Middle East Christians Trapped by Islamist Extremists Forge Alliances With Former Foes
Without the protection of functioning states, many Christians face difficult choices
On Palm Sunday, Christians in the Lebanese village of Al-Qaa depended on army troops to shield them from nearby ISIS militants. Another source of protection: Shiite militants in Hezbollah, which backs their decade-long enemy, the Syrian regime.
April 13, 2015 10:34 p.m. ET
AL-QAA, Lebanon—Three decades ago, plainclothes Syrian agents went door to door in this border village seeking out young Christian men, who were abducted and killed in a notorious chapter of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
The village’s nearly 2,000 Christians now find themselves siding with the same Syrian regime they blame for what many call the 1978 massacre.
That is because a few miles away, hundreds of Islamist extremists tied to al Qaeda and Islamic State stalk the porous border region separating Lebanon and Syria. Standing between the militants and the village are Lebanese troops aided by the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, whose men are also fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Yes, I prefer the Syrian regime over these terrorist groups,” a 45-year-old Al-Qaa resident said, but it is a choice “between the bitter and more bitter.”
Here and throughout the Middle East, many Christians, under attack and without the protection of functioning states, face difficult choices amid the region’s roiling sectarian conflicts.
Some are taking sides, others are taking up arms. In Iraq and Syria, for example, Christians fight alongside Kurds against Islamic State, even though some Christians accuse the Kurds of seeking to one day incorporate them and their land into Kurdish-controlled territories.
While both Christians and Muslims suffer from the violent extremism engulfing the region, the stakes and consequences differ, said the Rev. Fadi Daou, a Lebanese Maronite Catholic priest and professor of Christian theology.
In Lebanon and Iraq, Shiite Muslims rely on Hezbollah and other militias backed by Iran. Sunni Muslims, while threatened by the Shiite forces, constitute the region’s majority and are backed by insurgents, Father Daou said.
Christians in Lebanon, meanwhile—long viewed as the region’s most empowered and assertive—“are 10 times weaker than they were in 1975,” said Father Daou, who is also chairman of Adyan, a Western-backed organization that promotes cultural and religious diversity across the Middle East.
Lebanon’s symbolic post of president, which must be occupied by a Christian in accordance with the country’s sectarian power-sharing system, has been vacant for nearly a year.
Few Christians in Lebanon, Father Daou said, believe they can repeat what they did at the onset of the Lebanese civil war 40 years ago when they organized themselves into militias to battle armed Muslims.
With the government barely functioning, Christians here see few options: They can emigrate; depend on Hezbollah for protection; or simply pray that regional and world powers will prop up Lebanon’s armed forces and shield the country from falling into sectarian war.
Next to Al-Qaa, in the village of Ras Baalbek, a Christian commander of the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah-affiliated unit made up largely of non-Shiites, is rallying residents to take up arms against Sunni extremists because, he said, the army alone can’t protect local Christians.
In early August, the Lebanese army arrested a Syrian Islamist rebel leader tied to Islamic State on the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town near Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek. Islamist militants then stormed Arsal and nearly 150 people died in the battle with army troops. Militants abducted Lebanese soldiers and security forces. Eventually, eight were released and four killed, two by decapitation. The army sent reinforcements and the skirmishes continue.
“The entire world knows that Lebanese army posts collapsed during the so-called Arsal raid by militants,” the bearded Christian commander said. “So it’s my natural right to make alternate arrangements.”
The Lebanese Army chief, Gen. Jean Kahwaji, said last month that his troops, with the help of the U.S. and other countries, were capable of protecting the country from militants.
Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the French carved out the State of Greater Lebanon in the Levant, envisioning it as a haven for Christians. The idea of Christians needing the West’s protection lingered after the country gained independence in 1943.
Some Christians in the Middle East, particularly church leaders, believe secular, authoritarian-ruled states offer the best protection. They say regions beset by tribalism and prone to Islamic fundamentalism are ill-prepared for Western-style democracy.
“We do not need lectures from the U.S. about democracy and morality,” said Ignatius Youssef Younan III, Patriarch of Antioch for the Syriac Catholic Church. He favors democratic reform in Syria but not Mr. Assad’s removal.
Many Christians in Egypt, home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East, have embraced the military coup led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, now president, saying they felt threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mr. Sisi’s predecessor, Mohammed Morsi.
Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, had urged followers last year to vote for Mr. Sisi, calling him the country’s savior.
Vivian Fouad, former director of the Cairo-based Coptic Center for Social Studies, said most Copts supported Mr. Sisi. But many resented their pope’s foray into politics, she said: “Our best protection is active participation in the rebuilding of Egyptian political life and civil society.”
On Palm Sunday last month, Lebanese soldiers stood guard in front of the Mar Elias Catholic church in Al-Qaa, as families dressed in their finest walked behind a priest, and children carried palm branches in the traditional procession that marked the start of Easter week. Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter on Sunday.
Antoun and Therese Nasrallah, who brought their four children to church for Palm Sunday, are among the Lebanese Christians who fear an attack by Islamist militants.
Mr. Nasrallah has an AK-47 assault rifle at home and his wife keeps a hunting rifle close. “People will fight until the very end if they have to,” she said.
At night, Mr. Nasrallah goes on patrol with other villagers, including those loyal to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. They face a common enemy but the alliance is difficult for Mr. Nasrallah, he said.
Mr. Nasrallah, 44 years old, was a child when Syrian agents arrested his three uncles, who were schoolteachers, and two other family members. The men were among 26 Christians taken from Al-Qaa and two nearby villages.
The next day their tortured and bullet-riddled bodies were found in a nearby field—killings that triggered an exodus of local Christians, Mr. Nasrallah said. He was at his grandparents’ house after they heard the news on the radio. “My grandmother was pulling her hair and slapping her face,” he said, “and my grandfather took to the village streets shouting, ‘The boys are gone.’ ”
Like other villagers here, he and his wife believed the goal of Syria at the time was to drive out Christians and others who lived close to the border and who were seen as hostile to the regime.
At the start of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, many Christians here said they welcomed Syrian soldiers as protectors against Muslim forces. Eventually, though, Syria was seen as a dreaded occupation force.
Al-Qaa residents say they once more feel they are fighting for their existence. This time, the enemy is Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, whose militants have driven away Christians and other minorities from towns and villages in Iraq and Syria over the past year.
With their focus on survival, longtime opponents of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah speak of having to band together, despite their animosity, against Islamic State.
“We were praying each day for the toppling of the Syrian regime and for its figures to be put on trial for all their crimes, especially the Al-Qaa massacre,” said Bashir Matar, who lost his father, an uncle and two other family members in the 1978 killings.
“The regime has been saved because our focus now is on the imminent danger—ISIS,” said Mr. Matar, a lawyer who heads the local branch of the Lebanese Forces party.
In northern Iraq, Basim Bello faced a similar choice in the Christian town of Al-Qosh. Before Islamic State captured the nearby city of Mosul and surrounding Christian villages last June, Mr. Bello was a vocal critic of leaders in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region.
At the time, Kurds controlled the region known as the Nineveh Plain and backed only Christian clergy and politicians who favored Kurdish control. Kurdish leaders say the area has historically been theirs to govern.
Today, most Christians displaced from Islamic State-controlled areas are sheltered in the Kurdish region, and Christian men fight alongside Kurds against the militants, backed by the U.S. and its Western allies.
“It’s like having your hand stuck under a rock. Today, the enemy is ISIS, but I know Kurds still covet our areas,” said Mr. Bello who heads a political coalition seeking to establish a self-rule area in northern Iraq for Christians and other minorities.
Christians in the Lebanese village of Al-Qaa remember a time when citizens of the newly independent countries of the Middle East dreamed of living in pluralist democracies that respected all faiths.
The era is preserved in the abandoned stone-and-mud rooms that once belonged to the Nasrallah brothers, the schoolteachers who were among the Christian men seized by Syrian agents in 1978. George, Milad and Riyad Nasrallah are remembered here as intellectuals and passionate political activists.
Their books, photographs and political pamphlets are now thickly coated in dust. One tome is titled the “Dawn of Islam.”
—Dana Ballout contributed to this article.
Write to Sam Dagher at firstname.lastname@example.org
Popular on WSJ