Lebanon’s Christians as second-class citizens?
By JIHANE ABOU CHABKE
Lebanon’s Christian population is quickly shrinking — a development that could affect the country’s already delicate political equilibrium.
Emigration and low birth rates are thought to be the main factors behind this decline.
A 2007 survey by Information International in Beirut, a research and consulting firm, showed that 30.9 percent of Lebanese are considering leaving their country. That compares to 15.3 percent just one year before. These figures include Christians and Muslims alike, but “will impact the Christians more, because they are becoming a minority,” says Jawad Adra, managing partner of Information International. If this steady stream of emigration continues for the next 75 years, he adds, the number of Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination, will be down to almost 6 percent of the population.
1860: Lebanon’s population was 217,675 of which 101,900 were Maronites.
1920: Greater Lebanon was created, and its area was extended to include other confessions.
1932: The number of residents reached 1,046,164 of which 227,800 were Maronites and 386,469 were Muslims (including Druze). The total number of emigrants was estimated at 123,397 for Maronites and about 36,000 for Muslims.
2006: The number of Lebanese reached 4,571,000 of which 3,800,000 were residents of Lebanon. The distribution among the leading religious denominations:
(Source: Information International, Beirut)
The last — and only — official census of the population was conducted in 1932 and showed that Christians comprised 54 percent of the population, followed by Muslims, including Druze. There hasn’t been a census since. Political analysts say that’s because Maronites are afraid it could cost them power.
Political powers in Lebanon are allocated by religious affiliation: Under the constitution, the president is Maronite, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Parliament Shiite Muslim. When French colonial powers split Lebanon from Syria in 1920, Christians got a majority in the 128-seat Parliament.
A 1989 revision of the constitution, reached after the Lebanese civil war, created a 50-50 Christian-Muslim balance in the Parliament. It also transferred some powers from the Christian president to the Muslim prime minister. That gave Muslims more influence on the political scene. But Muslims – notably Shiites – have been asking for a further redistribution of powers to reflect recent and current demographics.
If the current emigration trends continue for the next three or four decades, there will be no significant ‘living’ Christian communities, not just in Lebanon, but throughout the Arab world, some Middle East experts say.
Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of the satellite news channel Al Arabiya, says that in a few decades, most of these communities will be on their way out. “What you will end up with,” he says, “is empty monasteries and churches that will be open probably to tourists and others who will go and see the relics of a bygone era. And you may still have pockets of Christians living in Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus or Beirut but very insignificant in terms of political contribution and even cultural contribution.”
For Lebanon, Christian emigration has always existed, but it reached its peak during the 1975-1990 civil war. In an earlier survey by Information International, reasons for emigration included mainly the unavailability of job opportunities, as well as political and security problems and a poor economy.
The situation worsened recently. A series of assassinations targeting main political and media figures rocked the country. Youth from all religions started applying for jobs in neighboring Arab countries, Europe, the United States, and Canada. Those who were not lucky enough to find a job decided to pursue higher education abroad instead.
Ziad Bishara, a 25-year-old Lebanese Maronite, left Lebanon more than a year ago after the July 2006 war with Israel to obtain his MBA, and to get U.S. citizenship. “Just like every young guy in Lebanon,” Bishara says, “it is crucial to find another citizenship where one day if anything happens and if you can’t find a decent job, you can have a second chance of living.”
Not everyone is pessimistic about the future of Christians in Lebanon. Joe Khalil, a Maronite who emigrated to the United States 16 years ago, is confident that Lebanon’s demographics will not affect the influential presence of Christians in the country.
“If you look at history, Lebanon has always been a country of immigration,” Khalil says. “You look in the late 1800s, early 1900s, mid 1900s, the country is small and can only support a certain number of population so it’s normal to have people leave. As far as the presence of the Christians, they’ve been there for 1500 years and they’ll continue to be there.”
But Christians in the country wonder: Will they be there as a political driving force, or will they just become second-class citizens?
Mona Hamoui, board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in D.C., says a political system based on religion is causing problems for Lebanon. “It causes the marginalization of certain groups, and when those groups become marginalized, I think that’s when a lot of problems start because it’s like becoming a state within a state.”
Information International’s Adra agrees. The only way for communities to coexist in harmony and to have freedom of religion and freedom of opinion, he says, is by having a ‘secular Lebanon’.
But many Lebanese, Muslims and Christians alike, cannot see the end of the tunnel. As the parliament is now struggling to elect a new president, the question remains: Will Lebanon keep its unique place in the Middle East as a vibrant mosaic of different religions?