The plight of Middle East Christians took me back to Lebanon
I returned to the place I was held hostage to help the hundreds of
thousands of Christians fleeing Syria, Iraq and Egypt


Terry Waite
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 11 December 2012 09.30 GMT
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/11/terry-waite-plight-christians-lebanon?INTCMP=SRCH

A Syrian man shows marks of torture inflicted after rebels took
control of a Christian area of Aleppo. Photograph: James Lawler
Duggan/AFP/Getty Images
Last week I returned to Lebanon, a quarter of a century after being
kidnapped and held captive for almost five years, most of the time
chained to a wall and denied many basic comforts. You might think such
a trip foolhardy, but the crisis developing there desperately needs
attention.

I had been invited to go back to see for myself the plight of the many
Christian refugees who are flooding across the Syrian/Lebanese border,
and travelled to the Bekaa Valley to visit the refugees who have been
forced into exile from Syria. The situation there is tragic. Syria has
a unique and rich history of religious diversity and tolerance, and in
the past Christians and Muslims have shared the same place of worship.
Since the beginning of Islam, they have lived in relative harmony -
but the war is pushing Christians out, and many believe there will be
no way back.

Worthy as the proponents of political change may be, there are now
elements of the Arab spring that have been hijacked by Islamic
extremists who want to impose sharia law and banish Syrian Christians,
who make up about 10% of the population. This has created a very
hostile environment for minorities. I met refugee families living in
dire circumstances in Lebanese border towns, and heard first hand
their harrowing stories.

In the early 20th century, Christians made up to 20% of the population
in the Middle East; that figure has now dwindled to around 5%. Before
the Arab spring Christians in Syria were businesspeople, engineers,
lawyers and pharmacists. While Assad brutally restricted political
freedoms, the regime did allow the Syrian people religious freedom -
more so than elsewhere in the Middle East. Now Christians are leaving
the country. The occupied territories of Palestine are also rapidly
losing their Christian communities. Egypt is in turmoil with a series
of anti-Coptic Christian riots; Libya is a disaster. In Iraq 300,000
Christians have fled persecution since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
An estimated 100,000 Christians have left Syria, many to border towns
like al-Qaa. Lebanon is the last country in the Middle East where
Christians can live in relative peace and security.

Al-Qaa is a dusty, somewhat ramshackle town which has been the scene
of numerous border clashes across the years. It is here that many of
the Christian families who have escaped from the terrors of warfare in
Syria find a temporary home. More than 200 families are housed in and
around al-Qaa, mainly being taken into the homes of other Christian
families or renting properties. The people I met were not well off.
Families I visited told similar stories. The conflict had become so
severe that they had been forced to leave their homes. In one place,
there were 15 people living in four small rooms. "The Arab spring is a
joke," said one of the refugees. "It has become another form of
persecution."

Leaving al-Qaa, I travelled to Zahle, another border town, to talk
with the Melkite archbishop, John Darwish. A mild-mannered and gentle
man, he is gravely concerned about the breakdown in relationships in
Syria and the number of refugees flocking into Lebanon. He told me of
a remarkable agreement that took place in 2006 between Hezbollah, the
group that abducted me, and the Free Patriotic Movement, a mainstream
Christian political party, which counts many members from the
Christian enclave of al-Qaa.

Cynics might regard this agreement as being nothing more than
political expediency, and of course the politics of the situation does
play heavily in the situation. However, it may well be that this
agreement paves the way for the only solution possible for Lebanon,
and indeed for the surrounding countries. Given the ethnic and
religious mix in Lebanon, the only sensible solution is for the
different communities to respect each other and live and work together
for the good of the country.

Forgiveness is a central Christian teaching. With this in mind, I
sought and obtained a meeting with a senior official from Hezbollah
and spent two hours in discussion with him. Hezbollah has a negative
image in the west, and there are those who will accuse me of
consorting with terrorists. I would remind them that Hezbollah has
grown into a fully fledged political party with seats in Lebanon's
parliament, and is now in a unique position to work for peace in the
region. I made a special request for Hezbollah to give assistance to
the Syrian and Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon, especially at
Christmas time. This request was favourably received.

We met late at night, in an anonymous apartment block in south Beirut,
probably less than a mile from where I was held all those years ago,
although I will never be certain where my underground cell was
located. It was initially difficult: why was I there? What did I want?
But as we spoke over coffee and apple juice, things lightened as I
explained that my little act of reconciliation with them could portend
a hundred other, bigger acts of peace for this region and all its
peoples.

Almost two hours passed and the atmosphere relaxed considerably. They
invited me to return to Lebanon when I would be able to meet other
people from Hezbollah, an invitation I said that I would be happy to
accept. I left Lebanon early the next morning for London, having taken
a few steps forward both personally and on behalf of others. Old
grudges and conflicts need to be confined to the past and all groups
within the country need to be encouraged and supported to move forward
together.

>From a Christian perspective, Lebanon is rapidly becoming the only
remaining country in the whole of the Middle East where there is a
significant Christian presence. It will take plenty of acts of
reconciliation before Christians once again feel safe in their
homeland.