27-year-old journalist called the number and asked the owner when they could drop by to take a look. He was stunned by her response: Muslims are not allowed to settle in the town, she said.
The apartment owner apologized to Awwad, saying she wouldn’t mind renting to people of any sect but officials in the town of Hadath issued orders years ago that only Christians be allowed to buy and rent property from the town’s Christian residents.
The young Shiite Muslim man could not believe what he heard and asked his fiancee, Sarah Raad, to call the municipality. She, too, was told that the ban had been in place for years.
Hadath is a small example of Lebanon’s deeply rooted sectarian divisions that once led to a 15-year Civil War that left more than 100,000 people dead. Christian communities feel under siege as Muslims, who tend to have higher birth rates, leave overcrowded areas for once predominantly Christian neighborhoods.
“There are people who live in fear and feel threatened and this can be removed through [state] policies that make citizens equal,” said Pierre Abi Saab, a Lebanese journalist and critic.
Three decades ago Hadath was almost entirely Christian, but today it has a Muslim majority because the Muslim population expanded greatly between 1990, when the war ended, and 2010, when the ban was imposed. Since then, the Muslim population has hovered between 60 percent and 65 percent.
The ban only applies to Christian property - a Muslim resident or landowner of Hadath is allowed to sell or rent their property to Muslims from outside the town or to whomever they want.
Hadath is the only area where such a ban is publicly announced.
Local officials in Christian areas in central, eastern and southern Lebanon impose such bans in more discreet ways. In the predominantly Christian southern region of Jezzine, some local officials have changed the status of land in their villages from commercial to agricultural in order to prevent mass construction projects while in other villages and towns only locals are allowed to buy property.
“As a Lebanese citizen, I don’t see that there is justification for fear, and mixing with others is our salvation in Lebanon,” said Abi Saab, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar newspaper. He said it was unacceptable that Lebanese citizens could not live wherever they wanted in the country.
Hadath is on the edge of Beirut’s heavily populated Shiite southern suburbs, a stronghold of Hezbollah. Hadath, along with other nearby areas, saw tens of thousands of Shiites move in over the years, raising fears among some of the country’s Christians.
A country of about 5 million, Lebanon has a very delicate sectarian balance between its 18 religious sects. The last census was conducted in 1932, during which Christians were the majority, but over the decades their numbers have been declining because of slower birth rates and more immigration. Today, Christians make up nearly a third of the population, while the two other thirds are almost equally split between Shiites and Sunnis.
“When he says Muslims are not allowed to rent property, he means that he does not want to see Muslims,” Awwad said, referring to Hadath Mayor George Aoun.
Interior Minister Raya El Hassan has denounced the town’s policy as unconstitutional.
Aoun strongly defended his decision, noting it was made in 2010, shortly after he was elected to the post. He said at the end of the Civil War, Hadath was a purely Christian town, but by 2010, tens of thousands of Muslims, many of them Shiites from Beirut’s southern suburbs, moved in.
“We are telling every Christian to be proud of his or her village. Live here, work here and raise your children here. We are an exemplary village for coexistence,” he said. Asked whether his decision violated the Constitution, which allows any Lebanese citizen to settle and own property anywhere in Lebanon, Aoun denied it, saying the proof was that Hadath was 60 percent Muslim.
“Every village should preserve itself. Every Shiite village should preserve its Shiite nature, every Christian village should preserve its Christian nature and every Sunni village should preserve its Sunni nature. We want to preserve our village or what remains of it,” Aoun said in an interview in his office, which is decorated with a giant framed map of Hadath.
The mayor has received a barrage of criticism recently on social media and on local TV stations that describe his decision as “racist and discriminatory.” In response, hundreds of supporters marched last weekend in Hadath supporting the mayor’s decision. Aoun told the crowd that he would commit to the ban until “doomsday.”
Christians once dominated Lebanon’s politics until the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Civil War. The agreement divided Cabinet and Parliament seats as well as senior government jobs, equally between Muslims and Christians.
The agreement also removed powers from the Christian president and gave them to the Sunni Muslim prime minister.
According to Lebanon’s power-sharing system since independence from France in 1943, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the Parliament speaker a Shiite.
Hadath’s municipality is dominated by members of President Michel Aoun’s ultranationalist Free Patriotic Movement, which has been leading a campaign against Syrian refugees in the country, calling for their return to safe areas in war-torn Syria.
Two years ago, Hadath’s municipality banned Syrians from working in the town, becoming one of the first areas to do so in Lebanon.
Walking through the streets of Hadath, no Syrians can be seen, unlike in other parts of Lebanon, and shop owners boast that they only hire Lebanese.
Hadath resident George Asmar invited a reporter into his clothing store near a church and proudly pointed to a woman who works for him, saying, “She is one of our Shiite sisters.” But Asmar said he supported the mayor because the ban on Muslims owning or renting property in the town was preserving the town’s identity.
“The decision of the municipality is very good because we want to keep our sons in Hadath,” Asmar said. “It is good to keep our sons, to live with us rather than travel.”