Spending time among the Christians of the Middle East is always an edifying experience, but for Westerners it packs a special punch. That’s because the Christian population of this troubled region often is where Western stereotypes about the Middle East go to die.
Lebanon, where my colleague Inés San Martín and I visited recently, is a great case in point. Talk to the Christians here — both native Lebanese and the strong contingent of Syrian Christian refugees — and you’ll quickly find yourself challenged on at least three bits of Western conventional wisdom.
Assad is a bad guy and must go
For most Western nations, it’s a foreign policy a priori that Syria’s Bashar Assad is a bad actor, a thug and a bully who’s gassed his own people, suppressed dissent and cozied up to Iran and Russia to preserve his grip on power.
The cardinal principle of much Western thinking about Syria, therefore, is that whatever future the country may have, it can’t involve Assad, and Western nations won’t get fully behind Syria until he’s gone.
That’s not at all, however, the thinking of most Christians here, who don’t see Assad as the alternative to a thriving democracy. Instead, they see him as the alternative to chaos, meaning a takeover by ISIS or some other form of Islamic extremism. In that equation, Assad looms, by some order of magnitude, as the lesser of two evils.
Antoun Fadel, for instance, is a lifelong resident of the Catholic village of El-Kaa, located in northern Lebanon near the border with Syria. He’s under no illusions about the benevolence of the Assad dynasty, since his village was where Syrian forces under Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, poured into the country in 1976, triggering an occupation that didn’t end until 2005.
Yet Fadel said he’s got lots of Christian friends in Syria, and talks with them on a regular basis, in addition to the Syrian Christian refugees he’s come to know — almost 1,500 of them, in a village whose population before was just 2,500.
I asked him, if there were a completely free and democratic election in Syria, what percentage of the Christians he thought would vote for Assad. He answered immediately, “100 percent.” I pressed, asking, “Really? Are you completely sure?”
Fadel hesitated and then replied, “Well, OK, maybe 99.9 percent.”
The experience of the Christians in and around Syria is that when the jihadist contagion erupts, when Christians are under assault, Assad and his forces are generally willing to try to fight it back. As a result, Christians often feel a loyalty to Assad that’s born less of moral admiration and more of basic survival.
Hezbollah is a terrorist group and an existential threat to Christians
The U.S. government officially classifies the Shi’ite Muslim movement based in Lebanon as a terrorist organization, and in the popular mind across much of the West, Hezbollah is part of Jihadism Inc., basically on a par with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other radical groups that are enemies of Christianity and the West.
For sure, those impressions don’t come out of a clear blue sky. Veteran Lebanese journalist (and George Clooney’s mother-in-law) Baria Alamuddin, who comes from a Druze family, recently warned that the group’s “crazed rhetoric” and military bluster vis-à-vis Israel risks bringing down “armageddon” on the country.
That’s not, however, the way many Lebanese Christians see it.
A recent poll found that 62 percent of Lebanese Christians believe Hezbollah has been doing a better job than anyone else in defending Lebanese interests in the region, and they trust it more than other social institutions.
The current president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, is a Maronite, the largest of the Eastern churches here in communion with Rome, who once led Christians into battle against Muslims during Lebanon’s bloody civil war. Yet today he’s in office with Hezbollah support, and considers the movement a close political ally.
Randa Gholam, a prominent Lebanese Christian who lives in a Shi’ite neighborhood in southern Beirut, is an enthusiastic supporter of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, calling him a “gift from God.” It’s also indicative of Christian attitudes that journalist Octavia Nasr, who comes from a Lebanese Christian family with roots in Palestine, was fired by CNN in 2010 for tweeting out her respect for a Muslim cleric who had just died, and who was among the fathers of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah makes overtures to Christians, broadcasting a solidarity message on its radio network every Christmas day and even sending Christmas cards to Christians who live in areas they control. In those Hezbollah-dominated neighborhoods, Christians generally say they can drink alcohol openly without any backlash, and Christian women feel no pressure to adopt the hijab or follow other Muslim rules.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Lebanon in 2012, Hezbollah festooned the lampposts of Beirut with welcome messages. It’s a striking bit of symbolism that in the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh where Nasrallah has his compound, just a few blocks away is the flourishing parish of St. Joseph’s, where Maronite Catholics from all over town flock every Sunday.
When Nasrallah went on Lebanese television in 2014 to explain why Hezbollah fighters were crossing the border into Syria to take on ISIS, he first addressed himself to Christians across the Middle East.
“You’re seeing what’s happening in Syria,” he said. “Where are your churches? Where are your patriarchs? Where are your nuns? Where are your crosses? What’s the world done for them, and what did they do previously in Iraq?”
His point is that Hezbollah was willing to put boots on the ground to protect minorities, while major global powers stood back and watched, and it resonated powerfully with many Christians. Fadel said, “Christians feel safe with Hezbollah,” because they see the group as a firebreak between them and ISIS.
Europe is where the refugee crisis is centered
It’s become a staple of Western media rhetoric that Europe today is in the grip of a massive refugee crisis, its largest since World War II, with that narrative fueled in part by dramatic images of children washing up on Mediterranean beaches and angry protesters demanding better living conditions in European detention centers.
Even Pope Francis sometimes inadvertently reinforces the impression, visiting European points of arrival, such as Lampedusa in Italy and Lesbos in Greece, and praising those nations in press conferences for their spirit of welcome.
What tends to get lost in the shuffle is that most of today’s refugees are coming from Syria, Iraq, Libya and other conflict zones in the Middle East, and those who reach Europe are just the tip of the iceberg. The overwhelming majority of refugees have been taken in by other Middle Eastern nations and jurisdictions, including Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Kurdistan and Lebanon.
Lebanon’s an instructive case. Six years ago, prior to the outbreak of violence in Syria, it had a total national population of around 4.5 million. Today that number has swelled to 6 million due to absorbing an estimated 1.5 million refugees from nearby Syria, both Muslims and Christians.
To put that in context, consider that according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Italy — which, given its southern Mediterranean location and vast coastline, has borne a disproportionate share of the burden for absorbing refugees — has seen an average of 150,000 new arrivals per year since the Syrian conflict broke out.
Experience says that a strong majority of those new arrivals each year move on, either to other European nations or destinations elsewhere. Even if every single one of them had stayed in Italy, however, that would be 900,000 people against a national population of 60 million (about 2.5 percent).
The United States doesn’t have anything like the refugee crisis in other parts of the world, but let’s take the most comparable case that tends to get Americans most tied up in knots: illegal immigration. The conventional estimate is that the U.S. has 11 million undocumented immigrants, which works out to 3.3 percent of a national population of around 330 million.
In Lebanon, however, Syrian refugees alone now represent 25 percent of the overall population, meaning an exponentially greater per capita impact.
Partly as a result, unemployment here now exceeds 30 percent and the population living below the poverty line has shot up by 66 percent since 2011. Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is now the third highest in the world, and even something as basic as garbage collection has sparked anti-government protests.
Joseph Boustamy, CEO of the Tel Chiha Hospital sponsored by the Greek Melkite Archdiocese of Zalhé, offers a typically Lebanese perspective.
“The presence of [so many] refugees is becoming a threat,” he said. “With such a high percentage of our population now composed of refugees, we’re asking ourselves how long we can last. It’s a very crucial question.”
At the same time, he said, the hospital and Lebanon generally will not turn their backs on the refugees now in their midst.
“Once someone is in your house,” he said, “you have to take care of them.”
The bottom line is that a refugee crisis in the early 21st century does indeed exist, but its front lines are nowhere near the West — they’re in the Middle East, where places such as Lebanon are bearing burdens that most other countries can’t begin to imagine.
So what does all this mean? To begin, it’s not that stereotypical Western impressions of the Middle East are entirely wrong. Clearly, Syria’s Assad is no one’s idea of a paragon of virtue; arguably, he meets most definitions of a war criminal. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has deeply worrying features, and many European societies unquestionably are being strained to cope with their new arrivals.
On the other hand, perhaps the moral of the story is this: Before drawing hard and fast policy conclusions about the Middle East, Western governments and activists might want to talk to the people who actually live here, to see how issues play out in their experience and draw on their up-close-and-personal perspective.
Doing so might point the way to somewhat different Western strategies for the region, which is probably long overdue — if, that is, we accept the maxim that one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.
This reporting is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a pontifical foundation serving persecuted Christians around the world. www.acnusa.org.