Lebanon's shaky stability seen as tenuous after car bombing

BEIRUT, Lebanon (BP) -- Drops of dried blood lead like bread crumbs up three flights of stairs to a shrapnel-shredded apartment, perhaps 40 yards from the site of a car bombing that killed Lebanon's top intelligence chief Oct. 19 -- and threatened to destroy the country's shaky stability.

The Beirut apartment belongs a friendly Maronite Catholic named Aboud who lives with his adult son Charles. Three days after the bombing, they offer figs to visitors, along with a tour of their damaged home: gaping holes left in a bedroom wall by metal fragments from the explosion, broken windows, door frames blown inward by the blast. Pictures of Maronite Catholic saints on the walls remain unharmed, which Aboud regards as a miracle.

Their pockmarked verandah offers a clear view of the crater left by the car bomb in Beirut's Ashrafiyeh district. A few blackened husks of cars lie nearby. The side street where the attack occurred sits silent, sealed off and guarded by Lebanese soldiers and police.

On other streets in the area, however, the bustle already has returned. People come and go, drink coffee in cafes, sweep up broken glass and debris from the blast into small mountains for removal. For their part, Aboud and Charles are thankful to be unhurt, unlike others in their building injured by shattering glass and shrapnel. They say it's time to get back to normal life -- or what passes for normal in Beirut's cauldron of contending religious sects and armed political groups.

"Welcome to Lebanon," Charles says with a wry grin.

But the Lebanese version of normal might not return so quickly this time, or return at all.

"Times are very tense here," says a veteran Christian worker and observer of Lebanon's political scene. "Some are comparing it to times near the end of [Lebanon's] civil war in the late 1980s. Only God knows which way things will turn, but the whole Middle East is changing faster than we could ever imagine. I think many people here feel that things internally are continuing to worsen and that the strife going on next door is coming here in increasing measure."

THE WAR NEXT DOOR

"Next door" is Syria, where full-scale civil war is tearing that country apart, sending thousands of refugees fleeing into Lebanon and other neighboring nations. Syria occupied much of Lebanon for years and continues to influence events there. Some of the same ethnic and religious factions battling for control of Syria maintain an increasingly uneasy truce in Lebanon, particularly Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. Many Lebanese Sunnis have backed Syria's primarily Sunni rebels; many Lebanese Shi'ites support the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad of the Alawite sect in Syria that is distantly related to Shia Islam.

The Alawite sect rules a Sunni majority there and is supported by Iran -- and by Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanon-based Shi'ite group that fought Israel to a truce in 2006. Hezbollah reportedly has sent fighters into Syria to support Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime. Several Sunni Arab nations are openly or covertly aiding rebel forces.

Many Lebanese immediately blamed Syria for planting the Oct. 19 car bomb that killed at least nine people, including General Wissam al-Hassan, Lebanon's intelligence chief and an outspoken foe of Syria's regime. Scores of people were injured in the blast, which occurred in the busy Ashrafiyeh district of Beirut just as children were returning home from school. Syrian officials denied involvement and condemned the attack. Lebanese Sunnis were unconvinced by their claims of innocence.

Al-Hassan, who survived two previous assassination attempts, worked with the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon that investigated the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri's death and its aftermath led to the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon. More recently, his investigations led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, a pro-Syrian politician, for allegedly plotting a wave of attacks in Lebanon.

"So you've got the Alawites as the ruling class over the Sunni majority in Syria," the Christian worker explains. "Here in Lebanon you've got the underlying Sunni-Shi'ite thing going. And that's what people here fear the most" -- animosity escalating into a full-scale battle between the two Islamic factions. It might engulf Lebanon and draw in its many other ethnic/religious groups, including a large population of Orthodox and Maronite Christians.

"If things become increasingly chaotic, pray that more and more people will turn to the Lord and not to other things," the Christian worker asks of Christians worldwide.

Lebanese got an unsettling glimpse of what that chaos might look like after the Oct. 21 funeral for al-Hassan in Beirut.

Enraged protesters tried to storm the government palace that day, but were pushed back by troops firing tear gas and warning shots. Young men set fire to tires and trash bins around Beirut, snarling traffic. Gun battles between rival factions broke out in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, killing seven. Sniper fire rang out in several areas. Militia groups set up checkpoints in several districts and demanded religious identification from passersby, harking back to the bad old days of the civil war.

The Lebanese army, warning the "fate of the nation" was at stake, deployed thousands of troops across Beirut Oct. 22, sealing off volatile areas and forcing gunmen off the streets. Relative calm returned the next day as business and schools reopened.

What happens next? Middle East watchers have learned that it's a fool's errand to try to answer that question with any degree of certainty. But followers of Christ can pray for God's purposes to be accomplished.

"Pray that there will be more spiritual hunger," the Christian worker urges. "It's interesting that during and after the days of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, there was a change in attitude, a change in thinking. But then things kind of settled back into what they were before.

"If there is increasing strife, pray that people would not so quickly forget lessons learned, that they will truly turn to the Lord and realize He is the source of life, that there would be more spiritual hunger and not just the same old, same old. Lebanon has had a history of this. One leader is assassinated and everything is in upheaval, and then things settle down. Then something else happens.

"Pray that there would be a permanent turn toward what is really important."


Reported by International Mission Board staff. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).