Christians are fleeing Lebanon to escape political and economic crises and signs that radical Islam is on the rise in the country.
In a poll to be published next month which was exclusively leaked to The Sunday Telegraph, nearly half of all Maronites, the largest Christian denomination in the country, said they were considering emigrating. Of these, more than 100,000 have submitted visa applications to foreign embassies. Their exodus could have a devastating effect on the country, robbing it of an influential minority which has acted as an important counter-balance to the forces of Islamic extremism.
About 60,000 Christians have already left since last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. Many who remain fear that a violent showdown between rival Sunni and Shia factions is looming.
"If we love our children we have to tell them to get out," said Maria, a Christian mother of one from the northern city of Tripoli, who refused to give her surname for fear of reprisal. "When my daughter finished her high school I sent her to Europe, and I will follow her if I can."
Christine, another Christian woman, said that all of her family’s younger generation had left the country, adding that Tripoli had become increasingly Islamised in recent years. There is a rising number of veiled women and religiously bearded men on the streets - although she blamed economic and political instability for much of the emigration. Christians, who make up 22 per cent of the population, have historically played a major role in the development of Lebanon’s political, social and cultural institutions. Currently the president, the army commander and the head of the central bank are all Maronites, and under the agreement which ended the civil war in 1989, half the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament are reserved for Christians.
"Lebanon has always been a bastion of religious tolerance, but now it is moving towards the model of Islamisation seen in Iraq and Egypt," said Fr Samir Samir, a Jesuit teacher of Islamic studies at Beirut’s Université Saint-Joseph.
Lebanon’s Christian community is concerned that its influence is waning as a result of a continuing internal power struggle, which for the past five months has pitted a Sunni-led government against a predominantly Shia opposition, spearheaded by the Shia militant group Hezbollah. The collapse in influence has been exacerbated by a roughly equal spilt in support among Christians for rival Shia and Sunni leaders. The battle between Muslim factions has paralysed the Lebanese administration and crippled the economy.
The exodus of young workers crosses the religious spectrum. Some 22 per cent of Shias and 26 per cent of Sunnis say they are considering going abroad, according to the study by Information International, an independent Beirut-based research body.
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