Lebanon’s refugee crisis places strain on minority Christian community

The rights of minority Lebanese Christians are being threatened as the country absorbs over 1.2 million Syrian refugees spilling over the border, fleeing the conflict at home, said Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on a visit to the US on 26-27 September.

The swelling refugee population is dramatically altering the country’s demographics and now “some are attempting to impose Muslims over Christians,” said Bassil.

His fear, he says, is that Islamists in Lebanon are enforcing the same strategy that jihadist group Islamic State (IS) carved in Iraq and Syria. “You can see it in different means, such as in Lebanese politics where the diversity has been eliminated and it is not accepted to have the real representative of the Christians in a political position.”

“This is similar to what [IS] is doing in the region by eliminating the non-uniform elements,” he said. “In Lebanon … elements of the minorities are being gradually eliminated by not allowing them to ascend to power. There is a refusal to allow the real representatives of the minorities to gain power, comparable to an ideology of political extremism.”

The result of this elimination from politics, believes Bassil, may be a physical exodus of Lebanon’s threatened Christian minority, as has already happened in Iraq and Syria, where the Christian presence has all but gone.

Lebanon is the only Arab state that is not officially Muslim and has the highest proportion of Christians of any country in the Middle East. In the 1970s, the Christian community comprised a slight majority, but many fled during the civil war from 1975-1990.

The constitution attempts to distribute power equally along the sectarian divisions as a means to preventing any one group from becoming dominant. The president must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament Shia Muslim.

But with the enormous influx of refugees, the demography has changed enormously in a country whose population was less than 6 million in 2011, prior to the conflict in Syria. “That’s the equivalent of … the UK taking in 20 million,” said Peter Anderson, the head of Concern Worldwide in Northern Ireland.

Although the border between Syria and Lebanon officially closed in May, the government later made an agreement with the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East that would allow Assyrian Christians in Syria to live in Lebanon, provided they could produce a certificate of baptism. The Church, for their part, promised to provide for the material needs of every single Assyrian refugee, with the help of Christians around the world.

Even in Lebanon, Christians are not free from the threat of IS. “[IS] doesn’t just attack and leave,” said a church leader in Ras Baalbek, a Christian town close to the Syrian border. “Their plan is to control the geography … They would take the women, the money and the children.”

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