In a move to defuse growing political tension in Lebanon, the army released on Aug. 20 around 70 anti-Syrian Christian activists detained in a security crackdown this month.
According to Reuters, the release followed sharp criticism of the arrests, including a rebuke this weekend from Pope John Paul, and warnings from across Lebanon's political spectrum that the country is in danger of becoming a Syrian-run dictatorship.
It also came a few hours before an Aug. 21 meeting scheduled between President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian closely allied to Syria, and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who has been leading the campaign to end Damascus's grip on Beirut.
Since Aug. 7, the Lebanese army has arrested about 250 Christian activists opposed to Syria. The clampdown has raised fears of the large role security services have in Lebanese life and created tensions between the army and the cabinet, which was not informed of the military action.
The arrests followed a demand by Christian supporters that Syria pull its 25,000 soldiers out of Lebanon. Two senior Christian officials were among those taken into custody.
Syrians were invited into Lebanon in 1976 by then-president Suleiman Franjieh, a Christian, ostensibly as part of an Arab peacekeeping force to quell the civil war. But as the conflict dragged on for 14 years, they were drawn in on the side of the Muslims.
The government, split between Christians and pro-Syrian Muslims, has in the past cracked down on anti-Syrian activists, but recent actions marked one of the most serious campaign of arrests so far against the Christian groups, says AP.
The crackdown began with troops raiding offices of the disbanded Lebanese Forces, a Christian group that once fielded the largest militia in the civil war, and offices of supporters of exiled former army commander Michel Aoun in Antelias, in the Christian heartland north of Beirut. Other activists were taken from their homes.
Two Christian journalists were also arrested by Lebanese security officials as part of the government crackdown, according to a leader of Lebanon's journalists' union.
The union leader said in a statement that the head of Lebanon's secret police told him that Antoine Bassil of London's Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) satellite channel had been detained for questioning.
Military intelligence agents also detained Habib Younis, a senior editor for the newspaper Al-Hayat, at his house in Jbeil, a town north of Beirut, the paper reported. The London-based newspaper reported Sunday that Younis, who works for Al-Hayat's Beirut bureau, was told he was being detained "to be asked some questions." A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Younis' arrest.
"Following arrests in the ranks of the Lebanese opposition, it is now the turn of the press to be muzzled," Al-Hayat commented.
The authorities gave no reason for the arrest of Younis, but the Reporters' Syndicate issued a statement saying it had been informed by the chief of military intelligence that Younis was arrested because he planned to go to Cyprus to meet an Israeli official.
The Reporters' Syndicate statement said it rejected the accusations against Younis and was demanding his release along with Antoine Bassil, the Christian journalist for MBC. Lebanese army officials said Bassil was involved in contacts with Israeli officials abroad.
Lebanon is technically at war with Israel and prohibits any dealings with it.
The government policy of "confessionalism" or the grouping of people by religion, plays a critical role in Lebanon's political and social life and has given rise to Lebanon's most persistent and bitter conflicts.
At the time of Lebanon's independence in the 1940s, there were more Christians than Muslims. In the following years, many Muslims immigrated to Lebanon. Due to a higher birthrate than the Christians, Muslims became the majority group in Lebanon.
Today, an estimated 70 percent of Lebanese are Muslim, while most of the remaining 30 percent are Christian. Every person's religion is encoded on a required, government-issued identification card. The government recognizes 17 distinct religious sects: five Muslim (Shiite, Sunnite, Druze, Ismailite and Alawite); 11 Christian (four Orthodox, six Catholic and one Protestant), and Judaism.
Habib Malik, author of "The Forgotten Christians of Lebanon," says people hold several false perceptions about Christians in Lebanon. One is that they are affluent out of proportion to their numbers, and that they enjoy prosperity at the expense of the Muslim majority.
"This simply ignores the poor rural Christian population," says Malik. "Moreover, regarding relative poverty, many among Lebanon's poorer Shiite Muslims practice polygamy - for which the Christians cannot be blamed - thereby increasing the squalor index by adding large numbers of children to the ranks of the wretched."
According to Malik, perhaps the most significant development and "the source of the greatest joy" is the growing evidence throughout Christian Lebanon of a spiritual revival among the youth. Prayer groups, catechism groups, and Bible study groups are sprouting everywhere.
"The enthusiasm and spiritual dedication glowing in the eyes of these young men and women after 20 years of war and occupation are for Lebanon tantamount to a resurrection from the dead," he adds.
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