December 25, 2018


Christmas in Lebanon: 'Jesus Isn't Only for the Christians' (Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad, Dec. 24, 2018, NY Times)

BEIRUT -- The Iranian cultural attaché stepped up to the microphone on a stage flanked by banners bearing the faces of Iran's two foremost religious authorities: Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader.

To the left of Ayatollah Khomeini stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its tip. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.

"Today, we're celebrating the birth of Christ," the cultural attaché, Mohamed Mehdi Shari'tamdar, announced into the microphone, "and also the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution."

"Hallelujah!" boomed another speaker, Elias Hachem, reciting a poem he had written for the event. "Jesus the savior is born. The king of peace, the son of Mary. He frees the slaves. He heals. The angels protect him. The Bible and the Quran embrace."

"We're celebrating a rebel," proclaimed a third speaker, the new mufti of the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon, the rebel in question being Jesus.

The mufti, Ahmed Kabalan, went on to engage in some novel religious and political thinking: Christians and Muslims, he said, "are one family, against corruption, with social justice, against authority, against Israel, with the Lebanese Army and with the resistance."

The proclamations from the stage were applause lines -- perhaps against the odds, given that the audience at the Iranian-sponsored event on Saturday consisted mostly of observant Shiites from the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut. Occasionally, the crowd chanted praise for the Prophet Muhammad.

When a pair of Iranian bands flown in for the occasion began playing Assyrian and Persian Christmas carols, the audience clapped along.

From its founding as an independent republic, Lebanon has walked a tightrope, not always successfully, with its Muslim and Christian populations make up most of the country's 18 officially recognized sects.

Nearly 30 years after the end of a civil war in which Beirut was cloven into Muslim and Christian halves connected only by a gutted buffer zone, Lebanese from all different sects now commonly mingle every day at home, at work and in public.

But few seasons frame the everyday give-and-take of religious coexistence quite like Christmastime in Lebanon.

Posted by at December 25, 2018 8:00 AM