Devotees of Hezbollah will have noticed a distinct touch of Christmas spirit this week, in particular on the Lebanese-based militant group's television channel, Al-Manar.
According to French rolling news channel France 24, the channel had a massive drive to deliver live coverage from all the masses in all of the churches in Beirut, from far-flung locations in Lebanon, the cathedral in Damascus, and even the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The channel also gave extensive coverage to visits by delegations from Islamist group to Christian sites across Lebanon.
Nasrallah on the Christmas tree
Al-Manar also presented an item on Randa Relam, a Christian woman from the southern outskirts of Beirut, who every year hangs an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah
on her Christmas tree.
"I hang the picture of Nasrallah on the tree every year as Jesus is our savior and Nasrallah is a gift from Allah and someone in whom we have great trust," she explains. "He has brought us great victories and his decisions are always the right ones."
Al-Manar is considered to be a deeply conservative channel, and interviews with Christian women are a rare opportunity to see women without the traditional Islamic head coverings.
Some 40 percent of Lebanese citizens are thought to be Christian, and adherents to the faith have a long history in the country. Lebanese Christians are followers of multiple churches, the largest and most active of which is the Maronite Church, which has ties to the Catholic Church. The second largest is the Greek Orthodox Church.
Lebanese Christians have no particular relationship with Hezbollah. In fact, Christian leaders such Samir Geagea and Amin Jumayal are key members of the March 14 Alliance, which is opposed to Hezbollah.
France 24 tried to fathom why Hezbollah, which is hardly known for a big-tent approach, would suddenly devote so much air time to Christmas. The head of news for Al-Manar, Ali al-Hajj Youssef, told France 24 that, “The channel is committed to openness toward others; this was always part of our culture, even before the start of the recent regional conflicts. We are, after all, all in the same boat in the face of the extremism that is threatening our region."
The French news station also included an interview with a Lebanese Christian identified as "Jean", who told them that, "I believe that this special coverage reveals Hezbollah’s determination to work towards a real understanding between Christians and Shiites in Lebanon."
But, says Lebanese journalist Ali Hamade, a Hezbollah critic, this interest in Christian holidays is an attempt by Hezbollah to give credibility to its support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad, whose response to an uprising by his opponents has been met with a brutal response.
"Through this positioning, Hezbollah is trying to legitimize its military engagement in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime, by endowing it with a noble cause," he told France 24.