Iraqi Christians seek refuge in Lebanon amid anxiety

Since ISIS’ advances in Iraq beginning in June Lebanon’s social affairs ministry says more than 8,000 Iraqi refugees have made their way to Lebanon

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Sitting in the Caritas Migrant Centre in East Beirut, Bahaa Somo opened a small translucent folder, removing a receipt for a Kia Cerato, before placing it on the table. On Aug. 8 August Somo and his family fled the Assyrian town of Batnaya, 20 kilometers north of Mosul, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria advanced in the area.

Awoken during the night with rumors spreading that ISIS fighters were encircling surrounding villages, Somo drove the Kia Cerato from Batnaya to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Iraq, where he sought safe haven in an Assyrian church in the city’s Ankawa district. Two days later he sold the car, using the windfall to purchase a hotel room for his pregnant wife, and six airplane tickets to Beirut for himself and his family.

“We left with only the clothes we were wearing. If I hadn’t had the car I wouldn’t have been able to buy the tickets. I was lucky,” said Somo.

“There are problems along the Lebanese – Syrian border but for now I feel safe here. I won’t return to Iraq,” continued Somo, whose family relocated to Batnaya from Baghdad in 2004 following an outbreak of sectarian attacks targeting Christian communities in the Iraqi capital.

“I can’t see a future for me in Iraq.”

Since ISIS’ advances in Iraq beginning in June Lebanon’s social affairs ministry says more than 8,000 Iraqi refugees have made their way to Lebanon.The vast majority are Christian (in particular Chaldean and Assyrian) and have settled in neighborhoods in east Beirut and the Metn, one the capital’s northern suburbs, where they have found willing support networks in local churches and NGO’s. However, while Iraqi refugees may express relief at having made it to Lebanon, in recent weeks the country’s own Christian community has been given reason to feel vulnerable.

The failure of the March 14 and March 8 parliamentary blocks to reach a consensus on a presidential candidate has left Lebanon without a Christian head of state since May, contributing to a sense of isolation from the country’s state apparatus. This isolation has dovetailed with fear since gunmen associated with ISIS and the Nusra Front overran the Bekaa border town of Arsal in early August, clashing with security forces and killing and kidnapping Lebanese military personnel. Christian residents in at least one border village have since taken to conducting armed-nighttime patrols of their turf, wary of further insurrections.

Meanwhile, in the northern city of Tripoli pro-ISIS graffiti has appeared on the facades of a number of churches and local shops in the city’s Mina and Minieh districts in the last fortnight. Messages written have stated ominously: “The Islamic State is coming.” The sudden appearance of sectarian invectives has been interpreted as blowback following the circulation of a video depicting a number of youths in Sassine Square in Beirut, burning an ISIS flag in late August. At the time Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, a Tripoli native, decried the act on the basis that the ISIS flag contains verses from the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith. However, the incident set off a social media trend with like-minded individuals uploading similar videos to Twitter under the hashtag #BurnIsisFlagChallenge.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, has a population of around half a million, the majority of whom are Sunni. It has witnessed more than 20 rounds of clashes between Sunni militants and Alawite supporters of the Damascus regime since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war three-and-a-half years ago. Hundreds of local Sunnis have travelled across the border to join rebel groups. Last month an 18 year-old Tripoli native carried out a suicide attack in the Kahdmiya district of Baghdad, having travelled to Syria to join ISIS.

While support for ISIS remains limited in Lebanon, in Tripoli the group’s infamous flag is readily available in numerous shops around the city’s Sahet en-Nour square for around $3. Such flags also cover the roundabout that forms the centerpiece of the square, signs of the presence of ISIS sympathizers who form a vocal minority in Lebanon’s second city.

The recent graffiti-vandalism is not the first time Christian property in the city has been targeted since the outbreak of Syria’s civil conflict. In January unknown assailants set fire to a historic library in the Serail district in an act of vengeance after the Greek Orthodox priest who owned it published an article allegedly critical of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.

“On the whole there are no problems between Muslims and Christians in Tripoli,” said Father Gregory, pastor of St. George’s Greek-Orthodox Church in Mina, noting that similar acts of vandalism were carried out in the city by the Islamic Tawhid Movement in the 1980’s during the country’s Civil War (1975-90).

“Whoever initially burned these flags was not thinking. Such acts can incite people and this has happened,” continued Gregory. “In my sermons since the graffiti appeared I have encouraged people not to be afraid.”

Some have not been reassured.

In a small cafe near the St. George’s Church, Charbel took sips from a brown plastic espresso cup, his left foot tapping out a rhythm of nervous energy on the ground.

“Everyday when I travel to work from Nour Square I see these ISIS flags. There were none last year. Now every week there seems to be more,” said Charbel, who works as a manual laborer at a quarry outside Tripoli.

“I do not know who did this but when you look at this graffiti and what has happened in Iraq then of course people become scared.”

Imad Salamey, a politics professor at the Lebanese American University, downplayed the appearance of the graffiti, vocing the belief that such acts of vandalism were likely the work of individuals, rather than part of a systematic campaign. One Tripoletan MP has described the graffiti as no more than “childish acts,” while on Wednesday the Lebanese Army arrested two local residents accused of being behind the vandalism.

“However,” said Salamey, “sectarian statements are dangerous and instigate fear. Especially given the nature of violence in the region and the way in which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has marketed itself in its media campaigns.”

Sami Nader, a professor of politics at Beirut’s St. Joseph University, argued that the original burning of an ISIS flag was not in the best interest of Lebanese Christians, stating that those opposed to the extremist group should not voice their disapproval through invective statements but rather by supporting legal institutions like the Lebanese army.

“Sectarian threats should not be fought with sectarian acts, this can lead to civil conflict,” said Nader.

Back in Dekwaneh, Somo, still adjusting to life in Lebanon following his forced flight from Iraq, appeared to agree with Nader’s sentiment.

“This group, ISIS encourage sectarianism. They thrive off creating divisions between people and chaos. It is best not to provide ammunition, for the sake of Lebanon.”

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