The cedars of Lebanon have experienced the axes of many civilizations upon their trunks over the centuries. Conquerors have repeatedly invaded the land, reigned over its inhabitants and reaped its fruits. Time and again, however, the Lebanese have managed to be reborn from the ashes. Today they rise again as they undertake the difficult tasks of reclaiming their freedom, reforming the country’s political system and re-establishing the peace the country enjoyed before the civil war of the 1970’s and 80’s.
The Syrian Occupation
Syrian forces first entered Lebanon in the mid 1970’s to assist the Lebanese government in quelling armed conflicts that had erupted between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees, who began flooding into Lebanon after the invasion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel in 1967. Finding Lebanon a “land of milk and honey,” however, Damascus sowed division, supplying guns to Islamic fundamentalist militias and whispering false promises in the ears of selfish Christian and Druse leaders. Their strategy of divide and conquer fueled the factions among the various faith communities and provided a convincing script for concerned critics around the world. Washington was persuaded that an ongoing Syrian presence in Lebanon would contribute to solving the problems of the region, and Hafez Assad, the late Syrian dictator and president, father of the current Bashar, forged a deal with George H. W. Bush that liquidated the integrity and the freedom of the Lebanese Christians.
Once in power, Damascus initiated an intimidating regime of oppression and persecution. Accusing Lebanon of being too Western, Syria attempted to eliminate the French and English languages from the Lebanese educational system. Syrian intelligence forces also suppressed an open media, closing and bombing several private television and radio stations and censoring others. Most recently the Christian Voice of Charity radio station was destroyed, on May 6, 2005, and the well-regarded journalist Samir Kassar, who spoke openly against Syrian meddling in the lives of Lebanese people, was assassinated on June 2, 2005. Both acts are believed to have been orchestrated by Syria. With the help of pro-Syria Lebanese agents, free speech in the country was silenced as well. On many occasions the students of Saint Joseph, the Jesuit university in Beirut, were beaten up and dragged to jails for peacefully protesting against the Syrian occupation. An estimated 600 Lebanese are still being tortured in Syrian jails today.
With Syrian hands in almost every cookie jar in the country, the Lebanese economy plunged. Today Lebanon’s national debt is more than $35 billion. Educated young people, especially the Christians, have fled in large numbers to whatever countries would welcome them, while the helpless and less fortunate remained under the rule of merciless warlords and corruption. Christians, once estimated to make up 65 percent of the Lebanese population, amount to less than 40 percent today.
The world remained somehow oblivious to the situation of Lebanon. Unlike wise Solomon, who found strength and durability in the cedars of Lebanon and used cedar wood to build a temple for God (1 Kgs 5:1-9), world leaders found no value in protecting the sacred tree.
The Cedar Revolution, launched by the Lebanese youth after the tragic assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, finally gained the world’s attention. An estimated 500,000 Lebanese marched to Sahat Al Shouhada (Martyrs’ Square) in downtown Beirut in a display of unity and courage. Shouting “Syria Out,” Christians and Muslims together demanded their freedom from Syria’s grip. Backed by the international community and U.N. Resolution 1559, which sought the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, the youth of Lebanon received their wish. Assad called his military forces home.
The Lebanese are now faced with a delicate situation that will either return the country to its Middle Ages or lift Beirut, once called the Paris of the Middle East, back onto its feet. To live again, Lebanon must deal with political reform and reconciliation.
The most difficult task Lebanon faces is the reform of its political system. The current Lebanese structure is a modern form of an 18th-century social feudal structure, wherein the za’im (overlord) allowed peasants the use of land in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. In recent times, the za’im has been a political leader for whom politics is a family business and a social rank instead of a vocation or a responsibility. The za’im, surrounded by qabadayats (armed enforcers) provides his loyal followers—primarily members of the same religious sect—with wastah (access to power), in the form of jobs, health insurance and other public services. In addition, the zouama (leaders) inherit their positions from relatives regardless of their qualifications or skills. The majority consequently lack leadership qualities and practical vision. Sleiman Franjieh, former health minister of Lebanon, did not have a high school diploma. He was able to join the “business” in his early 20’s not because of his abilities, but because his grandfather was the president of Lebanon. In the recent elections, Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri, ran uncontested. Though Saad has credentials, including an education at Georgetown University in international business, it is likely other candidates did not run because they felt it would indicate disrespect for his father’s martyrdom and disloyalty to his family. Saad’s election itself was quite possibly not a matter of the electorate choosing the most qualified candidate, but of its fulfilling social expectations. As the son of the martyred prime minister, Saad had an undeniable claim on the office.
Lebanon needs a new political structure based on modern democratic principles, in which political and government offices are given to qualified people and not to heirs and family members. The entangled and ancient political system, rooted in decades of corruption and unduly vulnerable to foreign influence, has caused many problems. New, young faces are needed, people with vision and a desire to serve, people who will put the needs of all Lebanese and of the country ahead of their own ambitions and the desires of their sects.
But before this can happen, the hearts of the Lebanese people must be transformed.
Twenty-five years of war and occupation have done great damage to the Lebanese people and reinforced the divisions among the various religious communities. “It is necessary during this difficult stage in the history of our nation to unify our ranks...to reach out and to open our hearts and consciences to one another and march together...to gain independence, sovereignty and free decision,” declared Cardinal Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, of Antioch, in one of his speeches to the Lebanese American communities during his visit to the United States last March. There is a desperate need for healthy grieving on personal and communal levels, for a letting go of the past and for reconciliation. It may not be easy, but it is a vital step required for much needed change. Now that the Syrian military forces are out, the Lebanese people should continue their journey toward unity and freedom with “hatred out” and “forgiveness in.”
In his 1997 apostolic exhortation “A New Hope for Lebanon,” Pope John Paul II acknowledged the intricacies of the heterogeneous Lebanese society. The pope called them to put their trust in the heart of Christ and accept living with people of other faith traditions as their vocation. Through dialogue, all Lebanese should grow to “know each other in a better way.” For, Pope John Paul II said, beneath the diversity of faith expressions among the various sects lies a fundamental unity of spiritual devotion and commitment: Christians and Muslims alike fervently adhere to the one God, prayer and fasting. Both traditions strive to avoid sin and to practice charity and rahma (mercy). This underlying unity is a treasure from which the diverse religions should draw in order to establish a country where ta’ay-ioush, living together, not just existing alongside one another, is possible.
Uncle Samaritan, Not Uncle Sam
In a post 9/11 world, we can no longer ignore world events and situations. Events in Lebanon and elsewhere have major impacts not only on the Middle East, but on the whole world. The freedom of a U.S. farmer in Wisconsin is entangled with the freedom of a Lebanese shepherd in the Beqaa Valley, whether we wish to admit it or not. What is more, if there is any ready soil for the seeds of peace in the Middle East, it is in Lebanon. Pope John Paul II, in his address to the patriarchs and bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches on May 1, 1984, affirmed that “Lebanon is more than a country: Lebanon is a message and an example for the East as well as for the West.” Lebanon is one of the birthplaces of democracy, interfaith dialogue and Arab-Israeli relations. If the possibility of freedom and democracy disappear from Lebanon, hope for peace in the region will certainly erode.
At the same time, Westerners hoping to improve the situation in the Middle East must proceed with caution. When Arabs, especially Muslims, sense foreign presence on their soil, they usually react according to an Arabic principle: “My brother and I against my cousin, but my cousin and I against the stranger.” Muslims will side with Syria, with Iran, with Hezbollah or with any Islamic organization, terrorist or not, against foreign political interference. Many Shiites cast their votes in the current Lebanese parliamentary elections strictly in support of Hezbollah’s “America Out” slogans, though not in support of their vision or other actions.
Consequently, Lebanon cannot work with an Uncle Sam who hefts flashy “Mission Accomplished” banners and lays out “road maps.” Such measures dangerously and unnecessarily complicate its situation. Rather, Lebanon needs a biblical-style good Uncle Samaritan who is not interested in preaching “Samaritan freedom and democracy” to the half-dead roadside victim, but sees him and feels compassion (Lk 10:33). Lebanon is badly bruised. The infrastructure has been hit by a 30-year cycle of armed conflicts and neglect. Unemployment is rampant. The economy is suffering, and families hardly have bread on their tables. The country needs a friend who can help rebuild, bandage wounds and “pour oil and wine on them” (Lk 10:34).
The world might consider helping Lebanon by setting up teams of young educated Lebanese from all Lebanese sects, providing them with funds, expertise and resources with which to rebuild the country with their own hands. This will create jobs, generate a sense of common purpose among different sects and bolster a sense of a national rather than sectarian unity.
The cedars of Lebanon have endured much. Peace in the Middle East is long overdue. Shouting “Syria Out” began a revolution, but now there arises the real challenge, the restoration of peace in the country and region. As the Lebanese try to get their nation back on its feet, many Lebanese Christians turn to Mother Mary, who lived under occupation and oppression and understands the sufferings of the poor. Through her intercession, they believe, Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad...it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to them....” (Is 35:2).
Major Events in Modern History of Lebanon
1943--Lebanon receives its independence.
1948--Because of the Arab-Israeli War, waves of Palestinian refugees flood into Lebanon.
1967--The Six-Day War brings a second wave of Palestinian refugees.
1975--The Lebanese Civil War is sparked by Palestinian Muslims firing at a Maronite church.
1976--The Palestine Liberation Organization joins Muslim fighters against Lebanese Christians.
1982--Israel invades Lebanon.
1983--Lebanon signs an agreement with Israel. Israel pulls back its forces. Syria refuses to pull out. President Bashir Gemayel, a Christian Lebanese, is killed three weeks after his election. Christians retaliate by killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
1991--The civil war ends. Militias are dissolved. Hezbollah retains its weapons.
1998--General Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian, is elected president. Prime Minister Hariri resigns.
2000--Israel withdraws from south Lebanon in accord with a 1978 Security Council resolution.
2004--The United Nations calls on Syria to end its influence on Lebanese politics and withdraw its troops.