Page last updated at 07:35 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 08:35 UK

Armenians jump Lebanon's divide

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Anjar

Lucine, her daughter Madlen and her granddaughter Lale
Lucine (left) sees no need even to learn Arabic in her hometown of Anjar

In the centre of the village of Anjar, a simple white monument to Christian martyrs cuts into the blue sky.

"These are our heroes," Yessaya Havatian says, as his finger traces the curly letters carved into the white stone of the monument.

He reads out the names of 18 Armenians who were killed by the Turks in 1915 and who are buried in Lebanon.

"We brought their ashes with us when we came to Lebanon, two of my relatives are among them," he adds.

In the early 20th Century, hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Lebanon fleeing the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.

Over the years the Armenian community became an integral part of Lebanon's diverse demographic and political landscape, but it also succeeded at preserving its language and traditions.

Armenian is still the main language spoken in Mr Havatian's family. His mother, Lucine, remembers coming to Anjar as a 12-year-old girl.

"There was nothing but desert here. We lived in tents as we built our own village," she says.

Her wrinkled faces lights up with pride as she adds that 70 years on, she still does not speak a word of Arabic.

"What do I need Arabic for?" she smirks dismissively. "If they want to talk to me, they should learn Armenian."


Guided tour of Armenian shrine in Anjar with Yessaya Havatian

The younger family members chuckle - both amused and embarrassed by the grandmother's lack of political correctness.

Unlike her, they feel not only Armenian but also Lebanese. They speak Arabic fluently and they are also keenly aware of the role they are about to play in defining Lebanon's future.

Strength through unity

In the upcoming parliamentary election in June, the main Armenian political party, Tashnak, looks set to play kingmaker.

The vote of the 150,000-strong Armenian community may sway the outcome of the bitter and close race between the pro-Western government and the opposition led by Hezbollah, a Shia group backed by Syria and Iran.

Anjar encampment, 1939
The Armenian community first settled in Anjar in the eastern Beqaa in 1939

In the run-up to the election, politicians from both blocs have been fighting for the Armenian votes.

But of the three Armenian parties, Tashnak enjoys most support and it has already made its choice, joining the Hezbollah-led alliance.

"What makes us strong is our unity. That's how we survive as a community, that's how we preserve our identity - and that's why I'll vote with everyone else," Mr Havatian says.

But voting for the opposition is also highly unusual for the Armenian community, which has traditionally gone with the government, not against it.

In Lebanon's confessional political system, Armenians - like other major religious and ethnic communities, have an assigned number of seats in parliament.

For years, these seven seats were always won by the Tashnak Party.

But in 2000, a new law backed by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri redrew the electoral map of Beirut, dividing the Armenian neighbourhoods among districts with Sunni Muslim majorities.

As a result the Tashnak party lost seats to lesser-known Armenians who supported the Sunni Muslim prime minister.

"We were forced to go to the opposition," says Tashnak MP Hagop Pakradounian. "We simply cannot trust the government anymore."

For the Tashnak party and its supporters, the June election is a chance to re-establish its parliamentary foothold.

Local tensions

Since Tashnak is campaigning under the opposition umbrella, winning seats will also mean securing overall victory for Hezbollah.

Mr Pakradounian argues that his Christian constituency has plenty in common with the radical Shia movement, with its powerful armed militant wing, known as the Islamic Resistance.

Our priority is to be independent as a community, because that is the only way for us to keep our identity and our heritage. Today it's Hezbollah that makes us feel safe
Armenian politician Hagop Pakradounian

"We believe in resistance. We, as Armenians, are also against oppression, against occupation," he says.

"Hezbollah was set up to fight Israel, and the occupation. We too know what it's like to have your land occupied"

Not everyone agrees - an editorial in one of Beirut's newspapers recently warned the Armenian community to be "prudent with their choices", and to examine the consequences of "any breach of their historical neutrality".

Anjar itself is one potential example of how such alliance with Hezbollah could backfire.

It is surrounded by Sunni Muslim villages and Yessaya Havatian thinks there is a danger these could turn against the Armenians if they help the Shia Muslim bloc get into government.

"It gets tense here sometimes," Mr Havatian admits. "During elections it may get even more tense."

But the main Armenian party is adamant about the choice it has made.

"In politics, there are priorities," says Mr Pakradounian. "Our priority is to be independent as a community, because that is the only way for us to keep our identity and our heritage," he says.

"Today, it's Hezbollah that makes us feel safe, and we believe that its Hezbollah that can help us protect our identity," he says.

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