Maronite Father Choufani: "We do not accept Syria's presence!"

Posted in Broader Middle East | 01-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

After only a few hours in Beirut, I decided to travel to Southern Lebanon. For years I had read and heard about the resistance in the South -- Hezbollah, and I imagined that the people of the South form a completely militarized society similar to that in Gaza or the West Bank. However, the reality proved to be somehow different. Once I passed through Sidon and was getting closer to the Southern area, I noticed the many Amal and Hezbollah flags, the pictures with the men who were part of the resistance and were killed by Israel. There were also pictures of Nabih Berri, Hassan Nasrallah and Musa al-Sadr.

The national flag of Lebanon: A better future without big brother Syria now !
The national flag of Lebanon: A better future without big brother Syria now !
When one sees all of the things I have mentioned above, one can be sure to be heading towards South Lebanon. While the variety of flags was a surprise for me, something else also puzzled me. It is well known that Hezbollah's armed wing is at the border with Israel, but as I was expecting to see men with guns and pistols in the street, there was surprisingly nothing of the sort.

Nonetheless, I have to say that talking with the people of Bint Jbeil and Tibnin -- which is the home town of Nabih Berri, the House Speaker, I have understood that each family has at least a rifle or a pistol, regardless of whether or not a member of their family has joined the resistance and regardless of their religion.

As these people live only a few kilometers from the Lebanese border with Israel and very often see Israeli airplanes fly over their homes, they fear that Israel may attack them. Thus, they need to be prepared to protect their families, land and country. Maybe what most impressed me in the towns and villages of Southern Lebanon was the love people feel for their land. We all may feel the same about our respective countries, but how many of us are ready to go out into the streets, fight and if necessary even die for what is rightfully ours?

In Southern Lebanon, it is not only the resistance that interests people; education is also on the top of their list of important issues. In this context, I met Father Choukrallah Choufani, who leads a branch of the Saint Esprit de Kaslik University in the town of Rmeich. In order to make education available to young men and women in Southern Lebanon, the Lebanese Maronite Order decided a few years ago to open a university in Rmeich. The Maronites have had the support of Amal and its President, Nabih Berri. Since everyone in Lebanon is involved or at least very informed about politics, after visiting the University I asked Father Choufani a few questions about Lebanese policy:

WSN: Father Choufani, the Maronite Order has many social-oriented programs in the South and everywhere else in Lebanon. Is the Church also helping Palestinian refugees fom the camps in Southern Lebanon?

Father Choufani: No, we cannot do that. Although the Church is always ready to help those in need, we have a constitution to obey. Therefore, we leave their problems in the state's care. However, they need to return to their country, because they are a burden for such a small country like ours.

WSN: What is your opinion about the new opposition in Lebanon, headed by Walid Jumblatt?

Father Choufani: They are doing something we should have done a long time ago. The Syrians have been here in Lebanon for more than 30 years. What is their objective? Do they have imperialist motives in Lebanon? That is not how it should be. We cannot accept their presence, just as with Palestinian presence in the country. We want back our sovereignty, independence and liberty. We have signed the Taef, but they are not respecting it. Hopefully, with all the pressure that is being exercised now on Assad's regime, he will implement all of Taef's steps.

WSN: What are your thoughts about US attempts to democratize the region?

Father Choufani: President Bush and President Chirac are working to achieve independence for Lebanon. The Syrians were here in the first place because the US asked them to help us, and the French agreed with this. Now, they must be the ones to tell the Syrians to go.

WSN: Are you heading toward another civil war in Lebanon?

Father Choufani: No, this will not happen. Although Christians and Muslims may have different views, we have lived side by side for a very long time now, and we will continue to do so once we have regained our sovereignty.

WSN: You live very close to the Israeli border and you have witnessed Hezbollah's fight with the Israelis. How do you see Lebanon's future relations with Israel?

Father Choufani: As a man of God I can only say that if our political leaders decide that an armistice or a peace treaty is in Lebanon's interest, then so be it.

WSN: Thank you for your comments.