Pope Benedict XVI had barely set foot on Lebanese grounds when demonstrators started burning a KFC restaurant in Tripoli, my hometown, in protest against the inflammatory anti-Islamic movie, the innocence of Muslims.
They were no more than a couple of hundreds chanting “we don’t want the pope…no more insults to Islam.” Some of these guys may have been among the vandals who just hours earlier had torn down the posters spread in some neighborhoods of the city welcoming the Pope.
I swallowed my disgust, not without a pinch of bitterness, and forced my self to think that this was another reason why this papal visit is so important and why its timing is so crucial.
There was a long list of social, political and even security related points I had in mind to defend my argument about the vitality of this visit and in ways that by far exceed the border of this country.
In light of last week’s events, I decided to write about Tripoli.
To say things bluntly, most of those who oppose the Syrian revolution, amongst them a big chunk of Syria’s minorities, Christians included, say they fear the ascension of Islamists.
A very viable argument: at the end of the day, nobody wants to see their city taken hostage by a bunch of angry bearded violent men who attack embassies and set restaurants on fire.
I know something like that can happen because I saw it happening to my own city.
But there is a long list of reasons why a city like Tripoli got to where it is today, and why some of its Islamists feel they can do what they did and get away with it.
I don’t want to go on talking about the details of how al-Tawhid took over the city turning it into the “citadel of Muslims” as so clearly states the Statute imposed on it main entrance that no one dares removing, despite that fact that the city’s Mufti Sheikh Malek al Shaar, whose mother is Christian by the way, says it has to be removed.
I don’t want to talk about how much security agencies –Syrian and Lebanese mostly but not exclusively- have over three decades contributed to creating and sustaining small groups of fanatics that could be used for all kind of agendas.
I don’t want to talk about the charities from the Gulf that invested in making Tripoli a more conservative city at the expense of its open mindedness and its creativity and even its prosperity.
I don’t want to even talk about the lousy politicians who have done nothing and have sometimes used the poverty and ignorance of the deprived parts of the city to secure their status, or about the deficient society that didn’t fight back in defense of its identity.
I want to talk about one of the biggest losses Tripoli has endured over the last three decades: the Christians, who were once, even in the darkest days of a sectarian civil war, at home in it.
I grew up in a Tripoli that celebrated Christmas and Easter and where people could enjoy a drink but still be friends with their more religiously committed neighbors.
Less people covered their hair, but those who didn’t, back then, never heard the obscenities that any unveiled –or even sometimes veiled- girl gets to hear those days walking even along the city’s upscale and liberal –whatever that means- neighborhood.
My best friend, as well as my mom’s, my favorite teacher, my father’s partner, our family doctor and even the owner of the shop we kept for special occasions: they were all Christians.
Now they are all gone.
Most of the young have immigrated and the old in their big majority have either followed their children or relocated in the nearby “safer” cities.
A friend who now lives in the U.S. told me that he and his wife were the only young people attending the Christmas mass in Saint Maron church. His own parents were there, along with a few other local couples, but mostly it was foreign domestic workers making the biggest chunk of the audience.
I recalled the days when I attended scout meetings in this church, and the many times I waited on its stairs for someone to finish their prayers.
It breaks my heart that my daughters will never know the Tripoli I knew and will never have the friends I met in it.
Yes, cities can fall to fanatics, but only because the moderates let them.
There are too many reasons we could put the blame on, war, poverty, ignorance, corruption, extremism, the Israeli occupation, the Islamic revolution in Iran, Sept. 11 but we are responsible too.
Each and every one of us.
What has been done to Christians in Tripoli was obscene. I still recall the stories of the young men whose feet were put in barrels full of wet concrete and then thrown alive in the sea, and the time that acid used to be thrown on girls wearing short skirts, but violence didn’t spare anyone. Muslims too received their share of killings and torture, and in bigger numbers given the fact that then too they were a majority.
But then the war stopped, the Christians left, the Muslims let them, and we all lost.
Fanatics aren’t the majority in Tripoli, they aren’t even the biggest minority, and among those, many would think twice before breaking the laws if they even doubted they could go to prison for breaking the law, or that the state is strong enough to stop them.
A man died in Tripoli’s demonstration today, and over 20 were injured, the situation looked even bleaker in other cities across the Arab and Islamic world. All that in the name of religion and because of a stupid film with a dubious origins that seems not to even exist. The story completely overshadowed events in Syria and it almost feels like the killing had stopped there and that hundreds of people didn’t lose the their lives just this last week. This is what makes the Pope’s visit now, his rethoric about diversity and co-existence and his calls to the Christians to stay in their land so important.
Moderate Christians and Muslims have every right to fear an Islamic rule in Syria, but united they can beat this possibility.
The real problem in Tripoli is that it needs to stop being the citadel of the Muslims and go back to what once it used to be.
(Alia Ibrahim is a Senior Correspondent in Beirut at Al Arabiya.)