Main languages: Arabic (official), French, English, Armenian
Main religions: Muslims 57.7 per cent (28.7 per cent Sunni, 28.4 per cent Shi’a, smaller numbers of Alawites and Isma’ilis), Christians 36.2 per cent (Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic
Lebanon has always been known for its rich diversity of faiths. With a population of only 4.5 million people, the country hosts some 1.5 million refugees and officially recognizes 18 different religious communities among its population, though in reality its religious composition extends well beyond this, with smaller minorities including Bahá’i, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups. This diversity has also posed significant challenges. The country’s history, including a civil conflict between 1975 and 1989 that pitted different religious communities against each other, indicates the potential for religious tensions to escalate, especially in a broader context where sectarian violence threatens to create fault lines across the region.
Nevertheless, Lebanon has so far managed to avoid a return to the widespread violence of civil war. However, significant challenges and contradictions remain in place to this day, including the survival of much of Lebanon’s confessional political structure. As a result, religion continues to play a central role in Lebanese government and broader society. While the government officially recognizes 18 different religious groups in the country, including 12 Christian and four Muslim denominations, as well as the Druze faith and Judaism, not all of these groups are adequately represented within the confessional system. Furthermore, the tensions between dominant religious groups and the sectarian representational system, based on religious demography, frequently leads to a stalemate on issues such as nationality rights or the conduct of an official census, among others. Besides the larger Christian, Sunni and Shi’a denominations, many of the smaller religious groups find themselves under-represented or altogether excluded from the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.
The war in Syria has specifically had an impact on the country’s stability and raises questions about the future of its minorities. The relationships between Lebanon’s minority groups have been adversely affected, directly and indirectly, by the spillover from its neighbour’s conflict. After Türkiye, Lebanon has played the largest role internationally as a host to those fleeing the violence. Estimates suggest that up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees have settled in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict, meaning that some 20 – 25 per cent of those now residing in the country are Syrian. However, the Syrian refugee crisis has created significant strains in Lebanon, in the process bringing some of the country’s internal divisions to the surface, the country has so far managed to avoid an outbreak of large-scale sectarian conflict. The broad agreement among the different factions within Lebanon’s political system to prevent the development of sectarian divisions within Lebanese society has contributed positively to the country’s security, not withstanding the ongoing economic and governance challenges.
Nevertheless, the country remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks by extremist groups, including Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), with a series of bombings in recent years that included a double bombing in Beirut in November 2015 that killed as many as 89 civilians. In subsequent years the frequency and intensity of attacks appears to have reduced, however. There have also been reports of some sectarian tensions in some areas, including Tripoli, where more than half of the country’s Alawite population reside. The conflict in neighbouring Syria and the presence of militant groups have exacerbated these tensions which have at times resulted in violent clashes between sections of he Lebanese Sunni and Alawite communities, bringing the city almost to the brink of conflict.
Lebanon’s long history as host to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, as well as its complex relations with history and the active support that armed actors such as Hezbollah have given the Assad regime during the current conflict in Syria, have shaped its treatment of the Syrian refugee population. While the significant burden that this small country has shouldered as a sanctuary for a large share of Syria’s displaced population must be recognized and celebrated – Lebanon has, by some margin, the largest per capita refugee population in the world – its policies towards them have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. At the same time, the ongoing refugee crisis has exacerbated a number of internal tensions within Lebanese society.
Furthermore, though there is evidence of growing tensions between Lebanese and Syrian communities, rooted particularly in economic concerns such as employment, this is by no means the whole picture. Indeed, local civil society organizations have played an important role in bridging barriers between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees, offering both solidarity and humanitarian support. More broadly, too, various associations and citizen movements have attempted to challenge the wider backdrop of the country’s sectarian politics by offering an alternative vision of a secular, rights-based citizenship for all, regardless of religion.
Lebanon is a mountainous country lying on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It borders Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east.
During the Ottoman era, Lebanon was ruled as part of ‘Greater Syria’ alongside modern-day Jordan, Palestine and Syria. While the Ottoman decrees of 1839 and 1856 established equality for all religions, sectarian violence nevertheless persisted, most notably between the Christian and Druze communities of Greater Syria at the time. Following the end of World War I, France gained control of the area. Recognizing that unity in the region would threaten its military and political rule, colonial administrators sought to exploit divisions among the population.
France established Greater Lebanon in 1920 when it acquired the League of Nations mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The heart was the Mount Lebanon range, inhabited primarily by Maronites and Druze, who had enjoyed special status within the Ottoman Empire on account of France’s protective interest in the Maronites and other Catholics. France added surrounding parts of Syria, hoping to create a viable but predominantly Catholic and Francophile entity: (1) on the central coast, Beirut, Syria’s most important port, which was predominantly Sunni; (2) in the north, Tripoli, Syria’s second port, also mainly Sunni and its hinterland, the Akkar, peopled by Sunnis and Alawites, and the Kura, mainly Orthodox; (3) in the east, the rich Biqa’a valley, inhabited by various Christian and Muslim communities; and (4) in the south, the ports of Sidon (Sunni) and Tyre (Shi’a) and the latter’s mainly Shi’a hinterland. The Greek Catholics tended to favour French tutelage, and during the mandate period their small but powerful merchant community grew in Beirut.
While Maronite Christians and Greek Catholics looked to France and the Mediterranean world, most Muslims and Orthodox Christians looked to the Arab hinterland as their political lodestar. A carefully balanced political system based on the confessional proportions of the 1932 population Census aimed to bridge this fundamental divide. This arrangement continued following Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943 but came under increasing pressure from internal and external sources.
During the 1950s and 1960s Lebanon’s free trade economy developed rapidly, and the country resembled a city state as rural migrants flocked to Beirut, where the wealthy city centre contrasted with shanty areas populated by the new migrants. With different traditions juxtaposed in alien urban and highly cosmopolitan surroundings, confessional identities took on an adversarial potency they had lacked in the village. There was also growing resentment at the corrupt nature of an electoral system operated by patronage, run by cross-confessional alliances of powerful political families. By the end of the 1960s it was well known that the confessional ratio was changing rapidly in favour of Muslims in general and the Shi’a in particular.
Lebanon was also exposed to intense external pressure. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees arrived in 1948, amounting to 10 per cent of the country’s population. Palestine was the central issue of Arab nationalism, and in the 1950s Lebanon could not escape a domestic divide on the issue mirroring that in the wider Arab world between pro-Western and non-aligned Arab nationalist camps. In 1958 civil war was narrowly averted after brief fighting. The build-up of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrilla operations from south Lebanon after 1967 brought Israeli reprisals, called into question the government’s sovereignty, and heightened the internal conflict between the mainly Maronite camp, joined by most Greek Catholics, that wished to maintain the political status quo and avoid embroilment in the Palestine conflict, and the mainly Muslim camp that was interested in constitutional change, was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, believed in Arab nationalism and felt Lebanon should not evade its ‘Arab duty’. Most Greek Orthodox also responded to the Arab dimension of the Palestine question.
In 1975 these tensions exploded in civil war between two broad camps, the mainly Christian ‘rightist’ Lebanese Front and the mainly Muslim and Arab nationalist ‘leftist’ National Movement, also supported by Palestinian groups and many in the Greek Orthodox community. The war was characterized by the kidnap, rape and massacre of those caught in the wrong place as each side eliminated ‘enemy’ enclaves – mainly Christian or Muslim low-income areas. Syrian intervention in support of the Maronite government beginning in 1976 stabilized the military situation although many people argued that the Syrians manipulated the various factions in order to sustain their hegemony. In 1978 Israel invaded the south in order to deal with the PLO. Under US pressure, and under United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, Israel was required to withdraw completely and unconditionally later in 1978, but left advisers and a surrogate Maronite force in southern Lebanon. However, by the end of the 1970s, the Maronite Church and hitherto supportive Greek Catholic Patriarchate were increasingly uncomfortable with the Maronite political leadership’s alliances with Israel and the USA.
In 1982 Israel invaded again with the aim of destroying the PLO, which it besieged in West Beirut. It killed upwards of 19,000 people, of whom not more than 5,000 were combatants.
Israel was obliged to withdraw as a result of guerrilla attacks by Lebanese resistance forces, but occupied a portion of southern Lebanon, assisted by its local surrogate, the South Lebanon Army. At each phase of withdrawal Israel achieved further social fragmentation. The Druze drove the Maronites out of the Shuf mountains as soon as Israel withdrew in 1983, and from the villages near Sidon the following year. In both cases Israel had encouraged Maronite forces to provoke local Muslims.
Meanwhile, Syria drove the PLO from Lebanon, while Druze and Shi’a cooperated with Syrian policy: the Druze drove Sunni fighters off the streets of Beirut, while Shi’a forces ruthlessly attacked the Palestinian camps to prevent PLO recovery. Both the Maronite and Shi’a communities also fell victim to internal power struggles.
Having defeated Israel in the competition to dominate Lebanon, Syria made repeated attempts to reconstitute the country politically, to achieve stability while bringing Lebanon more closely under its control. For some Lebanese, this was a positive step forward, whilst for others, it meant the consolidation of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. In 1989, Syria prodded Lebanese parliamentarians into talks in Saudi Arabia that pledged to re-apportion confessional representation in government and eventually abolish it.
In 1990 Syrian forces defeated Christian opponents of Ta’if in a final round of fighting in Beirut. In the face of Syrian determination, the various militias stood down, allowing the Lebanese army to deploy throughout the country except for Hezbollah-controlled areas and Israeli-occupied south Lebanon. It seemed the civil war might be over, at an estimated cost of 150,000 lives. The Armenian community, which had generally avoided participation in the war, nonetheless experienced heavy emigration as a result of it because virtually every family had relatives well placed in more stable and prosperous countries.
Throughout the 1990s, with tacit international acceptance, Syria dominated Lebanese government, including the presidency, security forces and the judiciary. In May 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, rampant corruption exacted a heavy toll on the Lebanese economy.
In 2003 and 2004, amid growing domestic protests against Syria’s role in Lebanon, international acceptance of Syria’s broad control ended, with Washington, Paris, then other European governments calling for Syrian withdrawal. In September 2004 the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for Syria to pull out, new elections and the disarming of militias whilst that same month the Lebanese parliament voted to extend the term of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud by another three years. Opposition to Syrian dominance grew, and attracted the support of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a onetime ally of Damascus.
In February 2005 a massive car bomb killed Hariri and 22 others, sparking immediate suspicion of Syrian involvement. The assassination galvanized opposition to Syrian control in Lebanon, and Sunni, Druze and elements of the Christian community took to the streets. Meanwhile, in smaller numbers, Lebanese largely from the Shi’a and elements of the Maronite Christian communities, demonstrated in support of Syria. The March 2005 ‘Cedar Revolution’ culminated in Syria’s withdrawal of forces in April 2005 and an opposition takeover of parliament the following month.
In July 2006, Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon abducted two Israeli soldiers along the two countries’ border, sparking a fierce Israeli military assault on Lebanon. While the brunt of the attack came in the Hezbollah stronghold in the heavily Shi’a south, from where the organization had long fired rockets indiscriminately into Israel, it extended to most parts of Lebanon. Lebanon was cut off from the outside world through a naval blockade and the bombing of runways at Beirut airport, as well as strategic road infrastructure throughout the country. The bombings, and an Israeli ground invasion, continued into August 2006, as did Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel. The conflict killed over 1,100 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians, and displaced tens of thousands of Lebanese.
In the aftermath of the war, Lebanon’s recently booming tourist industry was left in tatters, and the country’s sharp economic decline contributed to resentment among non-Shi’a Muslims of Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, increasingly blamed for provoking the war.
In June 2007, a bomb blast in Beirut killed an anti-Syrian member of parliament, a Sunni, and nine others. Another bomb in the Christian heartland of Lebanon killed another anti-Syrian MP, a Maronite, together with six others in September. It was the seventh in the string of such killings beginning with Hariri’s. The blast also reduced the government’s majority in parliament to two seats. Amid allegations of voting irregularities, a pro-Syrian Maronite Christian won a by-election in August for the seat of anti-Syrian MP Pierre Gemayel who had been shot to death in November 2006.
That election was viewed as a crucial test of which faction would prevail in the election of a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud when his term ended in November 2007. The position, reserved for a Maronite Christian, was to be filled by an election in parliament in September, but Shi’a parliamentarians boycotted the vote, saying that no suitable consensus candidate could be found. The delays in appointing a president continued into 2008, with the Arab League resolving to send its Secretary General in January to try to break the deadlock.
Fighting erupted in May 2008 between Hezbollah and its sympathizers on one side and Sunni and Druze pro-government forces on the other, bringing the country to the brink of civil war. The death toll reached 81, the highest in any month since the 1975-1990 civil war. In the wake of the crisis, the parliament finally settled on a president in late May, electing army head Michel Suleiman to the position. Despite the agreement, many Lebanese worried that the new violence was leading the country towards the type of deepened sectarian division seen in Iraq. These fears were compounded in June 2008 as the new president was still unable to forge agreement on a unity government among the various factions, and sectarian clashes continued in the country’s second-largest city, Tripoli. There, pro-government Sunnis fought against pro-Syrian, pro-Hezbollah Alawites as the army and police struggled to contain the situation. Gunfire between militants on the two sides, house burnings, and a bomb planted in a Sunni apartment building claimed at least ten lives and wounded dozens.
Ending an 18-month period of political crisis in the country, the May 2008 Doha Agreement made minor adjustments to governance structures in Lebanon. The formation of a unity government in 2009, however, predictably confirmed that confessionalism and a broader division between the two main political blocs prevailed in the country. April 2010 saw an unprecedented development in Lebanon: in a climate of heightened sectarian tensions, hundreds of young Lebanese took part in public demonstrations in favour of secularism. While in 2011 Lebanon did not experience popular uprisings similar to those elsewhere in the region, the April 2010 events would in many ways be a precursor to further mobilization of politically non-aligned, mostly-secular activists who in October 2012 demanded sectarian politics be jettisoned in favour of a civil state.
For Lebanon, unlike the case in Syria, the year 2011 did not so much mark the eruption of major political upheaval generated from within the country. Yet a spillover effect from the conflict in neighbouring Syria has rippled though political society in Lebanon and significantly inflamed inter-communal tensions. Recurrent deadly clashes have taken place in the streets of Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites – the former generally supportive of Syrian opposition groups, and the latter backing the Syrian government – and militants have gone to Syria for the purpose of fighting alongside the opposition. Hezbollah fighters, meanwhile, have entered Syria in order to provide direct military support to their erstwhile ally, the Assad regime.
In the summer of 2012, deadly clashes took place in the streets of Tripoli and Beirut between Sunnis and Alawites – the former generally supportive of Syrian opposition groups, and the latter backing the Syrian government – and Sunni militants have gone to Syria for the purpose of fighting alongside the opposition. Shi’a Hezbollah fighters, meanwhile, have entered Syria in order to provide direct military support, most crucially in the June 2013 battle of Qusair, to the Assad regime.
Contending perceived interests between Lebanese Shi’a and Sunnis have led to increased hostility and a deepening rift between elements in each of the two groups, which resulted in gun battles in Sidon in autumn of 2012. In August 2013, animosity between sectarian groups culminated in massive violence. Seemingly in response to Hezbollah’s involvement in supporting Assad’s forces, a bombing carried out by a Sunni militant group killed nearly 30 people in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. Reprisals followed, and one week later, two Sunni mosques were bombed in Tripoli, killing 47 people and injuring more than 500. Regarded as the biggest and deadliest attack since the Lebanese civil war, the Tripoli bombings were widely perceived by locals as targeting the Sunni community, and while responsibility was never claimed, Hezbollah and the Assad regime were considered to be responsible. A series of smaller-scale attacks and car-bombings occurred throughout the country in 2013-14, in many cases perpetrated by Salafi Sunnis against Hezbollah targets, Shi’a civilians and the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese army, attempting to assert state authority, has been drawn into the conflict as well. In the summer of 2014, the army was embroiled in clashes with Syrian al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra rebels in the Biqaa valley, particularly around the town of Arsal. Al-Nusra supporters – of which there were many in the Arsal area – called for the militant group to occupy Beirut, a decidedly unwelcome suggestion for the vast majority of Lebanese.
Under French rule, Lebanon’s informal political Constitution was based on its unrepeated official Census of 1932. Out of a then-population of 785,543, Christians made up 52 per cent (Maronites 29 per cent, Greek Orthodox 10 per cent, Greek Catholics 6 per cent, Armenians 4 per cent, Latins, Protestants and others 3 per cent). Muslims made up 48 per cent (Sunnis 22 per cent, Shi’a 19 per cent, Druze 7 per cent).
While Lebanon’s history of confessionalism – a form of consociationalism where political and institutional power is distributed among various religious communities – can be traced further back, its current form is based on the unwritten and somewhat controversial agreement known as the National Pact. Developed in 1943 by Lebanon’s dominant religious communities (predominantly its Christian and Sunni Muslim populations), its stated objectives were to unite Lebanon’s religious faiths under a single national identity. It laid the ground for a division of power along religious lines, even if many claim it was done in an unbalanced manner. The National Pact relied on the 1932 population Census, the last official census to have been conducted in Lebanon, to allocate parliamentary seats between Lebanese Christians and Muslims on the basis of a 6-to-5 ratio respectively.
Within the Muslim communities some desired to be more closely associated with the Arabism of Syria, but others accepted the idea of a multi-confessional Lebanese polity. Leading Sunni families tended to support the latter viewpoint and became part of a Maronite-Sunni establishment that dominated Lebanon. Within the Christian community, some viewed Lebanon as primarily a Christian homeland, for which continued French protection was crucial, while others sought a national Lebanese identity, to which all confessions could give assent.
With the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, which lasted for 15 years, the fragile nature of Lebanon’s inter-confessional entente and the rising discontent of various religious communities became too apparent to ignore. In November 1989, the ‘Document of National Accord’ was ratified in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia. While the Ta’if Agreement, as it is known, has been credited by some with ending the long civil war, it was in reality only made possible by a general readiness among the warring parties to cease hostilities and a broader regional and international commitment to ending the conflict. Under Syrian pressure, a quorum of surviving Lebanese deputies from the 1972 parliament met in Ta’if and accepted a new formula to replace the National Pact. The Charter of National Reconstruction proposed to reduce the Maronite presidency to essentially titular powers; vest the cabinet (which would be half Muslim, half Christian) and Prime Minister with executive power; enlarge the Chamber of Deputies and ensure 50:50 Christian/Muslim participation; and eventually abolish confessionalism in political life. It also entrenched Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Despite the relative peace the Ta’if Agreement created, Lebanon’s various communities have since been in an almost constant state of alert, with the threat of war and internal strife often exploited by its political elite. Inter-sectarian tensions have been on the rise, particularly since the inception of the conflict in Syria and its increasing inter-religious dimensions over the last few years. As deputies are elected on the basis of their religious affiliation, they serve as de facto representatives of their religious communities, rather than seeking a common national interest. This has a direct impact on minorities, who are seldom represented or considered as a priority. Those who are unrepresented fall into the gaps of a rigid representational system.
For a religion in Lebanon to be officially registered, it first has to gain formal recognition by submitting a statement of doctrine and moral principles. Followers of an unrecognized religious community can register under one of the 18 recognized faith groups to secure equal access to their rights. Those who belong to minorities that are not recognized in Lebanon are also allowed to freely follow their beliefs and religious practices. Article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution protects ‘absolute freedom of conscience’ without any reference to recognition. It further protects ‘the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed’ and guarantees that ‘the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected’.
Article 7 of the Constitution stipulates that ‘all Lebanese shall be equal before the law’ and enjoy the same civil and political rights. Yet despite all the assurances present in the Constitution, Lebanon’s laws are tailored in favour of recognized religions, and specifically the dominant ones. In practice, belonging to an unrecognized religious group in Lebanon means its members are invisible in some areas of life. For example, in line with the country’s sectarian political system, members of unrecognized religious groups are not allowed to take governmental positions, run for office or engage in higher public functions. Furthermore, most voters need to register under one of the recognized religions in order to access voting polls. Although the Ta’if Agreement recognized the need to overcome the confessional system in the future and have representation based on ‘merit and competence’, as stipulated by the Constitution, equality in civil and political rights still remains elusive 25 years on.
As religious courts control personal status and family law in Lebanon, these inequalities extend into the private sphere. Without official recognition, members of unregistered religions cannot marry, divorce or inherit according to their own rules, nor in a civil court since the latter does not exist for issues pertaining to personal status. To undertake formal proceedings, they must therefore resort to the courts of recognized groups or leave the country to access them elsewhere.
Southern Lebanon has remained largely under the de facto governance of Shi’a organizations Hezbollah and Amal. Hezbollah maintains its militia – in so doing, drawing ire from many in the country who would prefer Hezbollah’s influence diminished – and both groups play a prime role in providing social services.
Updated May 2020
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