Catholic Sentinel photo by George Hosek
Before years of war, Beirut, Lebanon, was the Mideast's commercial, banking and finance center. It also was called the Paris of the Mideast because of its beauty and culture.
Catholic Sentinel photo by George Hosek
Before years of war, Beirut, Lebanon, was the Mideast's commercial, banking and finance center. It also was called the Paris of the Mideast because of its beauty and culture.
BEIRUT – Christians and Muslims who live in this exotic, chaotic, exhilarating, exhausting, ancient, ultra-modern Mideast nation of 4.5 million seem to be on a permanent six-year war cycle.

If the schedule holds, the next war should get under way in fewer than two years, perhaps sooner. It may pit Sunni Muslims and their allies against Shi’a Muslims, represented by the newly powerful Hezbollah. Prospective belligerents each maintain their own well-armed militia. New buildings now come furnished with underground bomb shelters.

Sunnis and Shi’as constitute the two main branches of Islam. For centuries, the dominant Sunnis looked down on the Shi’as for their so-called heretical views over who should succeed the Prophet after his death in the 7th Century. The Party of God, as Hezbollah is known in Arabic, came into existence during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. In the 15 years since, the organization has evolved from a Irani-influenced resistance group to Lebanon’s most powerful political party now controlling the national government and packing a potent military capability.

Hezbollah is particularly strong among the Shi’a in southern Lebanon, where it operates schools and hospitals.

What happens next may depend on reaction to publication of the long-delayed final report of the UN-backed tribunal that investigated the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He was the billionaire Sunni who led Beirut’s reconstruction. The report likely will indict Hezbollah in the prime minister’s death.

The assassinated man’s son who succeeded the father in the government refused demands by Hezbollah that the national government distance itself from the report.

Hezbollah and its allies are backed by Syria and Iran. A  coalition led by Hariri’s son is backed by the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia. Some here say the delay in making public the report is to give Israel time to prepare for another war with Hezbollah.

Others downplay talk of more fighting, insisting that the Lebanese are done with violence as a way of solving issues. Syria could always be counted on to agitate from outside, but Damascus is now dealing with its own civil war, part of the Arab Spring that is sweeping the region.

Beirut is only recently rebuilt from the destruction of the last war. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed in this picturesque, mountainous city that sits midway along a 140 mile-long, fertile coastal strip, studded with banana plantations, fruit orchards and sandy beaches.

Lebanon’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, the majority of whom are Shi’a. Arabic is the official language, but most educated Lebanese also speak French and English.

Lebanon’s diminishing Christian population stands now at around 33 percent, down from its 54 percent share in the 1932 census, the last taken. Some believe the actual number is 28 percent. More than 1.5 million Maronites live here, making them the largest and most powerful Christian community. They started out in the 5th Century in Syria. Saint Maron founded a refuge in the northern mountains of Lebanon and converted many to Maronite Christianity, an Eastern-rite faith that is in communion with Rome. A Maronite priest, Fr. Jonathan Decker, provides pastoral care to the lone Maronite parish in Portland, St. Sharbel.

For years, a power-sharing arrangement among Christians, Shi’as and Sunnis provided stability in national governance. Some fear if Christians continue to emigrate-- 40,000 Lebanese of all faiths leave each year-- Lebanon will devolve into an Iran-like Shi’a bastion controlled by Jihadists. Others dismiss these fears as overblown.

Muslim unhappiness with the wealth and power accumulated over the years by the Christian community erupted in 1975 in civil war. When the fighting subsided 15 years later, the once prosperous country was devastated, Beirut was destroyed, more than 250,000 were slain, a million wounded and hundreds of thousands forced to flee.

Lebanon’s horrific 1980s decade of non-stop violence was highlighted by the suicide bomber who drove an explosives-filled truck to the front of a building housing U.S. Marines, killing 245. The Leathernecks had been dispatched to this chaotic country to help bring stability after the Israeli invasion and subsequent retreat of most armed Palestinian guerrillas.

The bloody decade also elevated political kidnapping of Westerners to a new level. One of them, Servite Father Marty Jenco later served in Portland, at the Grotto, after his release from years of captivity.

Both Christian and Muslims have been leaving Lebanon for 100 years; the steady out-migration has little to do with religious differences. Most has to do with educated Lebanese seeking better-paying jobs elsewhere and raising their families in peace.

Lebanon so far has been spared the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators calling for regime change that has rocked Egypt and Tunisia, and which is roiling Libya, Yemen and Syria. The government here is one of the most corrupt in the region. Lebanon’s post-independence political system is called confessionalism, in which power is shared among religious communities based on their numbers.

The former Catholic cardinal of Beirut, 93-year-old Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, resigned this spring as leader of the Maronite Catholic Church. He distinguished himself by speaking as a voice of reason and sanity to stop the bloodshed during the civil war.

He is succeeded by Archbishop Bishara Rai, 71, of Byblos-Jbeil. The new patriarch is known as a straight-talking intellectual who is challenged to bring a new sense of unity among Maronites. Many are divided over their support for Sunnis and Shi’as.

Because of the uncertainties that characterize society here, the Lebanese display a live and let live approach to the challenges of daily life. They like good food and enjoy a pleasant lifestyle. Tourism is a major contributor to the nation’s economy, with hundreds of thousands of Europeans and Mideast residents vacationing here every summer in the Paris of the Middle East, as Beirut was known before the fighting got under way. Wealthy, sports-minded people could ski at one of six mountainous ski areas in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon, all in the same day. Skiing now is scaled back because of a scarcity of snow.

The pro-Western, French-admiring Maronite upper-class comprises much of the wealthy top 10 percent of the population; these are the influential and landowning families who “own” the country, the size of Connecticut. They welcome one another with three kisses on the cheek, French style. Au pairs from Sri Lanka care for the children of the wealthy.

Traffic circles in Maronite neighborhoods of Beirut contain statues of the Virgin, overseen by traffic policemen waving fluorescent wands in an often futile attempt to direct chaotic traffic. By comparision, decommissioned anti-aircraft guns provide the centerpiece in traffic circles in villages in the south of Lebanon. Fields there are strewn with limestone rocks and boulders, testimony to Lebanon’s seafloor origins.

In Beirut’s hilly, upscale Rebieh neighborhood, home to many top politicians and business people, a building lot with no view costs US$1.5 million. Armed guards in sandbagged bunkers control access to neighborhood side streets.

Below the elite stratum is everyone else, including what remains of the ever-shrinking middle class and, of course, the ubiquitous poor. Everything is for sale, including building permits on geologically unstable hillsides.

Many Muslims used to depend on Christians to operate hospitals and schools, now the Muslims provide their own essential services.

Before the past 20 years of war, Beirut was the Mideast’s commercial, banking and finance center, referred to as the Switzerland of the Mideast. One of the wealthiest people in the world is a Lebanese-Mexican telecommunications tycoon, Carlos Slim Helu.

Conspicuous consumption is much in evidence. Some of the more outré highway billboard signs advertising women’s clothing have the look of soft porn. Portland’s Columbia Sportswear advertises its research into “the future of warmth.” Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets sell halal fryers, meat slaughtered according to Islamic rules, similar to Kosher standards.

It snows here in winter; hot water radiators warm most buildings. Hot, humid summer weather can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

A top Maronite priest-educator here says Lebanon is a “crazy country,” where people do whatever they wish. “There are hundreds here who do not have enough time in their lives to count all their money, while millions of others have just pennies.”

In ancient times, this rugged country was home to the ancient Phoenicians, maritime traders, who exchanged olive oil, cedar and wine for metals and ivory from Egypt 4,000 years before Christ.

These ocean navigators established trade routes to western Asia, venturing around Africa 1,000 years before the Portuguese attempted the voyage.

The Phoenicians founded colonies in nearby Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Marseilles and Carthage, now Tunis. They exported the alphabet they created, the precursor of most modern alphabets. They founded Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli, Caesarea and Byblos, all cities in modern Lebanon.

Five hundred years before Christ, Phoenicia was conquered by the Assyrians, followed later by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks and the French who granted Lebanon independence in 1943.

The Vatican opened what came to be known as the Pontifical Mission to Palestine in 1948, in Beirut, to assist the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing Israel after the war. Mission offices are outposts of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s operating agency hereabouts. They are located on a steep road ascending the mountainside from the traffic-clogged coastal highway, where five lanes of traffic creep forward on a highway built to accommodate two lanes of vehicles on each side of the median. A five to seven minute drive here stretches to an hour during commute times. The government installed traffic cameras on one stretch of highway and recorded 5,370 speeding violations the first day. Offenders were required to check a website to learn their fine.

From third floor offices, Catholic Near East staffers visit remote rural villages to assess needs, venturing into neighboring Syria, a two hour drive. Similar Pontifical Mission offices operate in Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

The headquarters’ Lebanese staffers worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development in years past when Washington allocated money for nation-building. The Pontifical Mission folks helped finance the construction of sewage treatment plants to protect villagers from being poisoned by sewage-contaminated water sources.

When the American ambassador working with Mission staffers at the time returned to the State Department in Washington after his tour ended, he retired from government service, sold his apartment in the District and moved back to Beirut. This is an example of the hold that Lebanon has on some people; the nation gets into one’s psyche.

For every one of these success stories, however, there are thousands, of stories of educated, young Christians and Muslims emigrating each year to the Gulf, in this case, the Persian Gulf city-states/emirates of Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. Educated Lebanese, Christian and Muslim alike, each year also relocate to Canada, the U.S., France, the United Kingdom and Australia, where sizable Lebanese communities are well established. It is easier for Lebanese Christians with financial means to emigrate because of greater access to visas in the West. Many of the overseas Muslims eventually return to Lebanon and build villas in the countryside with their savings from abroad.

Many of the university-educated engineers and accountants leave Lebanon because they feel stifled by a lack of career opportunity. The average monthly income is US$400. An English-,French-and Arabic-speaking young woman teacher at a Catholic school in Beirut earns a minimium of $US800 a month. More experienced, educated professionals can earn US$3,000 a month or more.

Many of Lebanon’s poor-—and there are hundreds of thousands--get by on a couple dollars a day, a wretchedly familiar pattern among the world’s underclass. Hundreds of Iraqi Christians are finding refuge in Lebanon because their fellow faith-adherents are being blown up and threatened if they stay. Some church leaders are calling this genocide and demanding action from their respective governments.

Lebanon is home to 12 Palestinian refugee camps, of which three are in Beirut. The Mideast’s last Palestinian-Christian refugee camp is located in a run-down, block-long, four-street hillside enclave. A Catholic woman Religious functions as the camp’s doctor, providing basic medical care to the 1,600 refugees crowded into the semi-permanent camp. Some here ask if we can put a man on the moon, how is it that after more than 60 years we cannot find a permanent home for the displaced Palestinians? The short answer seems to be that keeping the Palestinians homeless works to some nations’ advantage. If the UN could resolve the Palestinian problem, peace in the region is possible, many here say.

Besides Maronites and Roman Catholics, this religiously diverse country has a bewildering array of other confessions, 18 in all, as the religious communities here are called. The six Eastern Catholic churches are the Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syrian, plus the Latin church.

Most Christian church leaders share a similar worry: Their centuries-old Christian dominance of Lebanon is being supplanted by burgeoning Muslim population growth. The Christian leaders talk about banding together to push back against Muslim hegemony.

For centuries, the Maronites operated the levers of power in Lebanon, much like the overseas Chinese-run Malaysia. After Lebanon received its independence, an understanding developed among the then-dominant Sunnis and Maronite Christians about how the country would be governed. Each sectarian community received political appointments, membership in parliament and political postings in relation to its religious community’s proportion of the overall population. The top political positions were divided among the Maronites, Sunnis and the then-underdeveloped Shi’a. Lebanon’s constitution even provides that a Maronite occupies the presidency and another Maronite oversees Lebanon’s 72,000 member defense establishment.

Lebanon has for years been manipulated by outside powers; the Syrians occupied the country for years until they were driven out by global indignation over their role in the assassination of the political leadership.

Pope Benedict convened a Synod of Bishops for the Middle East last fall to consider the challenges facing Christianity in the region. The gathering marked the first time that the region’s 250 Catholic bishops all came together. After the two-week meeting ended, 58 hostages and police officers were killed by al-Qaeda gunmen during an attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad.

Away from smog-enveloped Beirut, it is a different scene.

For example, the southern Lebanon border village of Yaroun is a Shi’a stronghold. To reach Yaroun from Beirut, visitors drive through Sidon and Tyre, seacoast fishing villages  described in Scripture passages. St. Mark tells us that Jesus drove out a devil from the daughter of a woman in Tyre.

The village of Yaroun is a kilometer’s straight-line distance from fortified Israel and scene years ago of heavy destruction from air strikes during the Israeli fight with Hezbollah. The local school is closed because of a lack of students. About 1,500 villagers live here, of whom 170 are Christians. Muslim families routinely have 12 to 14 children; Christians average two to three.

The Catholic parish priest says the predominantly Shi’a villagers could have forced out the Christians years ago if they wanted. Young people here must leave their families because their traditional agricultural jobs —- cultivating olives, tobacco and grapes—are shrinking. They leave their family’s ancestral land to find jobs in Beirut or beyond. Water scarcity is a major worry. All the cement block homes are fitted with water collection devices on the roofs. Manufacturers could take advantage of the high unemployment rate here but are chary of investing in development projects, say, solar panel manufacturing, because of the village’s closeness to Israel. Some villagers here actually commuted daily to work in Israel before the last war. The violence ended those work opportunities.

At the southern edge of Yaroun, where hard-pressed villagers depend on Hezbollah for security and services, Lebanese Army tanks are dug in, with their cannons pointing across the mined no-mans land. On the other side of the ravine is the Israeli Defense Force, also dug in. In the event of renewed fighting, the obsolescent Lebanese armor would likely be vaporized by Israeli jets and artillery in the first few minutes of hostilities.

UN peacekeepers from Africa wearing Infantry blue-painted Kevlar helmets trundle along access roads in bright white-painted modern armored personnel carriers. Their mission is to keep the belligerents separated, in hopes of ending the continuous cycle of war and destruction. When occasional firefights break out between Israeli and Lebanese troops, the UN soldiers flee. Hezbollah has cached its weapons in bunkers dug into hillsides, hidden from Israeli drones and ready for instant access.