Lebanon News

Christmas bells ring in resilient southern suburb

HARET HREIK, Lebanon: The pine tree’s ornaments glinted in the Sunday morning light of Al-Arid Street, a few dozen meters from the site of one of the car bombs that devastated the thoroughfare in the southern suburbs of Beirut last year.

Christmas trees have cropped up over the last two weeks around the majority-Shiite neighborhood and its churches. They are often a short stroll away from the bombing sites, which are now fading memories marked only by uneven asphalt.

Flags pledging allegiance to Imam Hussein and portraits of fighters line the streets, leading to red baubles and a miniature Santa statue.

“We will continue to celebrate and our bells will keep ringing in the East,” said Ziad Waked, the Christian mayor of Haret Hreik.

The birthplace of Free Patriotic movement leader Gen. Michel Aoun, Haret Hreik was once a predominantly Christian neighborhood.

Its demographics changed due to the Civil War and the influx of Shiites fleeing from the south in the aftermath of the Israeli incursion of 1978 and the occupation of the south in 1982.

“The war changed the face of the area,” Waked said. He heads the neighborhood’s municipal council, which is split evenly between Christians and Shiites.

Many of the area’s Christians left the country or moved to other Christian neighborhoods, although some still visit the local churches on Sundays and religious festivals, such as Christmas.

Christians remaining in the neighborhood are predominantly supporters of Aoun’s party.

But the sentiment is different this year, amid growing threats to Christians who were forced to flee their homes in Iraq and Syria with the rise of extremist groups like ISIS.

Christians in Lebanon have also had to fight off incursions by militants along the Syrian border, with many deciding to self-arm to protect their land and dwellings.

The top Christian post in the government – the presidency – has been empty since May due to rivalries between Lebanon’s two top Christian leaders, Aoun and Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea.

But local and religious officials from the Christian community in the southern suburbs spoke with defiance against the threat, saying they were growing more determined to remain in communities they have long been part of.

Some also said the fight against “takfiris” has shown the wisdom of allying with Hezbollah, which has played a key role in shielding border villages from militant attacks.

“What’s strange about it?” MP Hikmat Dib said after attending Sunday Mass at the St. Joseph Church in Haret Hreik, when asked about celebrating Christmas in the southern suburbs.

“We are the children of this neighborhood, we are integral to its fabric,” he added.

St. Joseph Church was damaged in the Israeli bombing of south Beirut during the 2006 war, when an air raid targeted the nearby offices of Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah.

The church interior is vibrant, its ceiling painted a light blue with clouds to emulate the sky. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are placed on either side of the altar, along with a nativity scene and Christmas decorations.

The melodic hymns ask for strength and perseverance from God to ward off evil.

“Fear is not present,” said Father Issam Ibrahim, the head priest.

“Every festival is an opportunity for us to declare that our God is eternal, and that our God is with us. If your God is with you, are you going to fear a mere human?”

Still, he urged Lebanese Christians to stay united and not bicker, so as not to be weakened.

Mayor Waked did not shy away from declaring Haret Hreik a “sanctum” of the resistance.

The neighborhood had been repeatedly targeted over the last year and a half due to its association with Hezbollah and the party’s involvement in the Syrian war, often being labeled a “Hezbollah stronghold” even though there is not an overt, armed presence.

But Waked said the term was an “honor” for residents, who he said support the “resistance line.”

“If the people do not have resistance, they will not be able to defend their land, especially against an enemy like Israel, which has clear designs on Lebanon,” he said.

“So we respect and admire and support the Army, but with the Army there must be this resistance that is invisible to the enemy.”

He said that perhaps the rise of takfiri groups like ISIS was a “blessing in disguise” that would show the value of the resistance, and contrast its actions with those of ISIS.

Still, Waked said there was growing alarm at the crises facing Christians in the region.

“The threats and wars in the region around us do create fear for some, but this makes them hold onto their land more ... and to defend co-existence,” he said.

That sentiment was on the mind of Sayyed Mohammed Ali Moussawi, an Iranian scholar and artist who resides in Beirut.

After the Mass, he unveiled the blueprint of a wall painting he intended to gift to the church.

It included a drawing of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus, with a stylized portrayal of the Holy Spirit and Iranian calligraphy.

Spaces were also allocated for verses from the Bible and the Quran to be etched together.

Moussawi said the painting was intended to show Muslim reverence for Jesus Christ.

He drew parallels between Islam and Christianity, particularly Shiism, including the prophecy that the Imam Mahdi would return alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Christian religion is part of the heritage of Islam,” he said.

“Whoever believes in God is a Muslim. We cannot claim a monopoly on Islam.”

“A Muslim is one who does not oppress,” he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 15, 2014, on page 4.

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