SAFED, Israel, June 1 (RNS)--In March, a contingent of 1,000 southLebanese Christians gathered to attend a huge outdoor Mass near thistown overlooking the Sea of Galilee to greet Pope John Paul IIduring his pilgrimage here. Little did they imagine that they would bereturning so soon--this time not as pilgrims but as refugees.

"We want to send a letter to the pope telling him of our plight,"said Shimon.

Shimon, like most refugees, asked that his family name not bepublished for fear of reprisals against relatives left behind. He is nowliving with his family in a run-down hotel in the Galilean hilltopcommunity of Safed after fleeing south Lebanon last week during theIsraeli withdrawal. An army medic, Shimon and his family were among the6,400 south Lebanese villagers aligned with the now defunct SouthLebanese Army militia who abandoned their homes in fear of reprisalsfrom the Islamic Hezbollah now controlling the area.

Although the Israeli-supported SLA militia was a religious andethnic melting pot, 90% of the south Lebanese who have now takenrefuge in Israel are Catholic and Orthodox Christians who say they fledbecause they fear that they could never live peacefully under Hezbollahrule.

"We were afraid of the Hezbollah because they want to create anIslamic state in all of Lebanon," said Camille, a doctor from the southLebanese Christian stronghold of Marjayoun, who arrived here with hiswife and three young children May 24.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II has expressed his "concern" forthe civilian population in south Lebanon. But the Vatican has made nomention of the refugees. And locally, both the Catholic and GreekOrthodox church hierarchy in Israel are shunning the new arrivals, whileprominent Arab Christians have publicly scorned them as political"collaborators" with Israel, saying they would be unwelcome in ArabIsraeli towns and villages.

"The last thing we want is to be connected to these people," saidone Arab Catholic church figure in Israel, speaking on condition ofanonymity. "Personally, as far as I am concerned, they should bereturned to Lebanon and sentenced for what they did."

But in the minds of most refugees, including Camille, it is theChristians who have been victimized in the south Lebanese tragedy,merely for being different than the dominant Muslim population.

"I think we're still carrying the cross of persecution that Jesuscarried 2,000 years ago," said the French-educated doctor with a grimsmile, as he organized medical care for the sick and prescribedtranquilizers for the depressed at Safed's Hotel Tel Aviv.

The doctor moved with his family four times within south Lebanon inorder to escape waves of sectarian violence aimed at the south LebaneseChristian minority over the last 20 years. Now, at age 50, he must startover once again. Families like his are being housed in about a dozenlocales around Israel in second-class hotels in tiny rooms chock-full ofnothing but beds and a cable television.

The plight of today's refugees, says Camille, is merely one morechapter in the long tragedy of Lebanon's Christian community--acommunity once a politically dominant majority but today, after decadesof war and violence, only about one-third of the nation's population.

A country once described as the Switzerland of the Middle East,because of its strong economy and liberal society, today lives in theshadow of economic instability, Islamic fundamentalism, and Syrianpolitical domination, propelling masses of young, educated Christians toemigrate westward.

"I grew up in the south Lebanese seaport city of Sidon in a timewhen there were not all of these extremists," said Camille. "WeChristians lived peacefully alongside Lebanese Muslims and even Jews.But after the 1967 Six Day Arab-Israeli War, when south Lebanon became aguerrilla base for operations against Israel, we were forced to fleerepeatedly to Christian enclaves farther and farther away.

"Now we prefer to live freely in Israel or in a foreign land, ratherthan to be in our own land under repression.

"We have nothing against Muslims per se. But on the ground, theChristians of south Lebanon don't have the same rights as the ShiiteMuslims today," he said. "Many of the Christian villages of southLebanon have been emptied of everyone except the elderly and the infirm.The residents live in constant fear. Now the same Christian villagesthat were part of the security zone face a similar fate."

Even small, everyday frictions can lead to violence that can quicklyspiral out of control. The provocation can be a Christian woman walkingsleeveless in a Muslim district or a man who is caught eating, drinking,or smoking in public during the Islamic fast month of Ramadan.

"Last Easter, when Christians in a south Lebanese village outside ofthe security zone near Sidon sounded the church bells, nearby Muslimneighbors complained," he recalled. "The bells were silenced and thebell ringer was arrested. When armed militias enter a Christian villageor church in search of suspects, the priests don't protest or try toprotect their congregants in the same way that an Islamic sheik would beable to do so in a Muslim village.