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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February, 2005, 17:18 GMT
Lebanon's religious red lines
By Alex Klaushofer

Muhammad Amin mosque in Beirut, Lebanon
The mosque was a focus of tension during its construction
While the assassination of Rafik Hariri has raised fears that a new period of violence may engulf Lebanon, the grief uniting the country's different sects shows there is little appetite for another conflict.

The new Muhammad Amin mosque in central Beirut, where the former prime minister was buried last week, tells its own story about the country's attempts to free itself from its sectarianism.

During its construction the mosque had become the focus of sectarian tension, a symbol of the Gulf-style opulence promoted by the controversial Hariri, a Sunni Muslim.

Funded by the billionaire premier himself from his Saudi fortune, the location of the huge mosque - next to the Maronite cathedral of St Georges - caused ill feeling among some of the country's Christians.

In a country where religious symbols are all-important, they feared that the rising Islamic power it represented would - quite literally - dwarf its Christian neighbours.

"You will see," said local resident Georges, a secular, professional Maronite in his thirties, as the mosque was going up last year.

"When the people start praying in the church, next door they will start the call to prayer louder. It's an expression of hate."

Emerging co-existence

Distaste for the project was shared by the church authorities.

"We say that they have the right to build a mosque," said the Beshara Rai, the Maronite Bishop of Byblos.

I take a person for what he is, not his religion - I'm Christian, but I don't check someone's ID to decide whether he's a friend or not
Mazen, Christian student
"But why an enormous mosque next to a church? It's a question of sensitivity and mutual respect. They shouldn't have built this enormous thing."

However, for Hariri's funeral at least, Georges' dark prophecy about the mosque's future failed to come true.

Muslims, Christians and Druze gathered together under its minarets, while the mingled sounds of Koranic recitation and church bells echoed all around.

It was a rare show of public unity, which may have had more to do with a shared rejection of biggest political assassination since the end of the civil war 15 years ago than universal acclamation for the former politician.

But alongside the physical reconstruction of the country during the post-war years, a new commitment to religious co-existence has also been emerging.

Religious and community leaders say that past resentments have now given way to a national identity in which Lebanon's multi-confessionalism is key.

"Now things have changed," said Mohammed Sammak, a Sunni Muslim journalist who was also political advisor to Hariri.

"Lebanon is Christian and Muslim, Muslim as much as Christian now."

Legacy of war

Lebanon's young - the first generation to grow up since the civil war - have also signed up to the new climate of tolerance.

Mourners at Hariri's grave last week
Different religious communities were united in grief over Hariri
At the Catholic university of Notre Dame in the Chouf mountains, Christian and Druze students study and socialise together.

"I've thought since I was a child that there was no difference between people," said 19-year-old Mazen, a Greek Orthodox Christian.

"I take a person for what he is, not his religion. I'm a Christian, but I don't check someone's ID to decide whether he's a friend or not."

Like many of his age, he is keen to move on from the legacy of the war, in which Christians and Druze fought for supremacy of the mountains.

"Let's say, for example, that a Christian killed one of his relatives in the war," he said, pointing to his Druze friend, "or say a Druze killed one of my relatives. We can't hate each other because of that.

"It was a war. Everyone knows the rules of war."

Limits of tolerance

But his generation is also running up against the limits of religious co-existence in what is still a deeply sectarian country.

Inter-marriage between the different religions is frowned up generally and Lebanon has no civil marriage ceremony.

For the Druze, a vulnerable minority who keep their religion secret, marrying someone from a different faith is strictly forbidden.

Mazen was in love with a Druze girl when she broke off the relationship.

"She was afraid that if we continued, there would be a problem in the Druze community," he said.

"If any Druze girl marries another religion, she's totally forbidden from her society, maybe also her family."

"That's the only problem I found with Druze society - they are good people, they love everyone.

But when it comes to religion, there's a red line that can't be crossed," he added.




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