BEIRUT: Interior Minister Raya El Hassan Thursday called on the governor of Mount Lebanon to investigate the Hadath Municipality’s years-old ban on selling or renting property to Muslims, after a viral Facebook post brought the issue back to the limelight.
During a phone call with local news channel LBCI, Hassan said she strongly rejected such a measure being applied “in Hadath or - God forbid - other municipalities.” She added that the ban was unconstitutional and promoted a “sectarian discourse [that] contradicts coexistence.”
She made the remarks two days after Facebook user Mhammad Awwad published a post that has since gone viral, saying that while looking for a house to rent in Hadath, a landlord asked him whether he was Muslim or Christian, “as the municipality forbids me” from renting to Muslims.
Hadath Mayor George Aoun acknowledged the municipality has been preventing Christians from selling or renting their property to non-Christians, “because Hadath used to be a [majority] Christian [town] in the ’90s ... and our Shiite brothers purchased 60 percent of it following the war.”
He told The Daily Star the municipal council decided in May 2010 to implement the ban, which was shortly after he took office.
In 2011, the municipality started erecting signs that read: “To keep Hadath a town for its residents, do not sell your house. Do not sell your land ... the municipality will not sign [the paperwork] for you.” Similar signs are still posted in the town.
“But we did not say it is forbidden for Muslims to buy. We just told the Christians to stop selling,” the mayor said.
According to Aoun, of Hadath’s 110,000 residents, between 60,000 and 70,000 of them are Shiite. The de facto measure is being applied to “what is left of the area,” he said, referring to the 45 percent of the land owned by Christians. “The rest is for Muslims.”
Aoun argued that the town was an example of “coexistence” between Muslims and Christians, and that the ban was backed by residents and political parties. “This is our decision and we are proud of it,” he added.
Baabda MP Alain Aoun, affiliated with the Christian party the Free Patriotic Movement, told The Daily Star the issue was being “exaggerated” and “being given a sectarian dimension.” He said the practice originated from “a sort of understanding” between the FPM and Hezbollah “to maintain as much as possible the original residents” of the area and avoid demographic change.
Based on this “understanding,” the MP said the mayor started enforcing the ban, especially as the town has experienced an influx of new residents since the end of the Civil War (1975-90). “It’s not about Christians and Shiites, it became a destination for all groups.”
The understanding, he said, also involved the return of a plot of land in Hadath’s Warwar from a group of Shiite businessmen who had purchased it to a Christian owner in 2014.
Hezbollah could not be reached for comment.
The issue of demographic and sectarian balance remains sensitive in Lebanon, especially after the Civil War. The Taif Accord that marked the end of the war calls for an equal balance between Muslims and Christians in state positions.
And, the Constitution maintains, “Lebanese territory is one for all Lebanese. Every Lebanese shall have the right to live in any part thereof and to enjoy the rule of law wherever he resides. There shall be no segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging, and no fragmentation, partition or settlement of non-Lebanese in Lebanon.”
Reacting to Hassan’s remarks to LBCI, MP Aoun said, “no one is saying this is not constitutional. ... This has to do with political understandings and Lebanon’s nature.”
And in a separate interview with LBCI, Mayor Aoun claimed that “demographic change eliminates coexistence,” which he said he considered a violation of the Constitution.
By Thursday evening, the hashtag #Hadath was trending, with Lebanese Twitter debating whether the municipality’s ban was discriminatory.
One user described it as “shameful.” Another defended it, saying Hadath’s mayor was “a red line, especially since he is the most honest person.”
Mount Lebanon Gov. Mohammad Mekkawi will now question the mayor on the issue and submit a report to Hassan afterward, an Interior Ministry source told The Daily Star.
The minister had told LBCI that if the report confirms the ban is being enforced, she will ask the mayor to put an end to it. If he refuses, the ministry source said, Hassan will ensure that it is no longer enforced.