Children gather outside tents in the unofficial camp for Syrian refugees in the Lebanese village of Deir Al Ahmar in the diocese of Baalbeck. ACN
The Lebanese Archbishop Simon Attallah fears for the future of Lebanon’s Christians. The cause is the threat to the country’s demographic balance arising from the large number of Syrian refugees in the country. The former Maronite Archbishop of Baalbek-Deir Al Ahmar emphasised this during a recent interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “We have two million Syrians in the country as refugees. Many will return to their homeland when the war is over. But many refugees will remain in the country and apply for Lebanese citizenship in ten years. What will become of us Christians then?” asks Archbishop Attallah, who recently retired from the leadership of his diocese for reasons of age. “Lebanon is marked by a very delicate religious composition. Those Syrians who will remain in the country are mostly Sunnis. And the religious balance will thus be destroyed. That is a problem for us.” Archbishop Attallah hastens to add that his remarks should not be misunderstood as showing a lack of solidarity with the refugees. “We show much solidarity. We want to act in solidarity. But we have obvious problems before our eyes. There is a question mark over our future.”
To give an example of the demographic changes, Archbishop Attallah mentioned his former bishop’s seat of Deir Al Ahmar in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. “9,000 Syrians now live in the area. But in the city itself there are only some 3-4,000 Christians. Thus the Syrians represent a large majority.” There are many problems associated with the presence of the refugees according to Archbishop Attallah. “There is economic competition. Many Syrians have opened shops and restaurants.” Furthermore, even before the crisis the Syrians had formed a large proportion of the labour force. This situation has now intensified even more, the Archbishop says. “As a result the Lebanese cannot find work anymore.”
According to Archbishop Attallah, there have also been problems in the field of public morals. Thus, Syrian women prostitute themselves for Lebanese men. Conversely, the Archbishop continues, Lebanese women would also prostitute themselves for Syrian men.
On top of this, there are also religious tensions. In individual cases, Muslims from Syria, especially Sunnis, have defiled Christian symbols in acts of blasphemy. “They defile crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary, and so on.” Anti-Christian slogans have also been painted on walls. “This leads to tensions in the region,” says the Archbishop.
A further concern is the import of security problems by Sunni extremists from Syria who have found refuge among their co-religionists in Lebanon. “The Lebanese Shiites are in favour of the Syrian regime, but the Sunnis are on the side of Daesh (Arabic acronym for ISIS). In the region where I work there are some Sunni villages such as Arsal and others. The Sunnis provide an inviting environment for Daesh. The members of Daesh can therefore penetrate into the region and find refuge among the Sunnis.”
According to Archbishop Attallah, the experience of the Syrian occupation also helps to explain the regional tensions. “Our experience with the Syrians was very bad. They occupied the country for thirty years. We suffered terribly under them.” Archbishop Attallah is referring here to the occupation of Lebanon by Syrian troops which lasted until 2005. “There were Lebanese who were kidnapped and taken to Syria. They are missing without trace. There are hundreds, thousands of such cases.” Lebanon also suffered economically under the occupation. Many companies left the country and settled elsewhere. “And finally they killed our democracy. Lebanon’s democracy was well known. So we Lebanese really do not have good memories of the Syrian occupation.”
Looking back on his period in office, Archbishop Attallah says that his relations with the Muslims in the region, especially the Shiites, was good. “We had no problems with the Muslims, especially the Shiites, who are in the majority in our district. On the contrary, I was able to prepare two visits to the district by our Patriarch. He visited both Christian and Muslim villages. He was always well received everywhere.”