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 [Melkites), Armenian Orthodox, Protestant and others), Druze (5.2 per cent), Jews , Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus. These figures are estimates; the last official Census was conducted in 1932, so there are no official figures available. The percentages concern Lebanese citizens and do not include the large Syrian and Palestinian refugee populations.
Main minority groups: Palestinians (175,000 – 450,000), Druze 5.2 per cent, Armenian 4 per cent, Kurds (less than 1 per cent)
The above figures, with the exception of the Palestinians (who are regarded as transitory and denied Lebanese citizenship) refer to Lebanon’s official population of approximately 4.5 million. However, up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees are also now residing in the country. Though the large majority are Sunni Muslim, the Syrian refugee population is not homogeneous and includes Syrian Alawites, Christians, Shi’a, Druze, Isma’ilis and Yezidis, all of whom have sought refuge in Lebanon.
Lebanon is a country of minorities with no single dominant group. Demographics are controversial, and there has been no population census since 1932. Some minority groups are defined primarily by religion and others by ethnicity, although most communities in Lebanon and throughout the region do not necessarily like to be described as ‘minorities’.
There are historical precedents for significant numbers of refugees receiving sanctuary (and subsequently citizenship) in Lebanon, the earliest and largest being Armenians fleeing Ottoman persecution after World War I. Armenians now form roughly 4 per cent of the Lebanese population and have integrated well into Lebanese society. Smaller groups of Christian denominations that came to Lebanon around the same time, such as Assyrians and Syriacs, were also welcomed and naturalized.
More than a quarter of Lebanese are Shi’a and live in three principal concentrations: their two traditional heartlands in the northern half of the Biqa’a and Jabal Amil, the region east of Tyre; and in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the country. A similar number of Sunnis are concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and in the countryside of the Akkar and the central Biqa’a. Lebanon is home to the Maronite Church, and a population of over 850,000 Maronites. The Druze are located mainly in the
Matn, Gharb and Shuf, and smaller communities in Wadi al-Taym in southern Lebanon and in Beirut. Armenians are concentrated mainly in north Beirut, Tripoli and at Anjar in the Biqa’a, and Alawites in Tripoli and the Akkar.
Estimates suggest that Greek Orthodox Christians make up some 8 per cent of the Lebanese population, almost all of them Arabs. From the seventh century the Greek Orthodox with the Sunnis formed the core population of coastal towns and plain, with Orthodox concentrations in Kura, south of Tripoli, and in several mixed villages of the Gharb and Shuf (the mountains immediately east and south of Beirut). Like Greek Catholics, the Orthodox were noted merchants and bankers, prominent in the marketing of manufactured goods. Until 1917 they enjoyed the ‘protection’ of Tsarist Russia, and discreet ties with Russia survived through the Soviet period. Tensions between Orthodox and Catholics in Lebanon, based on different doctrine, politics and culture, also reflected Franco-Russian rivalry for pre-eminence in Greater Syria. From the late nineteenth century the Orthodox played a major role in the Arab nationalist, literary and cultural revival. Because of the sizeable community inland, many Orthodox supported Syrian Arab nationalism. The idea of Greater Syria appealed as a multi-confessional world in which the Orthodox could play a significant role, hopefully dominated neither by the Francophile Catholic dimension of Lebanon, nor by the Islamic tendency of the wider Arab world. The political vehicle of Syrian nationalism, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, became closely identified with the community in Lebanon, though some Orthodox joined secular leftist parties.
Greek Catholics (or Melkites) are estimated at around 5 per cent of the Lebanese population. They left the Orthodox Church to acknowledge the supremacy of Rome in 1683 (formalized in 1724 when the Patriarchate of Antioch fell vacant and they elected their own patriarch). While this departure resulted from French missionary influence, it also reflected resentment of Greek management of an essentially Arab church. Many Greek Catholics left inland Syria for Lebanon to avoid Orthodox harassment and benefit from trade prospects. During the nineteenth century they became concentrated in and outnumbered the Druze of Zahleh in the Biqa’a. Zahleh was the scene of fierce conflict between Catholics and Druze in 1860. Smaller communities exist in Sidon and Tyre.
Palestinians live mainly in Beirut and the outskirts of Sidon, Tyre and Tripoli. Many of them still live in refugee camps, and some lack identification papers.
Armenians, estimated at around 4 per cent of the Lebanese population, are concentrated mainly in north Beirut, Tripoli and at Anjar in the Biqa’a. The first Armenians to arrive were Cilician Catholics in the eighteenth century, escaping the harassment of the Armenian Orthodox Church from which they had
split. Many more arrived in flight from massacre by the Turks in 1895-6 and the greater genocide of 1915. Yet more came when France failed to establish an Armenian entity in Cilicia in 1920-1921, and the final influx arrived from Alexandretta when France handed this to Turkey in 1939. The Armenians were welcomed by the Maronite leadership to enlarge the Christian population and were offered Lebanese citizenship. Lebanon became the principal focus of the Armenian diaspora, and Beirut or its environs became the seat of the Orthodox Catholics, the Catholic patriarch, and also the Armenian Evangelical Church.
There are small communities of Alawite Muslims in Tripoli and the Akkar, perhaps numbering 100,000. Some are indigenous to the region and others entered the country after the Syrian intervention in 1976.
Kurdish workers arrived in Lebanon from Syria in the 1950s and 1960s, and their population currently numbers more than 25,000, mainly in Beirut. Unlike the Kurds in neighbouring countries, Kurds in Lebanon have not played any pivotal role in the political life of Lebanon, and like Palestinians, Kurds lack civil rights.
There are also very small Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish communities in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s religious diversity in reality extends well beyond the 18 recognized faiths. For many years Lebanon has also hosted a number of small religious groups that are unrecognized and therefore remain for many reasons unknown, even to the country’s inhabitants. These include, but are not limited to, Bahá’i, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (locally known as Mormons) and various Protestant evangelical groups. The wars in Iraq and Syria have also resulted in a number of smaller minorities finding shelter in Lebanon, such as Zoroastrians, and even some displaced Yezidis.
Updated June 2019
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 Turkey, 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.
Updated June 2019
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 June 2019
Founded by Bahá’u’lláh in Persia in the nineteenth century, the Bahá’i faith is a monotheistic religion whose core belief is unity. Today, although their numbers are officially unknown, there are only a few hundred members living in Lebanon.
Bahá’i are thought to have first settled in Lebanon in around 1870. Though the community have struggled with a history of persecution in a number of countries, such as Iran and Egypt, they have avoided a similar fate in Lebanon and are allowed to practise their faith, hold religious ceremonies and assemble freely. Nevertheless, despite having existed for decades in Lebanon, the community is still unrecognized. Members of the faith commonly conclude civil marriages outside of the country and are often registered under another faith.
One positive step occurred in February 2009, when a circular by the Ministry of the Interior formally allowed all Lebanese to remove their religion from their national identity cards and civil registry papers. However, this was widely seen as a cosmetic move, as it was not paralleled by a reform in family or personal status law. Religious authorities continue to have full control over these areas of life. As this measure alone does not address the deeper roots of discrimination, institutional barriers and lack of implementation persist.
The Bahá’i faith is not officially recognized in Lebanon. As a result, like members of other unregistered religions, Bahá’i 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. Marriage is one of the areas where this is felt most sharply: Bahá’i report that it has been a common practice for decades for members of their community to leave the country and go to Cyprus, for instance, in order to marry.
If they are converts, members of these various unrecognized communities continue to be, in most cases, registered under their previous faith of origin in Lebanon. Therefore, most of them continue to vote, inherit and otherwise follow the personal status codes of the main recognized religious communities. Bahá’i report that their other religious denomination usually stems from the government registries, where many of them were kept under the original religion from which they converted to the Bahá’i faith. Only a very small number of Bahá’i have their faith mentioned on their national identify card. Consequently, most of them are still registered as Shi’a, with others registered as Sunni, Christian and a small number as Druze.
Druze are estimated at 5.2 per cent of the Lebanese population and are located mainly in the Matn, Gharb and Shuf, and smaller communities in Wadi al-Taym in southern Lebanon and in Beirut. Druze are ethnically Arab and Arabic speaking. Their monotheistic religion incorporates many beliefs from Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and is also influenced by Greek philosophy and Hinduism. Druze have not proselytized since the 11th century, and the religion remains closed to outsiders.
The Druze faith emerged from the batini or esoteric tradition of the Isma’ili faith in the early eleventh century, when a small group of Isma’ilis hailed the Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim (996-1021), as the mahdi (or Guided One) and manifestation of God in his unity; hence they call themselves al-muwahhidun (Unitarians). Persecuted in Egypt, they gained footholds in the Shuf and Wadi al-Taym.
Politically, Druze enjoyed supremacy in the Gharb and neighbouring areas from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, when certain Druze clans gained ascendancy in Mount Lebanon and the Ma’an dynasty was acknowledged by the Ottomans as the family through which to control an unruly region.
Druze hegemony over Mount Lebanon declined in the eighteenth and disintegrated in the nineteenth century, the result of internal conflict between ascriptive kinship groups, later exploited by external rulers, who sought to introduce taxation. Decline also reflected progressive demographic and economic ascendancy by the Maronite and Greek Catholic communities, mainly from inland Syria, and the failure of the religious leadership to provide cohesive direction to the community. Many Druze left Mount Lebanon for the Hawran in the nineteenth century and benefited from British support in the same way that the Maronites benefited from French support.
Druze resented the French creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920, with its institutionalized Catholic ascendancy and the formal political separation of Lebanese and Syrian Druze. Several leading Druze had strongly supported the short-lived kingdom of Syria. However, they accepted the inevitable, playing a fuller part in Lebanese political life than their community size might have suggested.
Under Kemal Junblat, the Druze community espoused Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause in the 1960s, though they were careful not to allow Palestinians a foothold in the Druze Shuf. Junblat’s Druze-dominated Progressive Socialist Party advocated the deconfessionalization of Lebanese political life, since he could thereby acquire greater influence for himself and the community. Given the socio-economic pressures in Lebanon and the psychology these engendered, Junblat’s vision remained an ideal for which the leftists fought with declining credibility during the civil war. Druze supported Junblat’s non-confessional ideas, primarily because he was their leader, and acted with greater communal solidarity than any other group. After his assassination by Syrian agents, his son Walid succeeded as community leader. Until 1982 the Druze managed to keep the civil war almost entirely outside the Shuf, but that year the Israeli invaders introduced the Maronite Lebanese Forces militia into the area. The moment Israel withdrew, the Druze rose and expelled not only the Lebanese Forces but also the Christian inhabitants of the Shuf. During the 1980s they created a virtually independent state in the Gharb, Shuf and southern Matn. They also displaced the Sunni militia in West Beirut. They reluctantly accepted the 1989 Ta’if agreement and encouraged the return of expelled Christians, but on the strict understanding of Druze hegemony in the Shuf. They disliked the Syrian presence and quietly buried their enthusiasm for Arab nationalism.
Druze political unity has come under challenge in past years, with pro- and anti-Syrian factions developing. In April and July 2006, shooting incidents between rival Druze factions, divided over the Syria issue, killed one and injured seven. Druze are allocated eight seats in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament, roughly commensurate with the Druze percentage of the country’s population.
Conflict in Syria from 2011 has fed into existential fears held by Lebanon’s Druze community, in part due to attacks on the Syrian Druze community by militant groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Against this backdrop, rival Lebanese Druze leaders Walid Junblat and Talal Arslan, whose parties have historically held differing views on matters related to the Assad government, have taken the unusual step of speaking together at ceremonies and have more generally strived to present a united stance.
Ithna’ashari (Twelver) Shi’a are estimated to comprise 28.4 per cent of the Lebanese population, in three principal concentrations: their two traditional heartlands in the northern half of the Biqa’a and Jabal Amil, the region east of Tyre; and in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The Shi’a heartlands were probably originally a refuge from the Sunni-dominated interior of Syria. Jabal Amil has been noted for centuries for the scholarship of its religious leaders.
The Shi’a were not as hostile as Sunnis to their inclusion in Lebanon in 1920. For them the pill was sweetened since France formally recognized the Shi’a as a distinct confession, something Sunni regimes had never done. However, the Shi’a remained on the political and economic periphery, except for a few wealthy landlord families representing the community in parliament. This began to change rapidly when the trickle of Shi’a migrants to Beirut turned into a flood in the 1960s. By 1975 40 per cent of the Shi’a of Jabal Amil had moved to Beirut, where they became acutely aware of their comparative poverty. The Biqa’a and Jabal Amil communities, which never had much contact before, began to fuse and become politicized in the slum quarters of Beirut.
Politically, migrant Shi’a began to challenge their old leaders and turned to leaders of the Lebanese and Palestinian left until two factors threw them back on their own resources. First, the Palestinian war against Israel launched from southern Lebanon brought savage reprisals which drove a wedge between the two peoples. Second, a politically articulate clerical leadership emerged, principally in the person of the charismatic Imam Musa as-Sadr. Although many Shi’a died during the civil war, they only became major participants after the Israeli invasion in 1978. They humiliated the rightist Maronite regime
installed by Israel and attacked Israeli forces, which had turned from ‘liberator’ (from the PLO) to occupier of the Shi’a heartland.
Amal, the main Shi’a militia, took a pragmatic view of Lebanese politics. It worked in cooperation with Syria to prevent any armed Palestinian recovery, dominating Beirut’s southern suburbs. But in the south a more visionary movement emerged, Hezbollah (Party of God), which drew inspiration (and assistance) from the revolution in Iran and advocated an Islamic republic. While Amal soft-pedalled its war against Israel, Hezbollah undertook a bitter struggle, vowing ‘to liberate Jerusalem’. Amal and Hezbollah fought inconclusively for undisputed leadership of the Shi’a in the mid-1980s. In practice both contain a spectrum of outlooks, from the pragmatic to the more visionary. Hezbollah knows that whatever its rhetoric concerning the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon, in practice it cannot impose a formula unacceptable to the other confessions, which collectively still easily outnumber the Shi’a.
Following the devastation of the July 2006 war with Israel, a backlash among Sunni Arabs along with some Christians and Druze further reduced what remained of Hezbollah’s standing as a protector of the nation – a status it had achieved in the early days of Israeli bombing.
In late 2006, Hezbollah withdrew all Shi’a members of government and launched major protests in Beirut demanding a larger Shi’a voice in Lebanese affairs, commensurate with its share of the country’s population. Although Shi’a constitute around 27 per cent of the population (or more, according to some claims), they are apportioned only 21 per cent of the seats in parliament.
There has been a softening of attitudes in Lebanon towards the longstanding politically divisive issue of Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm. This is attributable to a spate of attacks in Lebanon perpetrated by Salafi Sunni jihadists against Hezbollah targets, Shi’a civilians, as well as the Lebanese army. Given the incapacity or unwillingness of others, including the Lebanese army, to provide safety and security, Hezbollah’s security narrative has insisted Lebanese Shi’a can rely only on themselves for protection. Sympathy for this view has shaped a unified outlook among many Lebanese Shi’a, as this understanding has become increasingly compelling not only for fervent Hezbollah supporters, but for many apolitical and avowedly secular Shi’a as well.
During the 1960s, there were thousands of Lebanese Jews living in the country. They resided all over the country and were mainly known as the inhabitants of the area of Wadi Abu Jmil in downtown Beirut. Officially referred to as ‘Israelis’ or sometimes as Mousawiyyin – literally ‘the followers of Moses’ – Lebanon’s Jews have mostly left the country as a result of social pressure, unpunished violence against them, fears of persecution and the various wars with Israel, which have had a significant impact on their existence in the country.
There are no official estimates as to the size of Lebanon’s remaining Jewish community today. While estimates suggest that there are now only 200–500 Jews in the whole country, Jewish community representatives have reported that the figure could be as low as 100. Most have chosen to change their names and do not reveal their religious identity out of fear of persecution.
Unlike other Arab countries, where Jews were declared unwelcome following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Lebanon did not expel its Jewish population. During the 1960s, Lebanon’s Jewish population numbered a few thousand and even grew as a result of migration from neighbouring Arab countries following the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. In Beirut, the city’s Jewish population was centred in the neighbourhood of Wadi Abu Jmil, west of the city centre.
Yet, despite this initial increase in the Jewish population, the defeat of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war created increasing uncertainty for Lebanon’s Jewish population. Growing anti-Israeli sentiment drove attacks against Jews in Lebanon and the onset of the civil war in 1975 put their future into further doubt. Many migrated as a result, leaving much of their property and old way of life behind. Wadi Abu Jmil was emptied of its population, and the beautiful synagogue of Maguen Abraham, once the centre of the community, was closed down and subsequently damaged by Israeli bombardment during the war.
Due to their small size and political marginalization, the Lebanese Jewish community has become invisible and its future in Lebanon becomes more uncertain by the day. Jewish synagogues and cemeteries were closed down and heavily damaged by the war or desecrated. The last official Jewish rabbi left Lebanon after the onset of the civil war and no religious official authority remains today. Like many of Lebanon’s smaller religious groups, they are excluded from the country’s sectarian power-sharing system. Acts of vandalism against Jewish-owned cemeteries and hate speech linking Jewish communities with Israel and Zionism have continued since the war, encouraging a climate of hostility towards the country’s few remaining Jews.
The surviving legacy of Lebanon’s Jewish community in the capital, Beirut, has also been threatened by the city’s rapid redevelopment over the past two decades. In 1994, the privately-owned Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District, otherwise known as Solidere, took on the task of reconstructing and developing the city centre. Although it is impossible to know the exact number of Lebanese Jews who still live around Wadi Abu Jmil or own property within the area, Solidere’s reconstruction of Wadi Abu Jmil has transformed it, like other parts of central Beirut, into an upmarket and exclusive urban neighbourhood geared towards its affluent new residents. After numerous efforts to complete its restoration, the area’s renowned Maghen Abraham Synagogue now serves as a private community centre but has yet to be opened to the public.
Maronites are estimated to make up around 21 per cent of the Lebanese population. Originally Aramaic speakers, today Maronites speak Arabic, but use Syriac as a liturgical language.
The Maronite Church traces its origins to Mar Marun, a fourth century hermit. Byzantine persecution on doctrinal grounds and conflict between Muslim and Byzantine forces drove the Maronites from the Syrian plain to the safety of the Qadisha Gorge of northern Lebanon.
The Maronite Church was the only Eastern Church to cooperate fully with the Latin Crusaders, seeking union with Rome in 1182. Union was formalized circa 1584, when a Maronite college was established in
Rome, the result of increasing contact between the two churches in the intervening period. Rome recognized the Patriarch of the Maronite Church and the Patriarch recognized papal supremacy.
The Maronites traditionally inhabited the northern reaches of Mount Lebanon and also the south, from Jezzine down to the present Israeli border, but began to spread into Druze areas, providing their services to Druze landlords in the Matn and Shuf. During the nineteenth century, they eclipsed the Druze economically and then politically, the middle years punctuated by major confrontations culminating in Druze massacres of Christians in 1860. Thereafter, France oversaw the protected status of Mount Lebanon (until 1943) in close consultation with the Maronite Patriarch, who remained a key determinant of political authority until the civil war in 1975.
When it was clear that the demographic balance was changing in the early 1970s, the Maronite leadership opposed constitutional compromise and tried to preserve its effective hegemony over a pro-Western republic. The civil war was catastrophic for the community, which shrank from an estimated 800,000 in 1975 to 600,000 or so by 1990. In 1982 the Maronite-led Lebanese Forces and Kata’ib party militia openly cooperated with Israel against the Palestinians and Syria. When Israel could no longer afford to occupy half of Lebanon, these forces refused to come to terms with Syria (the other external contender) until the latter had smashed Maronite military independence. By 1984 the Maronite paramilitary leadership had fallen victim to internecine strife and personal ambition. The 1989 Charter of National Reconstruction, agreed by Lebanese legislators in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, amended the sectarian apportionment of political power as established in the National Pact of 1943. The new arrangement weakened the presidency, still a position reserved for a Maronite, in part by making the prime minister no longer answerable to the president, but rather to parliament.
Lebanon’s key divide between advocates of closer relations with the Arab world or the West is mirrored within the Maronite community. Former Maronite militia leader and current member of parliament Michel Aoun was once an opponent of Syria’s influence in the country but became a prominent figure in the opposition to the current pro-Western government. Meanwhile prominent anti-Syrian Maronite Christians have faced the threat of political assassination. In November 2006, assassins gunned down Pierre Gemayel, a young MP and son of a former president, who was also active in opposing Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs. A bombing in September 2007 killed another Maronite anti-Syrian MP, Antoine Ghanim, and six others in a mainly Maronite Christian suburb of Beirut.
An increasing trend of emigration by the Maronites from Lebanon is contributing not only to the community’s numerical shrinkage but also to its decreasing political clout in the politics of the country. However, the head of the Maronite Church is still considered a primary Christian voice in the country.
Since the constitutional presidential election period came to an end in May 2014, pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon focused their attention and energy on who would succeed the last president, Michel Suleiman. Because the position is reserved for Maronites, the national divide animated divisions within the Maronite community. The ongoing presidential vacuum threatened to weaken Lebanon’s Christian community in general and the Maronites in particular, as it left them without a voice in the country’s political leadership. Tammam Salam, as Prime Minister, held the position in the interim until the Presidency was eventually taken on by Michel Aoun in October 2016.
Although there are some 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon registered with the UN Palestinian relief agency (UNRWA), a recent government census suggested that the number of Palestinians in camps came to just under 175,000. Most of this population comprise descendants of those who fled to Lebanon following their expulsion from Palestine during the 1948 creation of Israel. They are Sunni Muslims and live mainly in Beirut and the outskirts of Sidon, Tyre and Tripoli.
In addition, some 45,000 Palestinians from Syria have sought refuge in Lebanon since the beginning of the civil conflict.
About 110,000 Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon in 1948, from Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and Galilee. They were settled in official camps, though many moved into neighbouring low-income areas. These camps have hardly expanded despite the fourfold increase in population, the total destruction of four camps during the 1970s and the almost total destruction of Shatila camp in 1985-1986.
A few middle class and mainly Christian Palestinians obtained Lebanese citizenship, but partly out of fear that integration of so many Sunnis would upset the country’s precarious sectarian political balance, the vast majority were given the status of foreigners, requiring work permits. They thus formed pools of
cheap and casual labour located almost solely in predominantly Muslim areas. During the 1960s, the heyday of revolutionary nationalism in the region, from which the Lebanese state tried to protect itself, the camps were kept under tight surveillance and control by the Deuxième Bureau. In 1969, with the growth of Palestinian nationalist sentiments, the camps ejected the Bureau and its many agents, and established Palestinian control of the camps.
With the transfer of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Amman to Beirut in 1971, the Palestinians effectively took control of much of southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut and Sidon, and launched raids into Israel. Punitive Israeli raids on Lebanese as well as Palestinian targets drove a wedge between allied Palestinians and Shi’a Lebanese, as did occasionally high-handed behaviour by some Palestinians towards the local population that was expected to subordinate its own concerns to the guerrilla war.
After its short-lived invasion of 1978, Israel invaded again in 1982, determined to destroy the PLO and install a right-wing regime in Beirut. Israel failed in these objectives, although the removal of PLO forces from Beirut and the south left the refugee population vulnerable to the contesting sides, demonstrated in the massacre of well over 1,000 inhabitants of the Sabra neighborhood and Shatila camp in 1982 by Christian militias acting under Israeli auspices, and the bloody sieges of Shatila by (Shi’a) Amal forces with Syria’s blessing from 1985-1987.
After the Ta’if Agreement (1989), the Gulf War (1991) and the PLO-Israeli Declaration of Principles (DoP, 1993), the Palestinian situation in Lebanon severely deteriorated further. The community faced the loss of remittances following eviction from Kuwait and other Gulf states, the collapse of political and financial support for the PLO, a high level of unemployment in Lebanon and widespread eviction of war-displaced people from unauthorized accommodation. Perhaps most seriously, Palestinians saw the DoP as almost certainly extinguishing the refugee question. Refugees in Lebanon were in a more serious dilemma than those in Syria or Jordan. The government had stated that ‘under no circumstances will Lebanon agree to give Palestinians citizenship’, and spoken of a ‘redistribution’ of refugees, a euphemism for the expulsion of a substantial proportion of refugees. They thus seemed destined to remain without civic rights. Refugees shared with Lebanon a commitment to the right of return, but both parties knew that Israel was unlikely to honour this humanitarian obligation even in part.
The 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel again caused widespread suffering among Palestinians in southern Lebanon. Not only were some camps damaged by Israeli air raids, but many Palestinians also lost their livelihoods. Israel made broad use of cluster bombs during the war, and in its wake, hundreds
of thousands of unexploded munitions littered southern Lebanese agricultural fields on which many Palestinian labourers rely for their income.
In the midst of Lebanon’s ongoing political and sectarian crisis, the continuing plight of the country’s Palestinian refugees erupted anew during 2007. The Lebanese government accused Palestinian members of the extremist Fatah al-Islam faction of bombing two buses in a Christian town in February 2007, killing three; the attack was one day prior to the two-year anniversary of the Hariri assassination. The government also accused the group of several bank robberies throughout early 2007. Following arrests of faction members for one such robbery in May, Fatah al-Islam militants holed-up in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp fired on Lebanese soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The army responded with indiscriminate shelling; fighting lasted for the next 15 weeks. An estimated 35-40,000 Palestinian civilians fled the camp during the conflict, in which 40 civilians died along with 168 Lebanese soldiers; around 400 militants were captured or killed as the army eventually prevailed. In October the first of the camp’s residents were allowed to return, many finding their houses destroyed and some complaining that the army had looted their property.
In February 2010, deadly clashes broke out between the Asbat al-Ansar militia and Fatah gunmen in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp, and following a spate of political assassinations, gunfights broke out in the same camp in May 2014. The man responsible for killing 25 people in the 2013 Iranian Embassy bombing in Beirut was a former resident, and there were reports in 2014 of jihadist rebels fleeing Syria and relocating to Ein al-Hilweh with the intention of carrying out attacks targeting the Lebanese army and Hezbollah.
In many ways, formally and informally, Palestinians remain largely regarded as ‘outsiders’ and their presence a source of problems in Lebanese society. Despite 2010 labour law amendments which served to slightly ease restrictions, Palestinians remain barred from practicing a range of high-level professions. Lebanese law also prohibits Palestinian ownership of property and denies entitlement to state education or healthcare. As a result, huge numbers of Palestinians in Lebanon are entirely dependent on the UN’s Palestinian relief agency UNRWA for provision of public services.
Facing difficult living conditions, the Palestinian community encounters further discontent and marginalization due to violence erupting from internal divisions which, if not brought under control, threaten to spill over and exacerbate the deteriorating security situation elsewhere in the country. Seven decades after their forcible expulsion from their territory, their prospects of return look bleak,
particularly as the US administration of President Donald Trump appears to be promoting residency of the majority of Palestinians in their host countries. In recent years large numbers of Palestinians have reportedly been leaving Lebanon for Europe and elsewhere in the hope of securing a more sustainable future.
Sunnis are estimated at 28.7 per cent of the Lebanese population and are concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and in the countryside of the Akkar and the central Biqa’a. Unlike Druze and Maronites, with their distinctive identity and solidarity, Sunnis have historically felt part of a larger and more amorphous community. They have been more loosely organized, through trade guilds, mosques and charitable institutions.
There was no Sunni leadership in 1920 when they were reluctantly coerced into the new republic. Sunnis wanted to retain their vital ties with the Syrian interior. The National Pact of 1943 assigned to the Sunnis a position only slightly subordinate to that of the Maronites. In reality, it was the merchant families of Beirut who supported the National Pact since they could share the Christian vision of a liberal merchant republic. In Tripoli and among lower class urban and rural Sunnis, there was little support.
The political leadership that emerged operated largely on patronage networks, but by 1960 these networks were decaying. While the masses responded to the appeal of Nasserism, Ba’athism and other currents of Arab nationalism, Sunni leaders seemed allied with the Maronite power brokers in spite of their Arab nationalist rhetoric. Many Sunnis began to look to Kemal Junblat, leader of Druze as their natural leader.
The Sunni elite took sides, through its official Dar il Ifta’, Prime Minister, and various forces with the PLO. In so doing, they hoped to instrumentalize the latter in its power struggle with the Maronites. The Sunni community, however, experienced a relative political decline in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion. Generally, Sunnis had long enjoyed high standards of socio-economic development and political clout, due in large part to the central roles played by their zu’ama (political bosses) in Lebanese politics. Yet key figures disappeared or were assassinated, while other factors also hastened Sunni
decline in the early 1980s. The PLO, to whom the Sunni community was closely tied, were forced to withdraw at the hands of the Israelis.
With the exception of Palestinians, most, but not all, Sunnis have aligned politically with the pro-Western faction in Lebanon’s main political divide, and prominent anti-Syrian Sunnis have been assassinated in recent years – most notably former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A June 2007 blast killed Sunni politician and Syria critic Walid Eido. In May and June 2008, anti-government Alawites in Tripoli fought with pro-government Sunnis. Sunni civilians were killed in the crossfire, and deliberately targeted through the bombing of an apartment building. In October 2012, Wisam al-Hassan, head of intelligence in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) was assassinated as well. Al-Hassan, a Sunni, was close to the Hariri family and formerly served as the head of Rafik Hariri’s personal security force.
Grave implications for Lebanon’s Sunni community have arisen from the civil war in Syria. Many Lebanese Sunni fighters have joined the armed opposition in Syria against the Assad government, and as a result, the wider Sunni community in Lebanon has become dragged further into escalating tensions with the Lebanese Shi’a, who are generally supportive of Assad. In August 2013, 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.
The number of Lebanese Alawites is estimated to be somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000, excluding the thousands of Syrian Alawite refugees who now reside within the country. Despite being grouped as a religious minority, Alawites in Lebanon today still suffer from discrimination that is, essentially, political in nature.
While identifying as a branch of Shi’a Islam, Alawites are a distinct ethno-religious community with a long history in the region, dating back millennia. They came under direct Ottoman rule in the nineteenth century and experienced significant discrimination during this time before briefly achieving territorial autonomy under the French mandate until 1936. Until relatively recently, they were not recognized as an official religious group in Lebanon and were excluded from much of public life, with some sources suggesting that many were forced to convert to mainstream Sunni or Twelver Shi’a branches to secure employment in the civil service.
The problems facing the Alawite community in Lebanon today cannot be disassociated from modern politics, including the community’s link to Syria’s Alawi-led Baathist regime. During Lebanon’s long war, some Lebanese Alawites provided military and political support to the Syrian forces occupying Lebanon. The perceived support of Alawites for the Assad regime has deepened the already existing tensions between them and other local communities, particularly Sunnis.
In Tripoli, home to more than half of the country’s Alawite population, these tensions have at times resulted in violent clashes between sections of the Lebanese Sunni and Alawite communities, bringing the city almost to the brink of conflict. Past years have seen Alawite shops burned, Alawite workers shot at and buses carrying Alawite residents targeted. In January 2015 nine residents were killed and 37 wounded in a double suicide attack in Jabal Mohsen, an attack claimed by the anti-Assad Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Two trends evidence a growing apprehension among the Alawite community in Lebanon. Firstly, notwithstanding their recognition as an official Lebanese sect, Alawites have historically been persecuted for their beliefs, displaced from Lebanese urban centres to its surrounding mountains. Today the majority of Lebanese Alawites appear to be consolidating in their historical urban mountain enclave of Jabal Mohsen, on the outskirts of Tripoli. This is despite the fact that the historic neighbourhood itself has become notoriously impoverished, deprived of public services and subject to sporadic bouts of violence with neighbouring Sunni militants and more recently extremist Islamic groups.
Given that the arrival of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has included members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, as well as anti-Assad Salafi networks, the Alawite community in Tripoli has not been spared from what some observers have been quick to designate as sectarian ‘spill-over’ from the war in Syria. While
it is generally acknowledged that Lebanese Alawites are not active in providing resources to support the Assad regime’s war effort, the perceived association has proven deadly for Alawite civilians, both old and new, now living in Lebanon. Among various drivers of communal tensions between Lebanese and Syrians, the political situation within Lebanon and the region is increasingly significant alongside economic competition and other factors. This may be partly to gain better access to services and representation – given the inherent systemic bias toward larger faiths and sects – but also to better facilitate social integration. This could too be evidence of taqiyya, the historic practice of religious dissimulation in a climate of latent persecution. Aside from the continuous threat of violent attacks, these indicators speak to a more persistent everyday issue facing Alawites in Lebanon: that of economic and social discrimination. Alawite residents of Jabal Mohsen in particular have expressed the view that they have been abandoned by the Lebanese state as punishment for their perceived disloyalties.
Updated June 2019
Centre for Lebanese Studies [multi-confessional and committed to pluralism]
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in