This year, more than any other year, media sources controlled by Hezbollah have broadcast displays of Christmas celebration. On Christmas Day, the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Nour radio station took the occasion to praise Jesus Christ’s birth, and chose to broadcast religious songs following a political decision made by Hezbollah.
The party’s main TV channel (Al Manar) did the same. It dedicated a share of its programming to wishing Christians well on the day celebrating of the birth of Christ. Moreover, its news bulletins included positive media coverage of Christmas celebrations. They highlighted Hezbollah’s participation in these celebrations through talks on the place of Jesus, the son of Mary, in Islam.
It is true that these programs emphasized the use of the terms “Prophet Jesus” or “God’s spirit,” in a display of their conservatism vis-a-vis the Christian consideration of Jesus as God or the son of God. However, Hezbollah’s media intended to downplay this “ideological and religious controversy,” and instead focus on the party’s participation in the celebration of this important holiday with Christians in the East.
Even the Iranian embassy in Beirut distributed congratulation letters on the birth of “Prophet Jesus son of Mary.”
In parallel, the media of the Free Patriotic Movement (Christian), which is allied with Hezbollah, as opposed to the “Christian” Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement (Sunni), focused on providing full media coverage for Christmas in Lebanon. This year, the coverage was characterized by a focus on how the occasion coincided with the growing fears of Christians in Lebanon and across the Middle East as a whole. This has come as a result of the growing extremist Salafist power within the Arab Revolutionary Movement.
In its coverage for the holiday, the TV focused on broadcasting shots that show angry Salafist Muslims attacking a church in the Christian Ashrafieh region in the suburbs of Beirut a few years ago.
During its news bulletins, this channel also broadcasted reports showing Lebanese “Sunni Salafists” queuing up as part of their military trainings, hoisting al-Qaeda slogans above their heads. In addition, images were diffused showing Lebanese Islamist extremists exploiting their power in their stronghold, the Muslim city of Tripoli, to prevent its municipality and traders from mulching the trees of squares and shops with Christmas decorations. The extremists deemed these habits forms of “blasphemy” and forbidden “heresy” that contradicted the Islamic religion’s teachings, and pressured the municipality accordingly. Rumors were also abound about the Tripoli municipality having been pressured to reduce its Christmas decoration budget from the 30 million Lebanese lira it was in the past to only 5 million Lebanese lira.
Extreme Salafist Sheikh Omar Bakri Fostock fed the aforementioned TV campaign and called on Muslims not to participate in celebrating this holiday with their Christian national counterparts because Islam considers such celebrations “heresy.”
Remarkably, this is the first time that the Christmas celebration is proposed as an internal controversial issue in Lebanon. As historian Kamal Saliba says, Lebanon, which is “a home with many rooms (confessional and religious),” has the habit of Christians and Muslims sharing both religious occasions.
The unprecedented environment which prevailed over Lebanon this year indicates that the country is changing and that the forgiving “coexistence formula” that dictates relations between its confessions and religions will be influenced now more than ever by the new climate in the region. A structural transformation is taking place and is characterized by the eminent presence of Islamic movements in the Arab Popular Movement, which are taking over at the expense of other liberal, secular and civil forces. The cultural emergence of Islamic Arabs of all sects in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and lately in Syria, from the abyss of jails to the ranks of power constitutes a historic shift which will definitely leave its deep marks on Lebanese society, and on the tolerant cultural, political and religious thought that prevails within it.
Rabla, a Christian town on the Syrian-Lebanese border, home to around 12,000 Lebanese and Syrian citizens, is considered a small sample reflecting the “new threat” emphasized by the Lebanese media on Christmas this year. The town was besieged by religious extremist groups more than once during the Syrian crisis, and it has lately decided to defend itself by forming popular committees of Christian youths. The purpose is not necessarily to defend the regime as much as it is a reflection of fears regarding the controlling power extremist Islamic currents have exerted over the resistance at large.
In the face of this clear looming risk, various Lebanese factions are thinking hard about a solution. However, the Lebanese Christians are divided, and the Shiite Hezbollah is for its part trying to invest in Christian fears of the rise of the Salafist movement within the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. The purpose of the Hezbollah here is to lure the Christians into a political coalition with it, based on the necessity of unity between minorities in the region facing the absolutely annihilative Sunni Islamic giant.
Recently, when the Roman Pope visited Lebanon, the purpose was to apply a church saying that states, “The shepherd must stand beside his parish in tough times.” Moreover, the Pope raised the slogan calling for a “Loving partnership with Muslims.” In general, he wanted to boost the morale of the Christians of Lebanon and across the Middle East. However, the incidents that surrounded the Christmas celebrations in Lebanon this year make clear that the occasion won’t announce “the birth of Christ” alone, but also usher in the “birth of new worrying circumstances” for Lebanon and the East.