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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 19:47 GMT 20:47 UK
The divided loyalties of Lebanon
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Bikfaya

Lebanon is a country of many faces. In a society of large Muslim (both Shia and Sunni), Christian and Druze minorities, it does not speak with one voice.

Smoke rises behind a church in Beirut after an Israeli air strike
Many Christian areas outside Beirut have been largely untouched

The contrast between Beirut's southern suburbs and the town of Bikfaya nestled high in the mountains behind the city is stark.

Beirut's southern suburbs are home to about 500,000 Shia Muslims. The streets lie empty. Israeli bombing has killed or chased the life out of the area.

Bikfaya is a different story.

The town is home to about 20,000 Christians and it is untouched by Israeli bombing.

Residents can be seen out on the streets.

But Hezbollah's cross-border raid into Israel, in which it captured two soldiers, widened the gap between the Shia suburbs and this town.

Since the attack, Israel has bombed much of the country's infrastructure - Beirut's airport, ports and main roads - and killed more than 300 Lebanese civilians and militants.

Hezbollah criticised

Beirut's southern suburbs are a stronghold for the militant Islamic organisation and many of the residents - even those who have been forced to leave their homes - support the group's actions.

But many of Bifkaya's residents are horrified by what has happened.

Destroyed buildings in Beirut
Some Lebanese blame Hezbollah for the crisis

While criticism of Hezbollah does not exclusively break along religious lines - many Muslims both Shia and Sunni have been critical of the group - it is felt keenly in Bikfaya.

Many of the residents in this town make their living out of tourism - renting out houses, and running restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops.

What was lining up to be a bumper tourist season now lies in tatters as tourists flee the country.

"The only people that come in here are those wanting passport photographs to leave," said a camera shop owner in the town who would only give his name as Basim.

"I blame Hezbollah for our current troubles," he added.

"We're paying a high price for Hezbollah's actions. This war is not of our choosing; it's not of the Lebanese government's choosing; it's all down to Hezbollah. I think 95% of the people in this town would agree with me."

Religious divisions

Talking about politics - particularly along religious lines - is a delicate subject in this country.

Memories of the civil war that engulfed Lebanon for 15 years are still fresh.

But Samuel Kharrat, a church minister in Bikfaya, said that most of the residents would agree that the future looked bleaker.

This is a Christian town and many of the residents aren't happy about the Muslims coming here
Jessica, Bikfaya resident

"Two weeks everything seemed okay, but now many people feel the opposite as if they are starting from the beginning again," he said.

"People are losing faith here. They are physically affected and worried about the future."

Following the bombing, hundreds of Lebanese citizens, some of them from the southern suburbs, are seeking refuge in the town.

But one woman who would only give her name as Jessica said many of the refugees were not welcome.

"This is a Christian town and many of the residents aren't happy about the Muslims coming here. If a big group of Christians went to a Muslim town they probably wouldn't be welcome either."

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