THE LEVANT – By Sophie Cousins – Just as Father Samir Hajjar finished his Sunday evening sermon at the Syriac Orthodox Church in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli a few weeks ago, he was approached by the security forces.
“They told me they needed to speak to me. I was very surprised so I invited them inside,” Father Hajjar recalled.
The men then drew his attention to freshly sprayed graffiti over the church, which read: “The Islamic State is Coming”.
“After reading it, I was very surprised because I’ve been serving at the church for 16 years and have never encountered any problem like this,” he said.
Father Hajjar said that while he wasn’t afraid, the incident had shaken the community.
“The people who attend mass and visit church have been affected – they’re scared because of this incident. As a minority within a Muslim majority, for us as Christians, the basic element of our survival is our moral of existence and that moral of existence was affected and that’s why people are scared and are not attending church,” he said.
The Syriac Orthodox Church is just one of several churches that have been spray-painted with the same message in recent weeks, whilst crosses have also been burnt on the streets in Tripoli and Beirut.
Many Christians in Lebanon fear they face the same fate as the Christians in Iraq who were forced from their homes after the Islamic State told them to either convert to Islam or face execution.
Their fear is so palpable that many in villages bordering Syria, including Ras Baalbek and Qaa, have taken up arms – the first time since the end of the Civil War in 1990 – and are setting up self-defence units to protect themselves in case of an attack from militants.
Last month militants overran the northeastern town of Arsal, close to the Syrian border, for five days, killing and capturing members of Lebanon’s security forces. Two of those captured have since been beheaded.
William Harris, professor of politics at the University of Otago, who has authored several books on Lebanon, said he believed the hostility towards Christians was from a small jihadist segment of the Lebanese Sunni population.
“The Islamic State has become a convenient label as well as being a reality,” he told SBS.
“[But] Christians are not the front line of the main conflict but they will get some spill-over. Christians continue to have the option of asserting a canton if there is full Sunni/Shia breakdown and Lebanon collapses.”
“The Maronites remain unique among Middle Eastern Christians in still conceivably having the numbers, strength, and compact location to take the third of Lebanon that is Christian down this road in circumstances of total disintegration across the northern Levant. This is a big difference from Christians in Iraq and Syria, and the cases should not be put in the same basket.”
Back in Tripoli, Father Ibrahim Surouj, whose 40-year-old bookstore was burnt down earlier this year after false rumours spread he had written an anti-Islamic tract, said there was no animosity between Christians and Muslims in the city.
“In spite of the terrorists in Lebanon and all the events going on around us, we are still praying together and we are really not afraid,” he said.
“We are in a good mood with our Muslim brothers in northern Lebanon.”
A similar sentiment was shared with other Christians in the city.
“Us Christians are not afraid,” Sandy, a primary school teacher said, preferring to not use her full name.
“For many years we have all lived together and haven’t experienced serious problems. We are confident everything will be ok.”