Finally, tragically, the jihad of the so-called Islamic State and other groups is approaching Lebanon. And a masterful Associated Press newsfeature captures the facts and feelings with admirable sweep.
News of conflicts and atrocities has spread almost as fast as the jihadis themselves, filling Christians in Lebanon with "dread," as AP aptly terms their reaction. "If they come, they will slit our throats for no reason," a rifle-toting villager tells AP.
As the Christians buy guns and take defensive positions, Reporters Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam present intense snapshots and broad brushstrokes alike in this indepth, which reads fast despite its 1,200+ words. Here's an example:
Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria are now sheltering in Lebanon, sensing safety in a pluralistic country which has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East. Lebanon is also the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.
But the fear has spread to Lebanon as well. This week, after a video was posted online showing a group of boys burning an Islamic State flag in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, vandals spray-painted the outer walls of several churches in northern Lebanon with the words: "The Islamic State is coming."
In Qaa and Ras Baalbek, two Christian villages in the northeast, on the border with Syria, the anxiety is palpable. Many of the thousands of expatriates who used to spend the summer here stayed away this year. Restaurants and the villages' main squares were deserted on a recent day.
The AP story reports on increasing attacks on the borders and propaganda even in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. The story also works in background on Christians in Iraq and Syria as well as Lebanon, with numbers, and assessments of strength.
The article recalls how various groups -- such as Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians in the northeastern Syrian region of Hassakeh -- traditionally lived together in peace before the current onslaught of the so-called Islamic State and other jihadi groups.
There is so much data here, in fact, that the numbers and proper names threaten to overwhelm us readers. It would have helped to include a regional map showing where the various groups lived, and perhaps where they’ve had to flee. I've heard, for instance, that many Christians fled Iraq for Syria, only to get caught in still more fighting -- and often direct persecution.
Backing up the facts are six quoted sources on various levels. They include a political activist in a border town, Lebanon's foreign minister, a militiaman, a father and two housewives. Many people fearfully spoke only on condition that their real names not be used, AP reports.
Where are the Christians getting weapons? That's an irony of recent history, as AP notes:
The arming effort is backed by some leftist and communist Lebanese militias who have long had weapons. The Shiite armed group Hezbollah has also indirectly supported such efforts, seeing the communities as a first line of defense for Shiite towns and villages in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region."
The paragraph also illustrates AP's habit of political labeling by western categories. Elsewhere, the story mentions the "right-wing Phalange party" and the "right-wing Christian Free Patriotic Movement," without explanations. The "leftist" and "rightist" tags, borrowed from French politics of the 18th century, don’t necessarily fit social and political movements in the Middle East.
That's a minor flaw in an otherwise powerful account of the jihadi war and its Christian targets. The article is a fine example of reporting under conditions that are difficult at best, and -- as the murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff remind us -- dangerous at worst. As newspapers increasingly cut back, indepth reports like this are needed more than ever not just to inform, but to foster understanding.
Don’t leave the AP story without viewing the 10-photo slideshow. It shows churches, villages, refugees and aid in food and water -- a poignant filmstrip on the Middle East Christians' plight.