RMAISH/AIN IBL, Lebanon: Sat on the balcony of a hotel in Ain Ibl, one of just four Christian villages in the remote qada of Bint Jbeil, Pierre Hasrouny looks out over the mountainous landscape of south Lebanon. Despite everything that is going on in Lebanon, the scene is a peaceful one. But Hasrouny, the activist and founder of local nonprofit organization Awfa (Most Loyal), is much more restless.
“With the absence of a government, Sunnis turned to Future Movement, Shiites turned to Hezbollah.” Hasrouny wondered out loud, smirking slightly, “Who are we supposed to turn to?”
It is a recurring question in this corner of the country, with Hasrouny and many of his coreligionists saying they feel “left behind” and neglected by not just the state but also by the very political parties who are supposed to prioritize the plight of the Christians.
To make matters worse, many residents feel as if they must constantly battle to maintain their identity in a region that is overwhelmingly dominated by two Shiite parties: Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
Residents in Bint Jbeil’s four predominantly Christian villages – Ain Ibl, Rmaish, Dibil and Qouzah – say they have struggled to survive since the days of the French Mandate in the 1920s, somehow making it through the Civil War and the long years of Israeli occupation from 1982-2000. Today, they feel they are still struggling, battling dire socioeconomic conditions, an exodus of residents and a lack of governmental support, all to hold onto a sacred part of the world that many believe Jesus walked through.
Economically, migration – either to Lebanon’s bigger cities or abroad completely – the loss of trade routes into modern-day Israel and the distance to Beirut have turned much of the furthest parts of south Lebanon into a backwater. The problem was heightened by the 2006 war with Israel, which saw swaths of the region relentlessly bombed and large amounts of civilian infrastructure and buildings destroyed.
For the area’s Christian residents, the ensuing reaction was typical of their predicament.
Rmaish opened its homes and schools to shelter refugees and faced huge losses estimated at $150,000, Deputy Mayor Michel Shoufani said, but despite repeated promises of help, no one came through.
Particularly stinging was the fact that “none of the Christian parties paid any attention to us,” he said, while Hezbollah compensated some Shiite and Christian residents in nearby villages.
Residents say that Christian political parties have repeatedly turned down requests to fund development projects in the villages.
“They say that we don’t even benefit them with our votes, so what’s the use of spending money with no electoral gains,” an activist in Ain Ibl said, referring to the fact that, due to the demographics of the area, Christians in the qada of Bint Jbeil are represented by Shiite MPs.
As a result, many municipality officials prefer to remain as politically neutral as possible in order to be open to funds from any party or organization, but even this does not always work.
Local officials in Rmaish raised the issue of a hospital built during Christian leader Sleiman Frangieh’s term as health minister in 2003, saying the fully equipped building has never been used.
“This center would certainly help the towns and surrounding villages as well as Rmaish ... but its monthly budget was estimated at LL400 million a month,” Rmaish Mayor Michel Hajj said, sitting on a leather couch in the municipality building in the heart of Bint Jbeil’s biggest Christian town.
He said he had appealed to several possible donors but to no avail.
Further stoking resentment is the issue of inter-religious land sales, which, thanks to comments from high-profile religious and political figures, is presented as a potential threat to the very existence of Christians in Lebanon.
The selling of land was so rampant that some Christian figures who are close to the resistance group, in Ain Ibl for example, asked Hezbollah to urge Shiites to refrain from buying property in the village.
Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Church, has specifically called on Christians to hold onto their lands and not sell them to people outside the community.
But not everyone agrees that they should have to listen to such edicts.
“Instead of Bkirki lecturing us about land sales, they should probably feed people here so that we would not have to resort to such measures,” a shop owner in the village said, echoing a commonly heard sentiment in the four villages.
“They have money!” a housewife in Ain Ibl added angrily. “They could at least help open a factory to help people stay here rather than have to depart to Beirut or Gulf countries to be able to put food on the table.”
This hostility toward the community’s traditional benefactors has prompted the villages to make an effort to blend in with their Muslims neighbors.
“We learned to adapt to our environment,” Rmaish’s Hajj said.
“We urge citizens here not to raise party flags or sponsor the opening of party offices because we live in a region that doesn’t allow us to do so. It would only lead to intra-Christian conflicts as well as problems with our neighbors.”
“Bint Jbeil district is a model of Christians and Muslims living side by side,” Bint Jbeil Mayor Afif Bazzi said. “There were never clashes here, not even minor incidents, during the days of occupation and after.”
However, this does not always work out so neatly, as exemplified by a dispute over an Amal banner hung in Ain Ibl last month.
Activist Hasrouny was one of a number of residents who protested the sign, which commemorated the 36th anniversary of the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr. While residents have enormous respect for the Shiite leader and his efforts to break down sectarian divisions, most remain more reserved about the Amal Movement. In the end, the poster was replaced by another banner that left out the party’s green and yellow logo.
“Would they accept if we hung a poster of Bachir Gemayel in Bint Jbeil to commemorate his assassination?” Hasrouny asked.
Many locals have a similarly prickly attitude toward Amal’s Shiite ally, Hezbollah, which is seen by some as the overlord of south Lebanon.
“They keep saying Ain Ibl is not part of its environment. What does that mean? Should I raise the Hezbollah flag on my house? Is that adaptability?” Hasrouny said.
“I do not want to abandon my identity and beliefs,” another member of Awfa added.
The relationship is further complicated by the difficult fact that many Christian residents collaborated with Israel during the occupation and then escaped south of the border in 2000 out of fear of retribution.
“At least 500 people out of a [village] population of some 1,600 fled to the inside,” Dibil Mayor Aqel Nawaf said, referring to Israel.
While some returned to face light sentences as part of the judiciary’s decision to resolve their status, many did not. The issue remains thorny and highly emotive, especially given that some villages, such as Ain Ibl, still hold an annual Mass to remember “the exiled.”
And while many recognize that Hezbollah has helped maintain security in the region, particularly in the wake of the recent influx of Syrian refugees, some say they are happy to carry arms and defend themselves.
“I don’t want Hezbollah to protect me,” one Ain Ibl resident said. “There was security and safety when the Israeli army was here, but that doesn’t mean that they provided me with anything.”
“The mistake is that some people think of Ain Ibl as an independent republic,” commented a resident, who asked to remain anonymous, as the usual sound of Israeli planes flying over the village filled the air.
“They believe what Christian parties say about Hezbollah working according to an elimination project,” he added, referring to theories that the party wants to rid Lebanon of non-Shiite sects. “Hezbollah seeks to keep us in this land. We need to understand that we are part of this south.”