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'We’ll Die Before They Make Us Leave': Lebanese Christians Are Ready to Face the Islamic State on Syria's Border

VICE News met some of the residents of Ras Baalbeck, in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, who are taking up arms to protect themselves from incursions by militant groups across the border from Syria.

by Patrick Strickland and Dylan Collins
May 4 2015, 3:38pm

Photo by Dylan Collins

The distant thud of rockets can be heard in the Lebanese border town of Ras Baalbek. Local Christian residents here fear that the spread of militant Islamist groups, who are simultaneously fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebel groups in Syria, could eventually spill over into Lebanon.

Militant Sunni groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, have made impressive gains throughout the last year, often slaughtering minorities along the way — including Christians, Shia, Alawites, and others.

This fear has prompted locals in Ras Baalbek to start stockpiling weapons, and hundreds of them have launched an armed volunteer group to patrol at night. The Lebanese military has also significantly bulked up its presence here and in other border areas.

Khalil al-Arish, a resident of the village, brings 15 years of military knowhow to the volunteer patrol. Today, he is a member of the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah militia designed for non-Shia Lebanese who support the political organization's efforts to defend Lebanon's soil.

"We have between 600 and 700 members in the village who volunteer to work the patrol without financial compensation," Arish told VICE News, adding that it includes members of Lebanese political parties from across the spectrum. "Each night, around 100 people go out on patrol."

The village of Ras Baalbeck, in the northern tip of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, sits several miles from the Syrian border and directly opposite IS-controlled areas of the Syrian city of Qalamoun. Photo by Dylan Collins.

According to Arish, the volunteers carry weapons and monitor the area, but if they "see anything suspicious," they phone the Lebanese military immediately. They also coordinate with Hezbollah security forces in the area.

He confirmed that members have received training and support from Hezbollah — the Lebanese Shia political organization fighting on the side of the Assad regime in Syria — but denied rumors that the group had provided them with arms. "Every household in Lebanon already has weapons, from the priest onward. Lebanese children are born already knowing how to shoot a gun," he joked.

"We buy weapons from wherever we can get them," he explained, adding that he brings his son on patrol with him "to teach him how to defend our village."

Though the four-year war in Syria has led to sectarian spillover in some parts of Lebanon, such as the increase in Sunni-Alawite fighting in the northern coastal city of Tripoli, locals say that it has improved relations between Christians and Shia in the Beqaa Valley area where Ras Baalbek is located.

"We have a strong relationship with Hezbollah and the [Lebanese] military," Hisham al-Raj, mayor of the 8,000 person village, told VICE News. "We all share the same fear."

Father Ibrahim, the priest of Ras Baalbek's local Greek Catholic church, said that IS militants have expressed a clear interest in taking over their village. "The geographical benefits of our village are two-fold," he said. "Not only would they take out our village of 'Christian infidels,' but they could also take over the neighboring village of Hermel, which is Shia. Taking over these two villages would connect the border of Syria to northern Lebanon and to the sea."

According to Ibrahim, both the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have recognized the IS's strategic interest in this area, and have acted accordingly. "It's clear they've decided that this area cannot fall. If it falls, there are serious consequences for the surrounding areas," he said.

"Of course, there are people in the village that aren't happy with our connection to Hezbollah, but our experience tells us that if there is a strong person and you can use his power for your own interests you should do it. This is Machiavellian politics, is it not? I mean, yes, I'm a priest, but I also have to think pragmatically," the father said with a chuckle.

Father Ibrahim stands in the center of his church in the border village of Ras Baalbeck in the northern Beqaa Valley. Photo by Dylan Collins.

Photo by Dylan Collins.

In this respect, Ras Baalbek is no exception. An October 2014 study conducted by the Beirut Center for Research and Information found that nearly two-thirds of Lebanese Christians believe that Hezbollah is protecting the country from the threat of militant Salafist groups like al Nusra and IS.

As of April 2015, the UN estimated that nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees had sought refuge in Lebanon. From that total, more than half are in the Bekaa Valley. Dozens of makeshift tent villages dot the hills and valleys around Ras Baalbek.

Human rights groups have documented intense discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon. In addition to being formally barred from many jobs, at least 45 municipalities across the country have placed curfews on Syrian refugees, according to Human Rights Watch. Elsewhere, they have become the target of attacks by state security forces and vigilantes alike.

Here in Ras Baalbek, local authorities have placed a 6pm curfew on refugees and limited their ability to work. "We haven't had any problems till now because they listen to us and follow our rules," Raj said sternly.

The mayor and Ibrahim claim that "terror sleeper cells" have been detected among Syrian refugees, though no evidence has been publicly produced to substantiate this claim.

The priest points to the alleged militant activity as a justification for the harsh restrictions on refugees, adding that the ongoing assault on Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq necessitate limiting the refugees' ability to move freely.

IS has made waves in international media by targeting minorities for bloodshed, as well as carrying out mass kidnappings, particularly in central and northeastern Syria areas which are home minority communities.

Photo by Dylan Collins

In Hasaka, a province in northeast Syria, IS took at least 262 Assyrian Christians hostages in late February. To date, only 19 have reportedly been released. And just last month, IS released a video purportedly showing its fighters beheading eight Shia Syrians in the country's Hama province.

"Look at what's happened to Christians in Iraq and Syria. I'm scared that maybe our turn is coming," Arish, the volunteer border guard, said. "How can we not be scared?"

Fear of a sudden incursion into the village by Islamic extremists has died down over the past few months, as the Lebanese army has reportedly increased its presence on the northern border region to nearly 25,000 soldiers.

Yet, these increased numbers have done little to deter militants. In April, al Nusra fighters clashed with Lebanese soldiers on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek.

In August 2014, when state security forces squared off with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Arsal, a Lebanese border town next to Ras Baalbek, at least 21 Lebanese soldiers were taken hostage. Three have been released, four have been executed and the rest remain in captivity. Despite the Lebanese government's claims to have made headway in negotiations for their release, an agreement has yet to be reached.

Just on the other side of the rocky border, Syria's Qalamoun Mountains have become the stage for prolonged fighting between Assad's regime forces and rebel groups, among them IS and al Nusra.

Due to its geographic makeup, Qalamoun's fall to rebel groups could pose a strategic threat to Hezbollah's hold on Lebanon, as well as cut off the group's access to Syrian cities such as Damascus, Latakia, and Tartous, among others.

Though fearful, Ras Baalbek's Christians say they intend to stay in their ancestral village by any means necessary.

"Listen, we were born in this village; we've been here more than 1,200 years. We have a church that is nearly 2,000 years old — it's the oldest church in Lebanon," said Arish. "Since then, our community has passed through countless wars and we're still here, and God willing, we'll stay here. We're stubborn. We'll die before they make us leave."

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Follow Dylan Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDyl