Lebanese Christians and Druze reaffirm historical alliance despite recent tensions

A recent controversy caused cracks in the 18-year-old reconciliation between Druze and Maronites

The Mar Shalita Church in Chartoun, Lebanon where the ceremony was held to commemorate the historic August 5, 2001 reconciliation between Druze and Christians. Sunniva Rose for The National
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Hundreds congregated on Sunday afternoon in a church in the village of Chartoun on Mount Lebanon to commemorate the historic August 5, 2001 reconciliation between Druze and Christians, weeks after their worst falling-out in decades.

Politicians from the two parties that spurred the 2001 reconciliation, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and the Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces (LF), who organised the celebration, called for unity.

“Reconciliation is the only way to consolidate a shared life, turn the page and look towards the future,” PSP minister Akram Chehayeb said.

"If the mountain is fine, Lebanon is fine," Lebanese Forces MP Anis Nassar told The National, echoing one of the favourite sayings of his party's leader, Samir Geagea.

The celebration of what has come to be known as the "reconciliation of the mountain" was delayed by a few weeks as Druze-Christian tension remained high.

A deadly shoot-out in late June that pitted the PSP against its smaller Druze rival, the Lebanese Democratic Party, near the village of Qabr Shmoun, just half an hour away from Chartoun through the winding mountain roads.

The exact circumstances surrounding the death of junior Druze minister Saleh Al Gharib’s two bodyguards remains unclear and is still under investigation.

But Christians became involved in the blame game as fingers pointed towards Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil.

He has been accused of repeatedly igniting old sectarian hatred by mentioning massacres committed by the Druze against the Christians in the early 1980s, threatening to endanger their reconciliation.

"Return is not done, and reconciliation is not complete," Mr Bassil said in October 2017. "Is it not natural that people want to know where their families are? And where their bones are?"

On June 30, just hours before the Qabr Shmoun clash, he repeated in a speech that “you [Christians] will be guaranteed a real return".

During the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, massacres were committed by the Christians and the Druze living in Mount Lebanon in 1983, ultimately driving hundreds of thousands of Christians out of the mountainous area while the Druze remained.

The new generation still carries the memories of those massacres.

Mr Al Gharib’s family, including his father, were killed by the LF in September 1983, said Makram Rabah, a history professor at the American University of Beirut who is preparing a book on the 1983 conflict in Mount Lebanon.

Analysts say that by repeatedly referring to the 1983 events, Mr Bassil is trying to pose as a strong Christian leader in hope of succeeding his father-in-law as the country’s president, who is, by tradition, always a Maronite Christian.

After the June 30 shoot-out, the government was paralysed for 40 days before LDP and PSP leaders finally made up on August 9 during a meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda in the presence of the president, the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament.

The meeting came as a relief to locals. Elie Habr, 21, who came from a neighbouring village to watch Sunday's celebration in Chartoun, said that the 2001 reconciliation meant that he felt safe even after what happened in Qabr Shmoun.

“The Druze could have taken revenge against the Christians but they did not,” Mr Habr said. “Anyway, they are more than us today. They could easily hurt us if they really wanted to."

That impression is not correct, Mr Rabah said.

But it can be explained because the local Druze community is very involved in local activities, while Christians spend more time in secondary homes on the coast, which may give some Christians such as Mr Habr the impression of being outnumbered, he said.

On Saturday, President Michel Aoun repeated in front of high-ranking PSP officials and Druze sheikhs that despite political differences, the reconciliation of the mountain would not be shaken.

But underlying tension remains, as shown by banners welcoming Mr Aoun to his summer palace in Beiteddine, a PSP stronghold, being torn down before he arrived on Friday.

Mr Aoun, who led the Lebanese army during the civil war, was in exile in France when the reconciliation of the mountain was signed in 2001, and his party did not exist in 1983.

But he still fully rallied behind the agreement, which was blessed by the Maronite patriarch at the time, Nasrallah Sfeir.

The reconciliation was a precursor to an alliance of Lebanese political parties to evict Syrian troops from Lebanon.

They eventually left in 2005 under intense international pressure after the assassination of prime minister Rafic Hariri.

However, Mr Aoun started moving away from the Druze-Christian reconciliation after he struck an alliance with Hezbollah, a Syrian ally, in 2006, Mr Rabah said.

“For Aoun, backing the reconciliation was a way to get rid of the Syrians. But after he brokered a deal with them [in 2006], he started to doubt it.”

Like the president, Mr Bassil regularly denies any intention to reignite sectarian tensions or to call the reconciliation of the mountain into question.

Preserving “the mountain, the land, the identity, and the diverse culture of our country” is his main aim, he said on Monday after meeting Maronite cardinal Bechara Rahi.

But Mr Rabah said the claims by Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil were insincere.

“The president should tell Gebran Bassil to stop" referring to the country’s troubled past in his speeches, Mr Rabah said. “If you want to walk the walk, you should talk the talk.”

The "mountain" has housed the Druze community, a secretive sect born in Egypt, which developed among Arab tribes living in Syria, since the 11th century.

With the encouragement of Druze leader Fakhreddine Al Maan, Maronites settled in Druze areas in the 16th century to provide manpower to work the land or in silk factories.

Fighting between the two communities goes back to the 19th century, when the Druze took revenge on the Christians for collaborating with the invading Egyptians.

In 1983, the LF militia hoped to take power in the mountain with the backing of Israeli forces, which had invaded the country the year before, reaching Beirut.

Supported by Palestinian and Syrian fighters, the Druze reaction against the Maronites was “borderline ethnic cleansing”, Mr Rabah said.

To escape the massacres, the Christian population fled to the coast or abroad.

"The evacuees carried nothing with them. Some left in their pyjamas. Some were half-naked. Some were barefoot. A mother lost her child on the way," wrote Paul Andary, Mr Geagea's second in command in 1983, in his book War of the Mountain. "And the ones who chose to stay behind were slaughtered like sheep."

The effects of the fighting can be felt to this day in villages such as Chartoun, which was destroyed and emptied of its inhabitants.

“I remember visiting it in 1983. It was bulldozed,” Mr Nassar said. Born in a neighbouring village, he fled the fighting to the US.

“Today, we are barely 500 but before we were thousands. Everything was destroyed,” remembers George Nakhle.

Two years ago, the former LF fighter came back from Beirut with his daughter Carla, 27, and her family to open the village’s second sandwich shop.

Born two years after the end of the war, in 1992, his daughter said she was happy to have left Beirut for Chartoun and bore no ill-will towards her Druze neighbours.

But for her, ceremonies such as Sunday’s have little significance. She would rather forget, she said.

“If we keep remembering, it might all happen again.”