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During the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, Western countries looked at the Levant and concluded that they could guarantee their commercial and strategic interests by dividing the region between conflicting powers. In the 1840s the middle core of today’s Lebanon (Mount Lebanon) witnessed growing tensions between the Christian Maronites and the Druze, the principal faiths in that part of Greater Syria. Under pressure from the Western powers, the land was divided into two districts subordinate to the feeble sultanate: a district for the Maronite Christians in the north (to be supported by the French) and one for the Druze in the south (to be supported by the British). The division wasn’t only a geographical one; it was an economic and social class one — between the Druze as feudal landlords and the peasant Maronites. The road between Damascus and Beirut marked the border between the two divisions.

This Western-imposed division exacerbated social and economic pressures, leading to a rebellion among the Maronites: the so-called Revolution of Keserwan. The conflict resulted not only in horrific crimes but also in the devastation of the silk crops. The result was the complete destruction of the silk industry in the whole of Greater Syria followed by general impoverishment and a further inflammation of the conflict. The ground for this had been prepared for a long time, as foreign missionaries from Europe and America flooded into the region under the cover of religion. Who can argue against building new churches, schools, and cultural centres? But in reality the new schools aimed to teach foreign languages and to create rival loyalties to those that had grown up indigenously. The incoming missionaries were in effect dividing economic opportunities and power networks by religion — their own religion being the privileged one. Thus the sect of Catholic Christians in Homs developed originally from economic leverage. In those times of political collapse the missionaries and their cultural affiliates opened the door for their converts to privileges that were hard to obtain by other means. So people from other sects, such as the Orthodox Christian, started converting into what was to be perceived as a concubine sect. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those were the adopted dynamics from the beginning of foreign interventions in the declining Ottoman Empire.

The trick was to apply pressure, while creating the terms that required just such pressure to be maintained. It was a strategy that facilitated penetration into the body of Syrian society, through building “special” commercial relationships with the Christians and Jews of Greater Syria. Loyal subjects who were taught to master Western languages and modern skills earned their positions as translators and commercial representatives for the Americans and Europeans residing on the shores of Lebanon, from where they could “protect their interests” while keeping an eye on “minority rights”. For such a noble purpose the foreign masters granted nationality and diplomatic immunity to their indigenous servants.

As today, you may hear of the massacres that happened to the Christians of Syria in the 1860s but you don’t hear in what contexts such horrible crimes were committed, who was behind them, who has stood up in the face of them, how the bloodshed was stopped and at what cost. Like the conflict today, it was called the Syrian civil war. And like today, people blamed the problem on its effects rather than its cause.

The riots in Mount Lebanon between the Maronites and the Druze spread into the capital, Damascus. But what appeared as religiously motivated violence was in fact caused by economic imbalance, itself the result of social injustice and social isolation.

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An Gíogóir
September 4th, 2017
2:09 PM
Talk about a one sided account. It is indeed true, that in some cases, Christians were protected by their immediate neighbours. But it was solely because of Western intervention that the Christians of the area weren't exterminated, as they were in Anatolia.

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