WASHINTON, D.C. – Most of the attention at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) summit on Christian persecution in Washington on Wednesday surrounded Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement that the U.S. would redirect funds targeted to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East away from UN-sponsored programs and towards faith-based groups.

However, some of the earlier discussions focused on Lebanon, the country in the Middle East where Christians have the strongest public presence, and make up a large proportion of the population, estimated at being over 35 percent of inhabitants.

The IDC summit took place just less than two weeks after Crux’s John Allen and Inés San Martín spent several days in the country meeting some of the 1.5 million refugees from Syria who have fled to Lebanon.

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When we think of Syrian refugees, our minds automatically go to the debate about admitting 10,000 to the U.S. or the hundreds of thousands who have arrived in Europe. But the vast majority are in 4 countries: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and internally displaced in Syria itself.

Lebanese History of Peaceful Coexistence

Lebanon had just over 4 million people before the Syrian Civil War and currently houses about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. To put that into perspective, it would be as if the U.S. took in 90 million refugees.

Not only does such a large influx in a short period of time cause problems with any society, it is especially problematic in a country whose stability is based upon a delicate balance of power between ethno-religious groups.

Before the refugees came, Lebanon was between 35 and 40 percent Christian, with over half of these being in the Maronite Catholic or Greek Melkite Catholic Churches, and 55 percent of the population being Muslim, split almost evenly between Shi’a and Sunni.

Faith leaders attending the In Defense of Christians (IDC) summit on Christian persecution in Washington pray during an ecumenical prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Oct. 24. (Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann/Catholic Standard.)

The unique constitution of the country reserves political offices for members of various religious and cultural groups: The president is a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shi’a Muslim.

This balance is essential. As Andrew Walther of the Knights of Columbus said at the conference, “Without minorities in a country, pluralism and the concept of religious freedom can easily fall by the wayside.” (The Knights are a principal sponsor of Crux.)

During his visit to Lebanon, Allen called it “a real-time experiment for the possibilities in Christian relations.”

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Alexis Moukarzel is a Lebanese architect who used to direct the school of fine arts at the University of the Holy Spirit in Kaslik, Lebanon.

During the IDC conference, he spoke to Crux.

He said the different communities could each have their own agenda, but “most of them want Lebanon to be stabilized. If it was not like that you would have the spread of the Syrian civil war inside Lebanon.

“Islam in Lebanon is different than Islam anywhere else,” Moukarzel told Crux, “The Muslim in Lebanon knew how to deal with the Christian for a long time. So there is a certain consensus, understanding, and accepting of each other that is important.”

He said Lebanese Muslims seem more open to speaking of civil rights, and don’t put a barrier between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Moukarzel also noted that the bishops are the “guarantors” of dialogue.

“This dialogue is important, because it gives one opinion concerning two parties and it doesn’t happen like this elsewhere in the world,” he said.

“Don’t let [Lebanon’s balance] dissolve. You can’t recreate it,” Moukarzel warned. “Disrupting the balance is very dangerous in Lebanon.”

Moukarzel said the balance was somewhat shaky even before the present crisis.

“In Lebanon you have many layers of problems: We have basic problems, we have technical problems … we might have some bad politics, also. But there’s something that stabilizes Lebanon, and that’s a certain balance between the communities.”

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Moukarzel also said the Lebanese suspect some of the people coming into the country are not actual refugees, but economic migrants seeking a better chance at prosperity.

“Lebanon is a liberal country. It is a beautiful country. It has the highest level of education in the Middle East. It has opportunities and economics,” he explained.

The Crisis of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

The refugee crisis also reminds Lebanon of its own civil war, which began in 1975 and lasted for 15 years. Afterwards, Syria’s military continued to occupy the country until 2005.

One of the roots of this conflict was the Palestinian refugee crisis, which began after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and reached a tipping point when Jordan expelled the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

The vast majority of the Palestinian refugees were Muslim, and this shifted the delicate demographic balance in Lebanon.

There are concerns the current wave of Syrian refugees – who now make up a quarter of the population – could cause the same demographic upheaval.

Moukarzel said the wounds of Lebanon’s civil war are still fresh, and no one wants to pick at them.

“Each opponent, if he goes into such a war with another, even if he wins on the ground, he’s a loser: He’s a strategic loser,” he said.

Neemat Frem, CEO of the Lebanon-based Industrial Development Company, told the conference about the practical consequences of such a high percent of refugees.

“Our duty is to be next to the Syrian families. Since 2011 till now, we [Lebanese] have provided everything we can. We did not build camps, but we tried to have Syrians living in houses with Lebanese,” he said.

However, Frem noted how the infrastructure can’t absorb that many people. Problems stretch from the mundane, such as extra cars clogging the roads, to the tragic, including the fact 60 percent of Syrian refugee children aren’t in school simply because there isn’t room.

(One concrete example of this strain is the village of El-Kaa, where a local population of 2,500 absorbed 1,500 refugees. As reported in Crux’s special series on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, people stretch their few resources to try and provide for one another, but it is nearly impossible.)

Because of all of these factors, IDC advisory board member Tonia Khouri said, “Lebanon cannot be a long-term solution for displaced Syrian refugees.”

Charles Hage, the founder of IDC, said the international community can’t lose sight of the “right of refugees to return to their country of origin.”

The consensus after the discussion was that the best solution would be helping these refugees live in safe zones located with Syria itself.

Such zones would need to be more than an enhanced refugee camp. It would need to have job opportunities and the ability to attract people to live there permanently, and not just serve as a holding place for months, or even years.

A bill proposing the establishment of a safe zone was submitted to the U.S. Congress in April, but it is still in committee.