14 Years of Civil Strife in Lebanon

Civil war has devastated Lebanon. Amidst this devastation, though, a glimmer of hope survives.

by Sister Maureen Grady, C.S.C.
photos by Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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Lebanon is a land of minorities. Until recently, it also has been a land of cooperation and intercommunion tolerance.

Of all the regions of the Middle East, Lebanon presents the closest juxtaposition of confessional groups and peoples within a small territory. More than 16 sects from the three main religions – Christianity, Islam, Druze – form the Lebanese society. Their coexistence and cooperation were essential for Lebanon’s stability and prosperity.

Historically, Lebanon’s population has been almost evenly divided between the Christian and Muslim inhabitants. This fact was the basis for the Lebanese formula, a political arrangement begun in 1943 which assigned the major government posts to different sects. This system provided general political and religious freedom to all factions. Shifts in population were never addressed in the distribution of power, however. Eventually Christian emigration changed the ratio on which the Lebanese formula was based to a current estimate of 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. Accordingly, the 1943 formula is challenged by some Muslim sects in order to increase their political power. The politically strong Maronite Christians fear losing their traditional political privileges and control.

The current conflict in Lebanon did not start as a “civil war.” Essential imbalances in social structure disguised as religious differences created internal tensions. At the same time outside forces on the regional and international scene took advantage of a weak system in order to pursue their self-interests.

After 14 years of war, there are very few things in Lebanon that resemble what life used to be before 1975. The civil war has changed the political, economic, social, human, and even geographic conditions of the country. The imprint of war is everywhere and touches everything. Battles in various parts of the country displaced hundreds of thousands of people and caused enormous amounts of damage.

An estimated 3.1 million in 1974, the population of Lebanon is believed to have declined to 2.7 million in 1979, and down to 2.6 million in 1984. The total of those killed or disabled in the early days of the war (1975–1976) is estimated to number 30,000 people. Thousands more were killed or wounded during 1978. A further 19,000 people died as a result of the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Each round of violence caused a new wave of movement of population, whether within Lebanon or abroad. When the war displaced 100,000 people from southern Lebanon, they lost their land, which was their only source of income. When 150,000 people were displaced from the mountain region, they lost their income from tourism and agriculture. An estimated 400,000 people emigrated in search of work in Arab countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

For nearly 5,000 years Lebanon was a center of trade between East and West. In the 20th century, when oil was discovered in Arab lands, Beirut became a center of financial commerce linking the Middle East with the world. More than 40 banks had their head offices there, and the Beirut seaport became the largest in the region. Lebanon prospered because of its trade experience and commercial facilities. 90% of the national income came from trade, tourism, and services.

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