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Influx of Muslim refugees worries Lebanese prelate, stirs bitter memories
"Those Syrians who will remain in the country are mostly Sunnis. The country's religious balance will thus be destroyed. That is a problem for us."
By Oliver Maksan
NEW YORK—A senior Lebanese cleric fears for the future of his country’s Christian community. His worries stem from the radically changing demographic balance in Lebanon due the large number of Syrian refugees in the country.
Archbishop Simon Attallah, the former Maronite eparch of Baalbek-Deir Al Ahmar told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: "We have 2 million Syrians in the country as refugees. Many will return to their homeland when the war is over. But many refugees will remain and apply for Lebanese citizenship in ten years.”
“What will become of us Christians then?" asked Archbishop Attallah, who recently retired from the leadership of his diocese. He added: "Lebanon is marked by a very delicate religious composition. Those Syrians who will remain in the country are mostly Sunnis. The country’s religious balance will thus be destroyed. That is a problem for us."
The prelate hastened to add that his remarks should not be interpreted as showing a lack of concern for the refugees. "We show much solidarity. We want to act in solidarity. But we have obvious problems before our eyes. A question mark hangs over our future."
Archbishop Attallah mentioned his former bishop’s seat of Deir Al Ahmar in the Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. "9,000 Syrians [most of them Muslim] now live in the area. But in the city itself there are only some 3,000 to 4,000 native Christians. Thus the Syrians represent a large majority."
Even aside from religious issues, there are many problems associated with the presence of the refugees: "There is economic competition. Even before the present crisis the Syrians had already become the bulk of the labor force. This situation has now intensified even more. As a result the Lebanese cannot find work anymore."
The archbishop also reported that Syrian women prostitute themselves for Lebanese men, while Lebanese women make themselves available to Lebanese men.
Then there is religious tension. In particular Syrian Sunnis In individual cases, Muslims from have damaged and destroyed Christian symbols. "They defile crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary, “the archbishop charged, and anti-Christian slogans have been painted on walls.
What’s more, Syrian Sunni extremists have found refuge among their co-religionists in Lebanon. "Lebanese Shiites support the Syrian regime, but local Sunnis are on the side of ISIS,” offering shelter to its fighters and an opportunity to penetrate Lebanon, the archbishop said.
The present situation must be seen against long-standing regional tensions. The archbishop explained: "Our experience with the Syrians was very bad. They occupied the country for 30 years. We suffered terribly under them." The last Syrian troops did not leave until 2005. "There were Lebanese who were kidnapped and taken to Syria. They are missing without trace. There are hundreds, thousands of such cases,” the archbishop said.
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. We Lebanese really do not have good memories of the Syrian occupation,” concluded Archbishop Attallah.
Archbishop Simon Attallah; ACN photo