Lebanon Pulse

Violence in Lebanon threatens religious coexistence

Article Summary
While Lebanon has always been known as a country where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully, recent developments show that some are trying to sow discord among Lebanese of all religions.

A new concern has been added to the fears of the Lebanese people, whose Muslim community in this multireligious country is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The security concern that surfaced in debates and discussions even before the start of Ramadan on June 28 has now taken the shape of bombs and immediate threats to non-Muslim Lebanese and other residents in Lebanon.

For decades, Lebanon has prided itself on being the only place of religious and cultural diversity in the Middle East. All its officials boasted that it is the only country in the world where Muslims and Christians coexist without problems and legal disputes regarding the way each group formulates its private and public life. For instance, wearing the hijab or placing religious symbols in public schools or private institutions was never a problem, and neither was the observance of religious holidays. Even the personal status affairs, which were left to the discretion of religious officials and were completely abandoned by the government, were never an issue. Muslims lived as they pleased in their private and public lives, and so did Christians. However, it seems that this situation has now changed.

Before the start of Ramadan, an unprecedented issue occurred. It dictated how local municipal authorities should deal with the individual behavior of its citizens during Ramadan. The story started in Abra, east of Sidon, the capital of the Lebanese south that is an especially delicate region. The town’s original inhabitants are Christians, but during the civil war and forced displacement of Christians and the sale of their lands to Muslims, Abra acquired a paradoxical demographic composition. Christians constitute a 90% majority of listed voters.

However, there is a Muslim Sunni majority equivalent to more than 80% of Abra residents. Another problematic issue added insult to injury. A few years back, the same town became the stronghold of a major Salafist sheikh in Lebanon, Ahmad al-Assir. Assir tried to form a militia that attacked the Lebanese army. The incidents ended with a decisive confrontation with the army in June 2013 and with the arrest of Assir’s militants and his escape and disappearance.

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A few weeks ago, Sidon’s Sunni mufti sent a letter to the Christian mayor in Abra in which he wrote of his hope that the town's residents (meaning the remaining Christian minority) would be considerate to the feelings of fasting Muslims during Ramadan. The mayor translated the letter into a decision issued by the municipality that forbids eating, music and smoking in public places during Ramadan. As soon as the decision became public, it was met with a wave of criticism by Christians, on both political and religious grounds, and was considered unacceptable behavior. Under the strong rejection for this unprecedented step, the mayor retracted the decision, but its ripples persisted.

A few days later, the same situation repeated itself in Tripoli, the capital of the north and the second-biggest Lebanese city with the second-largest Sunni population after Beirut. Its Sunni mayor took a more explicit decision, in which he imposed on all residents in Tripoli municipality to refrain from eating during the fasting hours, which means the entire day. Once again, the hubbub echoed from south to north, and the mayor had to retract his decision.

However, the tragic surprise came on July 2. While people were dining in a restaurant in Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, an unidentified person threw a bomb at them, wounding four.

The news of the blast, which targeted people who did, in fact, fast, was enough to close down most public places in Tripoli. Within minutes, Tripoli turned into a city under what resembles the Islamic State's (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) rule, as some media outlets put it. This pushed the security forces to take strict measures. However, a Christian citizen living in Tripoli told Al-Monitor that residents got the message, but that the security patrols will not do any good. After last week’s blast, any behavior that contradicts the will of extremists in Tripoli will be suicidal. The Muslim authorities in Tripoli or Lebanon as a whole have still not issued any serious or official condemnation.

While the citizens of Tripoli were mulling over ways to adapt to this new imposed IS ideology, the worst came from the unknown. On July 3, the Ahrar al-Sunna Brigade in Baalbek issued a statement, which was posted on social media. They announced the “formation of a special group of jihadists to cleanse the Islamic Bekaa [Valley] emirate specifically, and Lebanon in general, from the 'polytheistic' churches.” There was confirmation that this group “will work on targeting 'crusaders' in the emirate and in Lebanon to silence the bells in polytheistic churches.” A few hours later, the same party distributed another statement with the photo of the Ahrar al-Sunna Brigade's leader, who is tasked with crushing the Christians and Shiites.

Government sources confirmed to Al-Monitor that they consider the recent statement an obvious attempt to incite strife among the Lebanese people. They also doubted the existence of the so-called Ahrar al-Sunna Brigade in Baalbek, but they continued to say that the security authorities cannot take the issue lightly and must deal with any incoming news as a real and serious threat.

Muslims believe that Ramadan is the month of fasting, prayer and benevolence. However, it is evident that someone is trying to turn it into a month of strife in Lebanon. Perhaps the regional strife has been nesting in all the countries of the region, including Lebanon, for days and months and will remain there for years to come.

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Found in: sectarian divide, ramadan, muslims, lebanon, islamic state, christians, bekaa valley

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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