Christians in Lebanon are arming themselves to combat the Islamic State and other jihadists who are threatening their villages, reports The National, a state-owned news agency in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or IS) jihadists control large swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, the latter of which borders Lebanon.
Christians in the Lebanese border towns of Ras Baalbek and Qaa near Syria have formed armed units to guard against ISIS and other jihadists.
ISIS has threatened to “crucify Lebanon’s Christians.”
An anonymous Western diplomat told the International Business Times (IBT) in late September that if ISIS crucifies “a Christian, it will set Lebanon alight.”
Rifaat Nasrallah, the commander of a group of Christians who have taken up arms to protect the Greek Catholic town of Ras Baalbek, claims there are “5,000 Islamist militants waiting to pounce” on Lebanon’s Christians, reports The National.
In September, IBT reported that there were 3,000 militants from ISIS and other jihadist groups in “the mountain range between Lebanon and Syria near the Sunni town of Arsal.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, Christians from various sects make up over 40 percent of the estimated 5.9 million people who live in Lebanon. The majority of Christians (21 percent of the population) are identified as Maronite Catholics.
“I’m a fanatic Christian,” Nasrallah told The National, while sitting in his home adorned with a statue of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix, and bottles of holy water. “How can I not defend my house and my family?”
“We all had guns anyway…Look at the facts on the ground; they kill Christians,” he added.
At times, Mr. Nasrallah said he receives weapons and backup support from Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and militia group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Sunni jihadists fighting for ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, threaten a cluster of Christian villages in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border.
“While the villages have been decorated with Christmas lights and inflatable Santa Claus figures, the festive spirit has been overwhelmed by fear,” notes The National.
Nasrallah refused to reveal exactly how many men he has under his command, but said it was “many more” than 60.
The Greek Catholic town that Mr. Nasrallah guards is strategically and symbolically important. Ras Baalbek is surrounded by Shiite villages.
“We have the [Lebanese] army to protect us, the other towns have the army and [Hezbollah],” Mr. Nasrallah told The National. “We are the first line of defense.”
Hezbollah considers the section of Lebanon that Nasrallah’s Christian group is defending as part of its heartland.
A band of about 60 men is also patrolling and guarding Qaa, another Christian village that is even closer to Syria.
“When the war [in Syria] started we were all scared. Now it’s become routine,” a Qaa patroller told The National. “We were afraid of death, but I’m not afraid to die for my village. You only die once.”
Fearing Christmas attacks by ISIS and other jihadists, some of the villagers have sent their wives and children away. Some people who left the village for work refuse to return for the Christmas holiday out of fear.
“This year, midnight mass will be held at 6pm instead of 12pm, because of fears of a night-time attack,” the UAE article mentions.
ISIS is known to have committed atrocities against religious minority communities in Syria and Iraq.