Fleeing For Lebanon, Syrian Christians Are Stranded Between Regime And Rebels

A Syrian refugee who has just crossed the border into Lebanon
A Syrian refugee who has just crossed the border into Lebanon
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT - Elias, a 42-year-old Syrian, is chain smoking under the silent gaze of his children. This Christian farmer abandoned his lands, near the Lebanese border, leaving behind conflicts he felt had nothing to do with him, but tormented by the future of Syria and the fate of his minority religion there.

Together with 20 members of his family, he fled the clashes between the insurgents and Bashar-Al-Assad's forces, and the "thugs who are taking advantage of the chaos." Since then he has settled at his parents' in Zahleh, a city in the Lebanese Bekaa governorate that is mostly Christian. With his family, he is one of the handful of Christians among the approximately 37,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Elias gets flustered when asked about the position of Christians in Syria. They represent five to 10 percent of the population and are often described as close to the Assads -- or at the very least, passive. Elias says his home village, Rableh, is "100 percent Christian and 100 percent pro-Assad." Then he corrects himself: "Christians in Syria are neutral. They are neither with the regime nor with the rebels.”

The farmer never subscribed to the uprising. "At the beginning of the movement, I attended demonstrations in Homs or Al-Qusayr," -- his village is near these two insurgent cities -- "But I didn't identify with it. It isn't a multi-religious movement. Most Christians and Alawites stayed home," he says. "I don't want the war."

Yet among the icons of the revolution, there are Christians like Bassel Shéhadé. This young filmmaker was killed on May 28 in Homs where he was filming the uprising and the repression. His funeral in Damascus was banned by the regime.

In Bauchrieh, Beirut's Christian suburb, images of the Virgin Mary and a cross decorate the living room of a tiny two-room apartment where two Syrian families squeeze in together. Georges, 18, and Tony, 16, find it hard to talk. "It would have been simpler if there hadn’t been an uprising," finally says the eldest. "Everything would have stayed the way it was, the way we were used to."

The two Christian orthodox brothers witnessed the regime assaults on their city, Zabadani, which is west of Damascus near the Lebanese border. They saw their father die under loyalist bombs during the winter of 2011. "When he died, after the bombings and the unjust civilian deaths, we finally opened our eyes and realized we had supported the regime because we were afraid," says Tony. "We didn't go down to protest in the street, but in our hearts, we had joined the revolution."

Manipulated by the regime

Now orphans (their mother died when they were little), Tony and Georges took back sideroads to cross the border with their sister Mariam, 20, her baby and her husband. The young woman is angry. "When we heard the stories about the Christians in Homs, we were scared," she says. "There were rapes, kidnappings. The regime blamed the rebels, but it was more likely shabiha (pro-regime militias). For months, the regime tried to terrorize Christians, by fueling rumors that Sunnis and rebels were going to slit our throats. The regime manipulated us."

In the house in Zahleh, Elias' mother also speaks of "atrocities committed by rebels against Christians in Homs." She says she is scared, but Elias doesn't let her finish. "The conflict isn't between Sunnis and Alawites, or Sunnis and Christians, but between pro and anti-regime. The "atrocities" mother is talking about -- the kidnappings in Al-Qusayr of relatives of Christians working for the regime forces -- "don't happen because you are Christian, but because you are with the regime.”

In his village, Elias saw many insurgents who came to stock up on supplies. He rejects the regime rhetoric, which accuses Islamist gangs of being responsible for the uprising. "There are a few fundamentalists among the rebels, guys we'd never seen before. But the demonstrators are people like you and me, not extremists. They belong to the Sunni majority, which wants to reclaim its rights as a majority," he says.

Most of the Syrian Catholic Churches hierarchy supported the regime for a long time, before showing more restraint, most notably after the Vatican expressed worries. In Bauchrieh, Mariam is convinced that "the bishops want to save their hides." "That's why they say nothing about the repression," she says. "But not all of them are with the regime."

Elias believes that the number of victims (more than 23,000, according to opposition activists) is "exaggerated," and hopes that "Bashar's regime will stay in place, because otherwise it will be a real civil war."

For his part, young George dreams of a return to stability. "I'm not afraid of power returning in the Sunni majority's hands, as long as the future state is fair," he says.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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