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LEBANON: Proposed ban on sale of land between Muslims and Christians sparks controversy

January 4, 2011 |  9:54 am

ChurchMosque Labor Minister Butros Harb on Tuesday vigorously defended his controversial draft law that would ban the sale of land between Christians and Muslims for the next 15 years on the pretext of protecting Lebanon's Christian community.

Outraged critics have pointed out that the law is not only discriminatory and unconstitutional, but also fails to address the economic and political pressures pushing Lebanese of all sects to leave the country.

"There are suspicious sales of Christian lands as if there is a tendency to uproot Christians from their areas," he was quoted telling a local television news station by the news website Naharnet.

Harb's proposal does not appear to affect the sale of land by Christians to wealthy Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Peninsula countries who have invested heavily in the Lebanese real estate sector. Civil-society activists, politicians and ordinary people have reacted with disgust to the proposal, which some have called fear-mongering.

The draft law "is actually a direct violation of the constitution and the coexistence that is part of the constitution," said Kamel Wazne, head of the Center of American Strategic Studies. 

"Today they are calling for not selling land to someone from another sect, tomorrow they will want to outlaw intermarriage," he said. "The premise for the law is very racist, and if this is allowed to pass in Lebanon, it will set a very bad precedent for the country."

Harb did not respond to several requests for comment.

Botrous The proposal comes at a time of heightened anxiety among Christians in the region following recent violent attacks on churches in Iraq and Egypt.

Although Christians are widely thought to be a shrinking minority in Lebanon, no statistics are publicly available, and a census has not been conducted since 1932.

Rumors of an organized Shiite Muslim "takeover" of Christian areas have been amplified since the 2006 war between Israel and the militant Shiite group Hezbollah.

But the whispers were dismissed by even the group's staunchest political rival, Defense Minister Elias Murr, in secret American diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.

So far, the proposal does not appear to have the support needed in parliament to become law.  Harb may be playing politics, seeking to tap into the fears of a Christian minority that feels threatened by the demographic shifts of the last decades.

Among those who have come out against the proposed bill are Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Fneish, who  told Lebanon's Daily Star on Sunday that although he empathized with concerns over rising emigration, Harb's proposal failed to address the problems at the root of the phenomenon.

“We should look for the reasons behind the emigration of Lebanese and particularly Christians and act accordingly,” Fneish said. “Among these reasons is the lack of stability, destructive political ventures and economic recession."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photos, from top: a picture of diversity in downtown Beirut. Credit: Lebnen18 via WikiMedia Commons. Labor Minister Butros Harb wants to ban the sale of land between Christians and Muslims. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

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