“Tell me, sir, do you think there’s any hope for us?”
I was almost embarrassed by the pleading nature of this inquiry.
The speaker was a woman of a certain age, owner of a franchise shoe store in an affluent part of predominantly Christian East Beirut. She wore her coloured blonde hair pulled back in a European style, spoke halting English, perfect French and, like so many of Lebanon’s Christians, far from perfect Arabic.
After selling me an excellent pair of walking shoes, she learned I had visited the country several times and travelled the region as a journalist.
Hence, her question.
I knew exactly what she meant by it. Christians throughout this region are feeling imperilled. Events are happening quickly, regimes are tumbling; the old order isn’t what it used to be. And to Christians – in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – that’s a cause for concern.
I told her the whole region is in upheaval and many good things might come out of it. I acknowledged that Christians in nearby Syria, about 100 kilometres to the East, were very fearful of what might come of them should an extreme Sunni Islamic government take power in Damascus. Until now, Syrian Christians had felt reasonably safe under the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“Better the devil you know …” she said, nodding. “But what about us here in Lebanon?”
The woman spoke from painful experience, having endured 15 hard years of civil war that mostly amounted to one long, bloody battle between Muslims and Christians.
I pointed to a possibly positive outcome, at least as far as she was concerned. If Mr. al-Assad falls, I said, then Iranian support for Hezbollah might dwindle (since Syria serves as Iran’s paymaster and arms dealer for the Shia movement in Lebanon). If Hezbollah’s potency is diminished, then the balance of power in Lebanon could shift to the point where moderate Christians and Muslims are again in the political majority in Lebanon.
The woman smiled in a world-weary way. She knew that was a long shot.
It was the same look a man had given me just the night before. It was sunset, just before 6 p.m. Sunday evening, and the man was standing with his three children – two daughters and a son; the oldest, a girl, was 16. They were outside the beautifully rebuilt Greek Orthodox church in the renovated downtown of the city, waiting for a wedding party to arrive. The man, of about 50 years, said they were relatives of the bride.
As the guests filed into the church, he too spoke with alarm about the future for his children in Lebanon. Having learned that my friend and I were Canadian, his beautifully turned out older daughter burst out with the words: “I’m Canadian too.”
It seems the family had fled to Canada during the civil war, as so many other Lebanese had, and acquired Canadian citizenship. They moved back to Lebanon once things had quieted down and took up life here again.
But recent events, such as the establishment of a Hezbollah-influenced government and the possible overthrow of the neighbouring al-Assad regime, left him wondering whether he’d made the right choice.
“I think it would be better for the children if we returned to Canada,” he said.
Looking at his daughter, he spoke of there being more opportunities in Canada, but he meant opportunities for survival, not just economic opportunities.
It was fear he was feeling – fear of what might come next for Christians in the region, and fear that his indecisiveness might prevent him from making the tough decision to again leave the country before it’s too late.