Skip to main content

Sectarian tension, anti-Syria sentiment haunts Lebanon as it buries Sleiman

Members of a Syrian gang have been accused of kidnapping and killing a Lebanese Forces official, prompting attacks against Syrians and raising concerns of sectarian escalation.
Supporters of the Lebanese Forces (LF) attend the funeral of Pascal Sleiman, a coordinator in the Byblos (Jbeil) area north of Beirut for the LF, in the northern city of Byblos on April 12, 2024. Sleiman was killed on April 8 in what the Lebanese army said was a carjacking by Syrian gang members, who took his body to Syria. (Photo by Ibrahim CHALHOUB / AFP) (Photo by IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Sectarian tensions are running high in Lebanon after the killing earlier in the week of a senior official in one of the country’s largest Christian political parties.

Pascal Sleiman, coordinator for the Lebanese Forces (LF) in the Jbeil (Byblos) district, 24 miles northeast of Beirut, was kidnapped while driving on a mountainous road in the district on Sunday. His body was later found across the Lebanese border, in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the body of a person matching the description of Sleiman had been discovered on Tuesday in Homs province, in northwestern Syria, some 91 miles from Lebanon. The area is under the control of Syrian government forces, and the allied Shiite paramilitary Hezbollah movement holds significant sway there.

The Lebanese Army said on Tuesday that it had retrieved Sleiman’s body from Syrian authorities, adding that the investigation into his death is ongoing. The military had earlier announced the arrest in Lebanon of several Syrians said to belong to a carjacking gang and alleged to be involved in Sleiman’s death.

According to a judicial source who spoke to AFP (Agence France-Presse), the suspects confessed to hitting Sleiman in the head with their guns until he stopped resisting.

Unidentified sources told the local LBC news channel that the attackers had beaten Sleiman after intercepting him and then put him in the trunk of his car before driving off. Local reports also said the Lebanese Army had retrieved Sleiman's car from Syria.

Sectarian tensions, attacks on Syrians 

The LF disputed the army’s findings, saying in a statement on Monday that it considers Sleiman’s killing to be a “political assassination, until proven otherwise.”

LF supporters initially pointed the finger at Hezbollah, which the party has accused of killing another one of its officials, Elias Hasrouni, last August in the south.

The Iran-backed movement, which gained widespread influence in Lebanon after the withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005, is believed to have been behind a string of political assassinations of anti-Syrian figures after the pullout, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Relations between the LF and Hezbollah have always been strained. Most recently, the LF has criticized Hezbollah for potentially dragging Lebanon into an unwanted war with cross-border attacks on northern Israel from the south.

The exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israeli forces along the Lebanon-Israel border — the most intense since the two sides fought a war in July 2006 — erupted in conjunction with the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza in October. Hezbollah claims that its strikes into Israel are in support of Hamas and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah immediately denied that his movement had played a role in Sleiman's killing and warned the LF and its allies against instigating sectarian strife.

Meanwhile, after news of Syrian involvement in Sleiman’s death emerged, several attacks against Syrians were reported across the country.

Lebanon, a small country of slightly more than 5 million people, is also a refuge for some 1.5 million Syrians, according to government estimates, who fled the civil war that broke out in their country in 2011. Only 815,000 of them are registered with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Most Syrians live in informal camps around Lebanon, mainly in the east, north and south, amid dire conditions of rampant poverty and discrimination. Many Lebanese blame the refugees for the country's strained economic resources and for a spike in crime.

Anti-Syrian sentiment among the Lebanese population can be traced back to Syria's military occupation of Lebanon from 1976, one year after the Lebanese civil war erupted, until 2005.

Lebanese officials refer to the Syrians not as refugees, but rather as displaced persons. In recent years, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regained control of most of Syria’s territory, several political parties in Lebanon began calling for the Syrians to return home.

Such calls have gained momentum in the past week, and even civilians have taken it upon themselves to issue ultimatums to the Syrians to vacate their homes and shops.

Physical assaults and attacks against Syrians have been reported in various cities and towns.

Two Syrians were abducted on Thursday near the town of Shaath, in the northern Bekaa Valley. The official National News Agency reported that a group of unidentified people had intercepted a taxi carrying the Syrians and then drove off to an unknown location. The taxi driver fled the scene.

Also on Thursday, a parked ambulance belonging to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party was torched in the Aley district, 11 miles southeast of Beirut. The incident came one day after somebody lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the party’s office in the city of Jdita, in the Bekaa governorate. On Friday, the army announced the arrest of the perpetrator, who had also hung an LF flag nearby.

In a statement released Thursday, the LF condemned what it described as the “barbaric acts that some Syrians have faced” but also reiterated calls for their return home. “The demand for the return of Syrian refugees has become more urgent, after it became clear the extent of the number of criminal and security-disrupting acts carried out by some of them,” the statement read in part.

Day of mourning

Hundreds of LF supporters and others from across Lebanon headed in large convoys toward St. George’s Church in the city of Jbeil, where Sleiman’s funeral was held on Friday.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai officiated the funeral mass, with several high-level officials and politicians from various parties in attendance.

In a brief televised speech at the end of the service, LF leader Samir Geagea said the “confrontation” will continue, without naming the parties involved.

“Our confrontation is not for exacting vengeance and is not a reaction,” Geagea remarked. “It is not a sectarian, regional or ethnic confrontation, but rather a transition from the bitter, painful, criminal and failed situation that we have been living in for years to a new and aspired situation, like all the societies of the civilized world, where one lives in safety, stability, freedom and dignity.”

Sleiman’s body was taken for burial to his hometown of Mayfouk, 16 miles from Jbeil. As his procession made its way through Jbeil’s towns and villages, locals paid their respects by throwing rice and flowers at the cortege.

Earlier on Thursday, the Jbeil district had declared it a day of mourning for the city of Jbeil, closing all businesses. In addition, the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon announced the closure of schools on Thursday for a “day of prayer for the salvation of Lebanon.” The statement also condemned “acts of killings and violations of human dignity of any kind” and called on the relevant institutions to ensure safety and stability and security in the country.