'Betrayed' Lebanese Christians Fear Persecution

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08pm EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Panic is spreading through the southern Lebanese Christian community after this week's unexpectedly sudden withdrawal of Israeli forces. Most of the area now is under the control of Islamic Hizballah guerrillas.

Reports from the area allege that homes and churches have been torched and that several Christians have also been kidnapped or murdered, according to Professor Walid Phares, president of the US-based World Lebanese Organization.

The Lebanese-born Phares said the WLO was monitoring the situation 24-hours a day, and he was receiving reports from the former "security zone," Beirut and Lebanese Christians who have sought refuge in Israel.

According to reports Phares has received, two men were kidnapped and killed by Hizballah gunmen in Qyla. Another two men were kidnapped in Ein Ebel. Others, Phares said, reportedly were hiding out in the valleys, still trying to make their way to the Israeli border.

A church in the Kawkaba village was burned and another church in Qyla was damaged, he said. At least 40 homes in the former capital of the south, Marjayoun, were burned as well as a number of homes in the Christian village of Debl.

"There is a situation of panic," Phares said. "Hizballah and Amal are moving into Christian towns and erasing all symbols, [such as] crosses." He also mentioned the destruction of a statue of Major Saad Haddad, the founder of the former Christian-led Army of Free Lebanon, which he saw as an anti-Christian action.

The Army of Free Lebanon was the predecessor of the South Lebanese Army, Israel's mostly Christian militia ally, that collapsed ahead of the Israeli evacuation.

The London Times reported Thursday from the town of Qyla that fewer than ten percent of the village's 2,500 residents remained. Some prayed together in the town's Greek Orthodox Church while about 160 others hid in another church waiting for the opportunity to turn themselves over to the Lebanese Army.

The report said supporters of the Islamic guerrillas searched the streets for those accused of "collaborating" with Israel. Still others hid in their homes from the roving Hizballah bands.

The article quoted one resident of the village, just a mile from the Israeli border, as saying the Christians were in "mortal fear" with "total chaos, looting and thieving everywhere."

Reports of looting were widespread in the south. Hizballah guerrillas reportedly entered the homes of Christians who had fled, hauling away electrical appliances and destroying personal items, such as family pictures, of those who had left.

For the nearly 7,000 south Lebanese who fled to Israel, with hardly more than the clothes they were wearing, reports like these were almost unbearable.

According to Phares, the overwhelming majority of the refugees, estimated at 90 percent, are Christians.

United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon spokesman Timur Goksel said he had only received reports of looting and could only hear and see the jubilation of Hizballah fighters and their supporters as they returned to villages in the south.

Goksel said he did not want to comment on other reports of violence because he could not say for certain that they had happened.

Although Israeli Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz has said the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon was "meticulously planned," many have criticized the hasty pullout as a betrayal of Israel's 24-year ally.

The Hebrew daily Ha'aretz said on Wednesday that a senior officer in Israel's Liaison Unit to Lebanon was reportedly in shock at what happened to the south Lebanese.

"Whoever tells you that this is the scenario he expected is simply lying," the officer was quoted as saying. "The worst thing that could happen happened - our old friends in Lebanon stand squeezed together, empty-handed and running for their lives. We were not prepared for it."

Phares said the SLA was not defeated by Hizballah but had been disbanded.

In the absence of their commander, General Antoine Lahad, who was in Paris reportedly trying to arrange amnesty for his men, SLA commanders got a call Tuesday evening from the Israeli army giving them 30 minutes to reach the border of Israel.

"The Christians feel completely betrayed by their ally," Phares said. "The civilians had to follow [the SLA] to the border."

He said the next few days would be crucial for the Lebanese Christian community. It wants the UN to deploy peacekeepers quickly before a "major ethnic cleansing and persecution will take place."

Hizballah, Phares said, wants to reduce the size of the Christian population in order to change the demographics of the area.

But Goksel said the deployment of an international UN force, as many as 8,000 peacekeepers, will not happen until a UN team arrives to verify the fact that Israel has redeployed completely to the international border.

In Israel, the government is attempting to care for the refugees temporarily by settling them in tents, guesthouses and hotels in northern Israel. The Israeli public and many Jewish organizations are also contributing to the relief effort.

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