Lebanon’s Christians and the Syrian refugee problem

Friday 08/04/2016

Lebanon’s Syrian refugee crisis cannot be resolved until the Lebanese people learn to take into account what is happening across the region and do away with superficial and empty claims about the threat that desperate Syrians represent to the identity of the Lebanese state.

Lebanon’s Christian community, in particular, seems to have failed to understand the country’s domestic situation, as well as the wider regional state of affairs, focusing instead on narrow concerns regarding their own presence in the country. All this talk about restoring the “rights of the Christians” and how this influx of Syrian refugees will affect their position in particular, rather than the country as a whole, shows flawed thinking.

What is most important in the current period is to understand that the Syrians who are there do not want to settle in Lebanon. They have been forced to flee their country because of violence. They would much prefer to return to their homeland.

On the other hand, Lebanon has a major opportunity to benefit from the future rebuilding of Syria in the post-Assad period. If Beirut fails to take advantage of this, it will have allowed a significant chance to pass by. Perhaps the best thing that Lebanon can do is to learn from Jordan’s example, which is ensuring that its care and assistance for Syrian refugees is being offset by regional and international support.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who boycotted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the country, recently sought to incite false controversy over the Syrian crisis at a time when such discourse only serves to harm Lebanon and its Christian minority.

Bassil claimed that Lebanon’s Christians are being over-run by Muslim refugees from abroad. “What is happening in Lebanon is an attempt to replace the people with Syrians and Palestinians,” he was quoted as saying by the country’s Daily Star newspaper.

Bassil’s comments, which are almost racist in nature, come at a time when the Lebanese government should be looking for a solution to their long presidential vacuum and government crisis rather than engaging in discourse that will increase inter-community strife.

Lebanon could be a launch pad for dozens of projects to help rebuild and reconstruct a post-Assad Syria. The Lebanese economy would benefit from such activity immensely, particularly as the latest developments across the border, including the ceasefire and the imminent restart of peace talks, indicate that a political solution may be on the horizon.

There are strong ties between the Syrian and Lebanese economies. This interdependence allows Lebanon, in light of the presence of such a large number of Syrian refugees in its territory, to play a central role in the rebuilding process.

The time has come for the Lebanese, and particularly the Christians, to put this psychological complex over the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to bed. No Syrian wants to settle in Lebanon; this is something that has been forced on them by circumstance.

The Lebanese fail to understand the benefits the refugees can have for their community. Syrians contributed to Lebanon’s banking and real estate sector but now many wealthy Syrians have chosen to go to Dubai and elsewhere, rather than Lebanon, due to the prevailing negative view in Lebanese society.

If Lebanon’s Christians are truly under threat of displacement, this is because of the Christian community’s lack of vision. This narrow thinking caused previous crises and disasters in the country, including the conflict between Christians and Palestinians and Christians and Muslims, which served as the justification for Syrian intervention in the country.

A large number of Christians left the country as a result of the Lebanese civil war, which saw Christian militias lead the fighting. The largest number of Christians returned when normal life resumed in the country between 1992-2005.

Bassil is simply wrong to link the influx of Syrian refugees to attempts to overrun its Christian community. The presence of Lebanon’s Christians, or indeed any Lebanese group, is tied to economic prosperity. If there is no prosperity, people will leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere.