Boutros Harb (Photo: Reuters)
A draft law calling for a 15-year ban on property sales between Lebanese Christians and Muslims has sparked controversy, with many saying it is aimed at stemming the sale of Christian land to Hezbollah supporters.
"An unhealthy situation is developing and all I am doing is raising the alarm bells," said Labour Minister Boutros Harb, author of the proposal submitted last month. "I am saying out loud what everyone else is whispering," he told AFP.
Harb, who is Christian, said he drafted the law out of concern for "organised or semi-organised" real estate purchases by one religious confession from another.
"Lebanon symbolises coexistence between the various religions and if one pillar of this coexistence crashes, the whole country falls," he said. "I want to preserve Lebanon's diversity."
Although the minister did not specifically refer to any particular religion or political party, many Lebanese politicians and media reports say Harb's proposal is clearly aimed at preventing the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies from acquiring huge swaths of real estate in Christian areas.
"Hezbollah's expansionist real estate, security and demographic policies that translate into the purchase of land are part of a strategy that could change the face of Lebanon in 2020," warned an editorial in the Arabic-language daily An-Nahar this week.
Christians once constituted the majority in Lebanon but they now make up an estimated 34 per cent of the four million population, with Muslims -- both Shiites and Sunnis -- and minority Druze accounting for the rest.
Harb's proposal has sparked heated debate in the country with critics saying it smacks of racism, is unconstitutional and is a dangerous move toward "religious segregation" that harked back to the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Some critics also say that the real danger as far as real estate in Lebanon is concerned is from foreigners and wealthy Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries who have invested heavily in the sector.
An official from the Christian Maronite church recalled that during the civil war, in 1984, a Shiite religious leader had issued an edict forbidding the sale of property owned by Muslims to non-Muslims for fear of Shiites fleeing the country at the time en masse.
"Every time a community in Lebanon feels threatened it has this kind of reaction," said the official who requested anonymity.
He added that the situation today had become "worrisome" for Lebanon's Christians even though he did not believe they were being systematically targeted.
"We have a study that shows that in the eastern Bekaa region for example, nearly 68 million square metres (732 million square feet) of land owned by Christians was sold to non-Christians in the last five year," he said.
He also pointed to the central Mount Lebanon region, where it is said that companies with ties to Hezbollah are buying up tens of thousands of hectares (acres) to build high rises.
Edmond Gharios, head of the municipality of Chiyah, a mixed southern Beirut suburb located in Hezbollah's stronghold, said financial gains outweighed any religious considerations when it comes to real estate sales in the area.
"When one offers you 700,000 dollars for 200 square metres, you're going to take it and leave," he said. "No one knows whether this is all organised or not, but it's clear that it's the same people who keep on buying.
"Entire (Christian) families are leaving the area because you now have to be a millionaire to live there," he added.
"The civil war encouraged the Christians to emigrate in large numbers and money is now helping accelerate that process."