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Lebanon Retains Christian-Muslim Power Sharing

(Because of intense interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, NPR makes available free transcripts of its coverage. View related web coverage or listen to the audio for this story)
Morning Edition: November 9, 2007


During Lebanon's wars stretching back to the 1970s, waves of Lebanese fled their country, many of them heading to the United States. And that's affected all of Lebanon's often-feuding religious groups. Christians used to represent about one half of Lebanon's population. Now Christians are an ever smaller minority, but they still have as much political power as the growing Muslim majority.

The most visible sign of Christian power is the presidency. It's always held by a member of Lebanon's unique Maronite Christian community. As parliament struggles to meet a deadline this month to select a new president, Christians and many Muslims support keeping the old outdated power-sharing arrangement.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut in this final installment of a three-part series on the Christians of Lebanon.

PETER KENYON: In Lebanon these days, it seems there are some questions people would rather not know the answer to. For example, how many Christians are living in Lebanon today, or for that matter, how many Sunni or Shiite Muslims? In many countries, this would be basic public information, but here there hasn't been an official census since 1932.

One man who studies the issue carefully is Jawad Adra, a research consultant and managing partner of Information International in Beirut. One of his recent surveys found 30 percent of Lebanese youth responding that they would like to leave Lebanon. Those numbers represent people of all religions, but because of their low birth rate and other factors, Christians are feeling the impact of emigration more severely than Muslims.

Adra says Lebanon's studied silence about its population isn't surprising when you consider the political pressures that might come into play if the census were conducted.

Mr. JAWAD ADRA (Research Consultant): Because Lebanon, when it was first established in the 1920s, it was really established as a Christian, particularly Maronite faith. This was the raison d'ętre of Lebanon. So they all had some kind of an agreement that Lebanon is Christian. The Muslims agreed and went along with this. And they all said, okay, let's not find out.

KENYON: Even without official numbers, though, Adra says the trends are clear for anyone who cares to find out. Barring some major unforeseen demographic shift, Adra says Christians, who were the majority here for much of the last century, may well become a tiny minority before the next century begins.

Mr. ADRA: We did a study which shows that perhaps 75 years from now there will be almost maybe six percent Marionite left in Lebanon, because they are an aging community. You know, when you look at the fertility rate and so on, you will find out that it is higher among the Sunni and the Shiite than it is among the Christians.

KENYON: In other words, the gap between the Muslim and Christian populations in Lebanon will not only grow, it will accelerate over time.

Mr. JEROME SHAHIN(ph) (Economist): (Through translator) We are at the moment at a very, very difficult stage; in fact, one of the worst stages in history that we've been.

KENYON: For economist Jerome Shahin, who's been studying demographic issues for some 20 years, the coming domination of Lebanon's population by Muslims raises troubling questions, the primary one being can Lebanon's unique power-sharing political arrangement survive?

Mr. SHAHIN: (Through translator) Lebanon, in fact, is the only country in the Arab world where the Christians and the Muslims are approximately equal. So it's a laboratory for coexistence for the rest of the Arab world.

KENYON: Professor Samir Khalaf at the American University in Beirut says while disputes in Lebanon tend to be over power and influence, not theology, there is an atmosphere of unease among Lebanese Christians today as they watch the increasing Islamification of the Arab world around them.

Dr. SAMIR KHALAF (American University, Beirut): And they look around and they see what has happened to Copts in Egypt, what happened to Armenians in Turkey, what is happening to Christians in Palestine, and Christians in Syria, and Christians in Iraq. And the numbers are staggering. And essentially they say, you know, are we next?

KENYON: Historian Kamal Salibi says the genius of Lebanon's awkward, maddening and frequently dysfunctional system of government is that it compels Lebanon's 18 confessions to cooperate, enforcing that cooperation by simply collapsing whenever one side grows too powerful.

In that light, Salibi says, it's clear that Lebanese Christians are needed not because they have some special gift for coexistence; there's more than enough blood on Christian hands to debunk that myth. It's just that they have to play their political role, whether or not their population justifies it, to keep the system clattering along.

Mr. KAMAL SALIBI (Historian): It's not that the Christians are bastions of freedom. What's important about the Christians is simply their presence; their presence, real or imagined, will serve the purpose, to hearten other people in Lebanon who want to lead a civic, secular life. So for this reason you find the Muslims in Lebanon running after the Christians, begging them not to emigrate.

KENYON: There are many Muslims, however, who don't feel any special need to maintain the polite fiction that Christians are half the population. The Shiite community, for instance, has long felt undervalued in Lebanon, even though unofficial estimates suggest the Shiites are the largest single group in the country.

In the cool, leafy hills of Mount Lebanon, Greek Catholic Bishop George Khodr offers another caution. Lebanon's Christians shouldn't expect foreign benefactors to come rushing in to save them as they did in earlier centuries.

These days, he says, the need for petroleum tends to overwhelm issues such as human rights or religious freedom.

Bishop GEORGE KHODR (Greek Catholic): (Unintelligible) in politics (unintelligible) Muslim.

(Soundbite of prayer)

KENYON: But with Lebanon facing its latest political crisis, a standoff over naming a new president with a November deadline looming, a number of Muslim clerics recently made the trip up into the hills above the capital to show solidarity with Maronite Christians. The Muslims prayed in one room at the main Maronite Church complex while the Christian service went on upstairs.

(Soundbite of service)

KENYON: Afterwards, Ibrahim Shamseddine, the son of a highly respected Shiite cleric, agreed that the event was largely symbolic, but added that in some ways Lebanon itself is symbolic - an example to other Arab states of the possibility of Christian and Muslim coexistence that should not be allowed to fade from the scene.

Mr. IBRAHIM SHAMSEDDINE: Believe me, I assure you, I assure everybody, on a very Machiavellian basis even, put religion apart. It's for our sake and benefit as Muslims to have the Christians here, strong as partner, as decision makers with us. We build together. We lose and win together. We live together. We raise our children together. This is not just poetry; this is real fact of life. This is the way it should be, and this is the way we're going to work to have it maintained in this way.

KENYON: These voices are not often heard in Beirut these days. They're drowned out by the politicians and foreign envoys pressing for advantage as the current presidential crisis comes to a head. But for many Lebanese the name of the next president is less important than knowing if their country will remain that rare thing in the modern Arab world, a place where Christians and Muslims govern together.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear the first two parts of this series on Christians in Lebanon at

Copyright ©2007 National Public Radio®.

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