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At present, Lebanon remains one of a few safe havens in the Middle East for Christians, who make up an estimated one third of the country’s population. It is also somewhat of a regional anomaly due to the significant support the Shia, Islamist party Hezbollah – which also occupies a minority status in the region – has enjoyed in modern times from the Lebanese Christian population. Particularly in a country known for its sectarian identity and history of inter-religious conflict.
The country’s own civil war lasting from 1975 to 1990 pitted Muslims against Maronite Christians. It was during this period that Hezbollah – the “Party of God” – emerged as a radical Shiite movement.
The group’s original manifesto was steeped in religious zeal. Alongside advocating for an Islamic Republic in Lebanon, it made reference to the then Christian president-elect Bashir Gemayel as a “butcher”.
There was no attempt initially by the party to appeal to the Christian population, nor was there any reason for Christians to throw their support behind the party.
Christians in favour of Hezbollah
While Hezbollah moved away from its sectarian beginnings, disavowing plans for an Islamic state and becoming part of the country’s political make-up, it was the group’s military achievements against the might of Israel that marked a turning point in Hezbollah’s standing across the Arab World, but, more specifically, among the Christian population in the country.
For many Lebanese Christians, nationalism in the context of resistance to Israeli aggression trumped sectarian divisions – a case of ends justifying the means (الغاية تبرر الوسيلة).
To this day, anti-Israeli sentiment continues to serve as a unifying force across the religious divide. One of the central tenets of Hezbollah’s manifesto was to drive Israel from Lebanon. Its eventual defeat of Israel in the 34-day war of 2006 cemented its role as “national protector”.
In the same year, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah. However, critics described the move as providing Hezbollah with a “Christian cover”.
Christians in opposition to Hezbollah
While Christian support for the resistance has historically been stronger, there has also existed a small, but sizeable, minority of dissenters who have demonstrated a pro-Israeli stance. Groups of Lebanese Christians formed or joined Christian Militias in alliance with Israel against Muslims and Palestinians during Israel’s 1982 occupation in the south of country.
However, after Israel’s withdrawal, many fled the country after being designated as “traitors”. The bombing of the untouched Christian heartlands in the North of Beirut in 2006 marked a change in attitudes for many, particularly among those who, at one time, had supported Israel.
Today, support for the resistance remains strong, but this support does not automatically equate to approval of Hezbollah. The groups’ standing among Christians has dwindled in recent years. For many, the increasing power of Hezbollah and the country’s changing demographics remain a concern.
An unlikely alliance
Hezbollah and Lebanese Christians share a common enemy: Sunni jihadists, which has served to create alliances between both groups. Arab Christians have been under threat since the beginning of the Arab Spring, with many having fled the region or been killed.
Hezbollah built an unlikely alliance with Christian militias to protect Christian villages in the town of Ras Baalbek (رأس بعلبك), near to the mountainous Syrian border, that were within striking range of ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliated militants. For beleaguered Christians, Hezbollah proved to be the only group willing and capable of coming to their aid.
While Christians are not unified in their support for Hezbollah – particularly in relation to the group’s ongoing intervention in Syria – there is undoubtedly recognition of their ability to defend the country’s borders.
There is also recognition of Hezbollah’s role in supporting the defence – directly and indirectly – of Christian areas in Syria where it was reported that Hezbollah was recruiting and training Christians to fight alongside them against ISIS. Domestically, the group has fought anti-Assad Sunnis in the country as part of the spillover from the Syrian Civil War. Its alliance with Iran in the Syrian Civil War has left it looking increasingly isolated across the region.
While some parts of the county remain highly segregated, many Christians living in Hezbollah controlled areas have found peace, stability and protection in an unpredictable and volatile region. That is, despite atrocities committed by Hezbollah elsewhere.
Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has continually underlined the importance of religious coexistence in the country, making reference to the space given to Christians to practice their faith openly, and without fear of persecution. This is a very bipolar reality. Hezbollah has increased overtures to the Christian population, broadcasting mass every year on its television channel, Al-Manar. For many, these moves represent an attempt at closer relations with the country’s Christians in a region where both remain minorities.
Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau suspects that this isn’t about promoting secular values. This is about political strategy and ends justifying means.