Lebanon crisis polarizes Christians
By David F. Dawes
AFTER a week of steady bombardment, Israel has sent ground troops into Lebanon.

While an unidentified Israeli military spokesman told Australia's ABC News that the ground forces are conducting "restricted, pinpoint attacks" on terrorist outposts, various Western nations are nevertheless still attempting mass evacuations of their citizens from Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has maintained a tough stance toward Hezbollah, the Shiite militia group which precipitated the latest crisis just over a week ago by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing eight others.

In a speech to Israel's parliament, Olmert stated: "We shall seek out every installation, hit every terrorist helping to attack Israeli citizens, destroy all the terrorist infrastructure, in every place. We shall continue this until Hezbollah does the basic and fair things required of it by every civilized person."

Meanwhile, the United Nations, backed by the United States, Great Britain and other countries, is attempting to engineer a diplomatic solution.

They are getting help from some unusual sources. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia is unequivocally condemning the Hezbollah action. The country's official news agency, SPA, stated: "A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside [Lebanon] and those behind them without recourse to the legal authorities and consulting and coordinating with Arab nations."

According to the latest available figures,at least 235 people have died in Lebanon since the Israeli attack began; and 25 have died in Israel as a result of terrorist retaliation. At least eight Canadians are known to have died in Lebanon.

As the fighting rages, Christians are expressing a variety of views on the crisis.

Approximately 100 protesters rallied July 12 at the Israeli consulate in Boston. Among them were various Episcopal priests, and Thomas Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts -- who called for "an immediate and peaceful halt to the hostilities . . . and for the peaceful coexistence of Israel and Palestine."

"Is there ever to be an end to violence in the land we call holy?" asked the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its humanitarian counterpart, the Church World Service (CWS). In a joint statement issued July 14, the organizations further asked: "What has violence solved these last 60 years?" The two groups called upon various nations to build upon "the success of former peace initiatives," and urged their members to "pray for all those who have suffered and died . . . and to engage in humanitarian and advocacy actions for peace."

A statement released July 17 by the Canadian branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) placed the blame squarely on both Hezbollah and Hamas extremists, declaring: "The inspiration behind their agenda is fanatical Islam, which seeks the total destruction of Israel. Now, in concert with their devious sponsors in Damascus and Tehran, they have unleashed a war against Israel. Israel now has no alternative other than to destroy the terror infrastructure and capabilities of these two groups."

ICEJ executive director Malcolm Hedding further stated: "We fully support Israel in her right to self-defence and in her measured military campaign now being waged against this terror militia. Israel's response is entirely just." He added: "We are not without sympathy for the vast majority of Lebanese citizens, who have been forced into war."

In this country, six groups representing much of the Lebanese Canadian community issued a statement July 19 in Mississauga, Ontario.

The statement extended "heartfelt gratitude to the Canadian government . . . for the correct, just and prompt positions they have taken with regard to Lebanon and the unfortunate military confrontations that are occurring on its soil." Further, they stated: "The actions and conduct of Hezbollah are extremely harmful to the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese people."

The statement concluded by urging Canada to lobby for "an immediate truce in Lebanon based on UN Resolution 1559, which explicitly calls for the disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, the deployment of the Lebanese army along the border with Israel, and the extension of the authority of the Lebanese government over all Lebanese territory."

The statement was signed by representatives of the Lebanese-Canadian Coordinating Council (LCCC), the Canadian Lebanese Human Rights Federation, the Phoenician Club of Mississauga, Canadian Phoenician Community Services Club, the Canadian Lebanese Christian Heritage Club and the World Lebanese Cultural Union, Canadian Chapter.

LCCC head Elias Bejjani, a Maronite Catholic, said he could understand why the Israeli government would consider their actions a legitimate form of self-defense. "This is how they see it. They had no choice but to act, if you understand their situation and point of view." Further, he said, "Israel's reputation as a mighty power was threatened."

Bejjani characterized Hezbollah's provocation of Israel as a "reckless and adventurous action." He also suggested that those critical of Israel for the deaths of Lebanese civilians were not seeing the whole picture.

"I'm not sure Israel is targeting civilians. Hezbollah moves from one neighbourhood to another. According to reports we have heard from Christian villages in south Lebanon, Hezbollah come into the villages and fire their rockets; then they run away. And these villages pay the price."

Bejjani did, however, express some concerns over Israel's military campaign. "Why are they destroying the infrastructure of Lebanon?" Perhaps "to cut aid coming from Syria and Iran," he conjectured.

"Israel's reaction is massive," he continued, adding: "But what led to this reaction? Why is Hezbollah on Lebanon's borders? Why has an armed militia been allowed to patrol a neighbouring country? Why have the Lebanese people let things get to this level? It's a bizarre situation; it's not just black and white."

Israel, Bejanni said, "could be an enemy or a friend" to Lebanon. "Israel did not come to south Lebanon to occupy it." While he acknowledged that Israel previously had its forces in Lebanon for almost two decades, he noted: "Israel stayed there all those years, but didn't build one settlement. They helped Lebanese villagers. In the eyes of many Lebanese in south Lebanon, the Israelis were not occupying."

Asked how Israel should deal with ongoing terrorist violence against its people, he said the embattled nation "is fighting for its existence" -- and that some of Israel's opponents, such as Hezbollah, are motivated by "pure religious belief." Thus, he asserted, "If I was Israel, I'd take that very seriously."

Nothing, he emphasized, "justifies loss of life. But we are in a war -- and war justifies everything for those who are in it." LCCC, he stressed, is "against violence, no matter where it comes from. This conflict shouldn't just end with a truce. What is needed is an agreement which will disarm all militias."

He said he was encouraged by the fact that some Arabic nations have condemned Hezbollah's actions. "This has set a precedent. They have acted boldly. They are saying that Hezbollah is threatening the peace process."

Asked how his group views the efforts of both Christian Zionists and Christians conducting disinvestment campaigns against Israel, he responded: "They can advocate what they want as long as they use peaceful means." He added: "What we advocate has nothing to do with religious beliefs. We are a Christian community, but we don't work on 'Christian issues.' We are Lebanese. We work for democracy, independence and human rights. We want a country where Christians can be Christians."

Noting that Lebanon was split evenly between Christians and Muslims, CC.com asked Bejjani whether he believed the two groups could get along.

"Yeah," he replied, "if we are left alone and have no interference from outside forces -- like Iran, Syria and the Palestinians."