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memri
May 18, 2015 No.
1160

Christians In Lebanon, Fearing ISIS And Jabhat Al-Nusra, Seek To Arm Themselves, Gain Protection Of International Community And Hizbullah

Introduction

As jihadist organizations gain power in the Middle East, including in Lebanon, and especially after large areas of Syria and Iraq have fallen under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS), which is attempting to impose radical Islam there, the Christian and Druze minorities in Lebanon have begun to fear for their future and even for their lives. Several incidents that occurred recently in Lebanon have exacerbated this fear: in early August 2014,ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) invaded the border town of Irsalin northeastern Lebanon and abducted dozens of Lebanese soldiers and security officers there with the cooperation of Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees.Later militants identified with ISIS and JN also attempted to raid the town of Brital, south of Irsal.Following the fighting between the Assad regime and the rebels in the Al-Qalamoun area in Syria, near Lebanon's eastern and northeastern border,there are reports that these organizations plan further incursions into Lebanon.Furthermore, in early October 2014, armed groups affiliated with ISIS and JN, assisted bySyrian refugees, clashed with the Lebanese army in Tripoli and other northern regions. According to Lebanese military sources, these armed clashes were part of a comprehensive plan by ISIS and JN to take over this region in order to create territorial continuity with the Al-Qalamoun area in western Syria.

In addition, over the past year pro-ISIS graffiti appeared near churches and Christian schools in various parts of Lebanon, threatening that the Islamic State is coming and Christians will be slaughtered.

Lebanon's minorities fear not only the encroachment of ISIS and JN on Lebanon's eastern border and the active support these organizations receive from extremist Sunni groups and Syrian refugees within the country;they also fear that the Syrian civil war will spill into Lebanon.The Christians' concern is exacerbated by the weakness of the central government and the inability of the Lebanese army to protect them, and by their suspicion that no external element will come to their aid except perhaps by granting them immigration permits.

In response to the situation, large parts of the Christian public have begun arming themselves and also seek the protection of various elements - including Hizbullah, which is exploiting their plight for its own ends. They have also held conferences and issued statements calling for religious tolerance and appealing to the international community for protectionand assistance.[1]

This report reviews the apprehensions of the Christian minorityin Lebanon, the expressions of tension between the Christians and extremist Sunni elements, and the attempts of some Chrisitansto arm themselves and/or to draw close to Hizbullah in order to gain its protection. It also reviews their efforts to raise public awareness to their plight and to restrain Sunni extremism with the help of the moderate Sunni leadership in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Sunni-Christian Tension: Christians Burn ISIS, JN Flags; Sunnis Vandalize Crosses, Spray Threatening Graffiti

In late 2014, the Lebanese media reported extensively on the Christians' fear of extremist Muslim organizations - chiefly ISIS and JN - and on the support these organizations enjoy among Lebanese Sunnis and Syrian refugees throughout Lebanon. This support found tangible expression in violent clashes that erupted in Irsal in August 2014 and in Tripoli two months later between the Lebanese army and Lebanese armed groups identified with ISIS and JN, and also in pro-ISIS anti-Christian slogans that appeared on walls of Churches, schools and even homes in several parts of the country.

Fearing the influence of these extremist elements, and in protest of their crimes, such as the execution of two Lebanese soldiers, on August 30, 2014, several young men in Al-Ashrafiya, a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, burned an ISIS flag bearing the shahada (the Muslim proclamation of faith, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger"). Christian online activists also launched a "burn the ISIS flag challenge" urging others to do the same.[2] Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, of the Sunni Al-Mustaqbal faction, called to punish the flag-burners severely, on the grounds that their act could spark civil war. Conversely, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, from Michel 'Auon's Christian party, called on Christians to distinguish between ISIS and Islam.[3]


Protesters burn ISIS flag in Christian area of Beirut (source: Dailystar.com.lb, September 1, 2014)

The next day, August 31, 2014, several Sunnis from Tripoli responded by burning two crosses, and also sprayed "ISIS is coming" outside several churches in the city.[4]


Two crosses burned in Tripoli (source:Alhadathnews.net, August 31, 2014)

In the following weeks, many pro-ISIS and anti-Christian messages appeared in various areas. "ISIS is coming" was sprayed on a church wall in Zghata in northern Lebanon and on walls in a town near Tyre in the south;[5] the message "There is no god but Allah - the Islamic State" appeared on walls in Ghaza in the western Beqa Valley,[6] "the Islamic State will shatter the cross" was sprayed on a church wall in Al-Mina in the north,[7] and the message "we have come to slaughter you, worshippers of the cross" was sprayed on the wall of a Christian school in Tripoli.


"We have come to slaughter you, worshippers of the cross" on the wall of a Christian school in Tripoli (Al-Safir, Lebanon, September 2, 2014)


"The Islamic State is coming" on a church wall in Al-Mina (Alnashra.com, August 31, 2014)

Conferences, Statements Appealing For International Protection

Lebanon's Christians responded to the threat in several other ways as well. On the media level, they held rallies and conferences and issued statements in an attempt to draw attention in Lebanon and elsewhere to their plight and gain international protection. At these gatherings, they spoke of the need to fight Sunni extremism in cooperation with the moderate Sunni leadership in Lebanon and the Arab world. For example, on August 7, 2014, patriarchs of the Eastern Churches in Lebanon held a conference at which they urged Sunni and Shi'ite clerics to issue fatwas against killing Christians.[8] On September 3, Lebanon's Maronite archbishops, headed by Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, issued a statement declaring their opposition "to all the kinds of discrimination, oppression, expulsion and killing carried out by the groups of extremism and takfir, which exploit the religion to further interests and plans that have nothing to do with the well-known values of Islam." The statement also called on the international community, the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court in the Hague "to take the necessary measures in order to end the [Christians'] tragedy."[9]At a conference in Washington addressing the situation of Christians inthe Arab East, held on September 9-11, Al-Rahi called on the U.S. to protect these Christians.[10]

Arming For Self Defense, Or Relying On Army, Hizbullah For Protection

At the same time, the Christians havetaken measures to defend themselves against the extremists by force of arms, in cooperation with either the Lebanese army and security forces or Hizbullah. On September 17, 2014, the pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar published a series of articles on the Chrisitians' military and security preparations in several parts of Lebanon: in the northern Beqa, an area mostly under Hizbullah control on the frontier with ISIS and JN; in the towns and villages of the central Beqathat are close to the Syrian border; in the Tyre area and the south, which are under Hizbullah control; in the Mount Lebanon area, populated mainly by Druze; and in the north, populated mostly by Sunnis, some of whom support the extremist organizations to some extent.


(Source: Worldmaps.net)

The articles claim that most of the country's Christians are arming themselves, independently or with the aid of Christian political parties, in order to defend themselves against the extremist organizations when the time comes; others are counting on Hizbullah to protect them, and some are taking active security measures in cooperation with the army or municipal councils, such as patrolling their regions, and monitoring the Syrian refugees and imposing a night curfew on them.[11]

It seems that several considerations influence the Christians in the various areas in deciding whether to arm themselves and on whom to rely for their defense. One consideration is their political affiliation: some Christians are affiliated with Michel Auon's Free Patriotic Movement, which is part of the March 8 Forces, headed by Hizbullah, while others are affiliated with the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces party, which are part of the rival stream, the March 14 Forces. The latter oppose the possession of arms by non-government elements, including by Hizbullah. Another consideration is proximity to the Syrian border,and thus to the area where ISIS and JN are fighting the Assad regime and Hizbullah and from which the gunmen made their incursion into Irsal and into other towns in northeastern Lebanon. Naturally, Christians living close to the border feel a greater need to arm themselves. A third factor is a disinclination to take up arms feltby some Christians, especially in the Mount Lebanon area, due to their experiences in the Lebanon civil war. The Al-Akhbar articles point to a certain gap between the position of the Christian public, which expects the Christian leadership, with all its parties and streams, to take steps to arm the Christians, and thestated position of this leadership itself, which is opposed to taking up arms.

One of the Al-Akhbar articlesstated that Christians from all factions and streams in the border town of Al-Qa'a in the northern Beqa have organized armed night patrols in their town, in cooperation with the local police, to guard against infiltration by armed militiamen, and that the town mukhtar has declared that "the Lebanese army and Hizbullah will not abandon" the Christians.

Another article quoted an official from Amine Gemayel's Al-Kataeb party in the Zahleregion in the central Beqa.He said that supporters of the party had pushed forarming the Christians, and that the party, despite its opposition to this, succumbed to the pressure and told its supporters they would be free to form security ties with any force or party (including Hizbullah) when the need arose. The article also quoted the coordinator of Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces party in the same area as saying, "We are not handing out weapons to anyone, but we advise those who need to defend themselves to purchase arms at their own expense." The local coordinator of Michel Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, in this region said that his party was "opposed to the idea of arming... but if the situation gets out of control we will not sit idly by, of course."

A third article quoted an arms dealer in the northern Beqa who said that many Christians were purchasing personal firearms, or even larger weapons, and that the various Christian parties and factions in the region had emptied their storerooms and handed out weapons to their supporters. He added that Christian supporters of the March 14 Forces had even turned to Hizbullah for arms and expressed willingness to fight alongside it when the day came.[12]

The Al-Safir daily, which also supports the March 8 Forces, reported that Hizbullah had promised its protection to the Christians of the northern Beqa.[13]

Joining The Resistance Brigades: Christian Militias Under Hizbullah's Command

Surprisingly, it seems that some Christians decided not only to rely on Hizbullah to save them when the time comes, but to join militias operating as part of this organization. Several recent reports in Lebanese media indicate that Hizbullah has been working to recruit large numbers of Christians to the Resistance Brigades (Saraya Al-Muqawama), which are comprised of paid fighters in the service of Hizbullah.

On November 12, 2014, the daily Al-Nahar reported that Hizbullah was working to recruit Christians, Druze, and Sunnis to the Resistance Brigades in order to combat ISIS and JN. According to the report, Hizbullah provides the recruits with training and weapons, and even pays them a monthly salary of between 1,500 and 2,500 dollars per month. The report stated further that Christians joining Hizbullah were youths who feared for their fate due to the rise of ISIS, as well as ones with financial difficulties.[14]

On the same day, Al-Nahar also published an interview with the unnamed commander of the Resistance Brigades, who claimed that thousands of youths from every sect wish to join its ranks, but that most are Christians. He admitted that there were two purely Christian groups in Deir Al-Ahmar and RasBa'albek - two border towns in northeast Lebanon - that have hundreds of members.[15]


Saraya Al-Muqawama members in a training camp (Source: Al-Nahar, Lebanon, November 12, 2014)

Most media reports indicate that the Christians joining Hizbullah's Resistance Brigades are supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Hizbullah's longstanding ally Michel 'Aoun. For example, Al-Naharreported on September 13, 2014,citing Christians opposed to the Free Patriotic Movement, that the movement, together with Hizbullah, had established Christian brigades in Jezzine in South Lebanon.[16] Another report, on the Lebanese news site Nowlebanon on October 4, 2014, cited an unnamed human rights activist in Sidon as saying that secret meetings were being held in Jezzine homes between Hizbullah officials and Free Patriotic Movement supporters to discuss the establishment of Christian brigades comprised of supporters ofthe Free Patriotic Movement. He added that Hizbullah was arming Christian youths to defend their villages for a monthly salary of $500. It should be mentioned that officials in the Free Patriotic Movement denied the report, claiming that they oppose the idea of arming the Christians.[17]The union of towns in the Jezzine area also denied the report.[18]

However, an article in the daily Al-Akhbar dealing with Christians in South Lebanon claimed that some Christians - even those who are part of the March 14 Forces - requested that Hizbullah secretly train and arm them as part of the Resistance Brigades, and that some town heads and leaders east of Sidon asked for Hizbullah's protection during a meeting with the then-member of the organization's political bureau, GhalebAbu Zainab.[19]

On November 12, 2014, the secretariat of the March 14 Forces condemned "the prevalent phenomenon of armament under Hizbullah supervision under the guise of the so-called Resistance Brigades... which threatens the stability of Lebanese society."[20]

Hizbullah Stokes Fear Of Jihadi Groups To Rally Christian And Druze Support

Hizbullah and its supportive media have an interest in stoking fears of ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra among Lebanon's Christian and Druze minorities and arm them, in order to justify the existence of the organization's weapons and its military involvement in Syria, to present itself as the only element that can defend the country's minorities, and also to entice them to join its ranks, as with Saraya Al-Muqawama. In this manner Hizbullah hopes togain the political support of both these minorities, especially Christians who support the March 14 Forces and Druze who support Walid Jumblatt. On this matter, the head of the Lebanese Option Party, Ahmad Al-As'ad - an anti-Hizbullah Shi'ite - said: "Hizbullah operates among Christian, Sunni, and Druze youths in the Beqa, seekingrecruits and enticing them with money... and scaring them regarding the future... In addition to Shi'ite youths, Hizbullah thus brings the other sects as well into the game of death [in Syria]... Hizbullah is flooding the country with weapons in order to [whitewash] itself and gain the support of the various sects."[21]

Similar statements were made by the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed, who wrote in a November 15, 2014 editorial: "Hizbullah needs sectarian backing to justify its presence in Syria and so it can claim that it is not the only element [in Lebanon] fighting in defense of the criminal Assad or the only element implementing the Iranian sectarian agenda."[22]

 

* E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] For example, on December 3, 2014, Al-Azhar hosted an international conference in Cairo calling to oppose violence and extremism, with the participation of hundreds of Muslim and Christian clerics from 120 countries. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 5, 2014.

[2] Lbcgroup.tv, September 8, 2014.

[3]Al-Hayat (London), August 30, 2014. On September 14, 2014, the Lebanese Al-Nahar daily reported that graffiti against the Syrian refugees had appeared in Al-Ashrafiya.

[4] Alquds.co.uk, August 31, 2014; Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 1, 2014.

[5] Lbcgroup.tv, August 31, 2014; Al-Nahar (Lebanon), September 5, 2014 Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 7, 2014.

[6]Saida-facts.com, September 3, 2014.

[7]Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 5, 2014.

[8]Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 8, 2014.

[9] Aljadeed.tv, September 3, 2014.

[10]Al-Mustaqbal (London), September 11, 2014.

[11] For a report on night curfew imposed on the refugees in some Christian towns, see Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 16, 2014.

[12]Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 17, 2014.

[13]Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 9, 2014.

[14]Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 12, 2014.

[15]Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 12, 2014.

[16]Al-Nahar (Lebanon), September 13, 2014. Also see Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 16, 2014.

[17] Now.mmedia.me, October 14, 2014.

[18]Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 14, 2014.

[19]Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 17, 2014.

[20]Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 13, 2014.

[21]Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 14, 2014.

[22]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 15, 2014.