Why it is essential that Christianity survives in Lebanon

A statue of Lebanese Christian Maronite monk Saint Charbel is transported on the Jounieh highway to the town of Faraya (Getty Images)

The Catholic Bishops of Lebanon are understandably upset by a new citizenship law which allows the government to grant citizenship to foreigners while denying it to children of the Lebanese diaspora or to those born in Lebanon of one Lebanese and one foreign parent.

As they look around the Middle East, the bishops are right to be worried. In Bahrain, for example, where the ruling family is Sunni but the ruled are majority Shia, the government has been granting citizenship to Sunni immigrants in an attempt to redress the population balance. The Bahrain monarchy is terrified of another Shia rising. The last one was in 2011.

Lebanon itself is supposedly divided evenly between Christian and Muslim, though that this is still the case is highly doubtful, thanks to the large exodus of Christians during and after the civil war. But the power-sharing agreement that ended the civil war is based on this idea that Lebanon is a shared polity. The civil war itself is usually attributed to the way the large influx of Palestinian Muslim refugees destabilized the country’s delicate political balance. Hence the fear that fresh attempts at sectarian rebalancing could lead to another war.

Few people in the west, following the Iraq War, are keen to undervalue the strength of sectarian feeling in all Middle Eastern countries. Every country is divided between Shia and Sunni. Funnily enough, in Syria and Lebanon, both with appreciable Christian populations, there has been an alignment between the Shia and the Christians. This is primarily a political alliance, though it is clear that there are other affinities between the two groups.

It is not simply a case that the Shia are temperamentally more like the Christians than their Sunni enemies. Both groups know that what is at stake is their survival, and this has undoubtedly brought them together. Readers of this magazine know that Christians find life hard throughout the Middle East. So do the Shia, and we should spare a thought for them. After all, believing in religious freedom, we make no exceptions to this universal right. In the meantime, let us also hope that this latest seeming attempt at ethnic gerrymandering in Lebanon fails. After all Lebanon is the entire region in miniature. If Christianity fails there, it fails everywhere else too.