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Trickle Turns Into Flood : West Beirut Kidnapings Spur Exodus of Christians

Times Staff Writer

Many Christians have fled West Beirut in recent weeks following a sustained campaign of kidnapings between Christians and Muslims in the Lebanese capital.

According to a census carried out clandestinely by Christian clergymen, the Christian population in the capital’s western sector has declined to about 85,000 persons from 250,000 only a few years ago.

Nabil Aoun, a spokesman for the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, said his organization placed the number of Christians remaining at only 30,000.

While a number of factors are cited for the exodus--the Islamification of West Beirut is frequently mentioned--a steady trickle of departing Christians apparently turned into a flood when a wave of kidnapings began in mid-August.

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First Women Kidnaped

At least 58 Christians have been abducted, including three members of one family dragged screaming from their apartment overlooking the once fashionable shopping district on Hamra Street. Another innovation was that, the kidnapers took women hostage.

Adding to the disquiet, the bodies of four Christians were found dumped in a West Beirut vacant lot. They included the 81-year-old owner of a popular West Beirut cinema.

“Everybody is talking about getting out,” said one Christian woman, who requested anonymity. “People are selling their apartments to Muslims, which means they aren’t planning to come back.”

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The outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 left the capital divided into eastern and western regions separated by a no man’s land called the Green Line.

Thousands of Christians opted to stay on in predominately Muslim West Beirut, although Christian East Beirut is nearly devoid of Muslim residents. Most Beirutis regard the west as more cosmopolitan and less rigid than the east.

Nightclub Area

For years, Hamra Street dazzled with Christmas decorations every winter, and West Beirut boasted scores of pubs, bars and nightclubs.

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Now the tolerant nature of West Beirut seems to be a thing of the past. During Ashura, the Shia Muslim religious festival that ended last week, not only were all the bars forced to close down for 10 days, but even supermarkets were obliged to remove alcohol from their shelves.

Although it has gone virtually unreported, the abduction of Christians in West Beirut took place against a similar rash of kidnapings of Muslims in East Beirut. It is impossible to determine where the cycle began, however.

One Shia Muslim bank executive, Hassan Sabah, said that after a cousin was kidnaped in East Beirut, he drove from his office to the airport road and kidnaped five Christians at gunpoint.

“I fixed them breakfast every day and we became great friends,” he said. “After three days, the other side released my cousin, so I let them go.”

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Retaliation Abductions

Aoun, the Lebanese Forces spokesman, concedes that “we think there have been Muslims kidnaped because there have been kidnapings of Christians over there.”

To apply further pressure for the release of the Christians, the Lebanese Forces have closed the roads connecting the two halves of the capital, which amounts to a blockade of goods to West Beirut.

As a result, there have been significant bread and gasoline shortages in West Beirut recently, with long lines forming at dawn.

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On the Muslim side, gunmen have begun staking out the only crossing point where traffic is allowed to pass from one side of the city to the other, a place called Kaskas. The airport road has become a favorite abduction point, as well.

Denies It’s a Campaign

Although a number of Christians believe that the kidnapings represent an organized campaign to force Christians out of West Beirut, Amal, the Shia Muslim militia and the largest power in West Beirut, has denied that this is true.

Among the many theories being advanced in West Beirut, one popular is that Hezbollah, the fundamentalist “Party of God,” was behind at least some of the disappearances. According to this theory, Hezbollah is hoping to pressure other groups into allowing it onto the all-party security committee for Beirut, a form of semi-official recognition.

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Still others say that the Lebanese Forces are content to see Christians flee West Beirut, which further strengthens their hands in Christian areas.

“What most people don’t realize,” said one Christian resident, “is that these people are not moving to East Beirut. They are packing up their families and moving to the U.S. and Canada. They’ve had it with Lebanon.”


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