SAFED, Israel, June 1 (RNS)--In March, a contingent of 1,000 south Lebanese Christians gathered to attend a huge outdoor Mass near this town overlooking the Sea of Galilee to greet Pope John Paul II during his pilgrimage here. Little did they imagine that they would be returning 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Shimon, like most refugees, asked that his family name not be published for fear of reprisals against relatives left behind. He is now living with his family in a run-down hotel in the Galilean hilltop community of Safed after fleeing south Lebanon last week during the Israeli withdrawal. An army medic, Shimon and his family were among the 6,400 south Lebanese villagers aligned with the now defunct South Lebanese Army militia who abandoned their homes in fear of reprisals from the Islamic Hezbollah now controlling the area.

Although the Israeli-supported SLA militia was a religious and ethnic melting pot, 90% of the south Lebanese who have now taken refuge in Israel are Catholic and Orthodox Christians who say they fled because they fear that they could never live peacefully under Hezbollah rule.

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

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II has expressed his "concern" for the civilian population in south Lebanon. But the Vatican has made no mention of the refugees. And locally, both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox church hierarchy in Israel are shunning the new arrivals, while prominent Arab Christians have publicly scorned them as political "collaborators" with Israel, saying they would be unwelcome in Arab Israeli towns and villages.

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

But in the minds of most refugees, including Camille, it is the Christians 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 Jesus carried 2,000 years ago," said the French-educated doctor with a grim smile, as he organized medical care for the sick and prescribed tranquilizers for the depressed at Safed's Hotel Tel Aviv.

The doctor moved with his family four times within south Lebanon in order to escape waves of sectarian violence aimed at the south Lebanese Christian minority over the last 20 years. Now, at age 50, he must start over once again. Families like his are being housed in about a dozen locales around Israel in second-class hotels in tiny rooms chock-full of nothing but beds and a cable television.

The plight of today's refugees, says Camille, is merely one more chapter in the long tragedy of Lebanon's Christian community--a community once a politically dominant majority but today, after decades of 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 the shadow of economic instability, Islamic fundamentalism, and Syrian political domination, propelling masses of young, educated Christians to emigrate westward.

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

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

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

Even small, everyday frictions can lead to violence that can quickly spiral out of control. The provocation can be a Christian woman walking sleeveless 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 of the security zone near Sidon sounded the church bells, nearby Muslim neighbors complained," he recalled. "The bells were silenced and the bell ringer was arrested. When armed militias enter a Christian village or church in search of suspects, the priests don't protest or try to protect their congregants in the same way that an Islamic sheik would be able to do so in a Muslim village.

"The priests, you see, also live in fear."

For most of the refugees, the sudden entry of the Islamic militants into the area came as a surprise despite the years of tensions, said Beverly Timgren, a dental hygienist and Canadian citizen. Timgren, an evangelical Christian, was the only foreigner working permanently in the security zone. She spent 16 years building and managing a dental clinic for residents of the area.

"To me, the security zone seemed to be a model of co-existence between Christians, Muslims, and Druse," she said, referring to the three religious groupings prominent in south Lebanon. "Relations within the zone were friendly and peaceful, and the primary role of the Israelis and the SLA was to guarantee security. The Israelis also gave a lot of aid to local communities that had been abandoned by the Lebanese government. They built schools, paved roads, and improved medical services."

Timgren fled her rented Marjayoun home along with the rest of the refugees last week, just an hour or so ahead of the advancing Hezbollah troops.

Now reunited with her old Lebanese friends on the other side of the border, she has begun to collect aid from Christian evangelical groups that are either politically neutral or unabashedly pro-Israeli in their outlook.

"Most of the Lebanese Christians who have fled are Maronite and Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox," she said. "But these local churches are in a precarious situation here in the Middle East, and leaders often fear repercussions if they appear to take sides. The evangelical Christians who represent institutions abroad can more openly offer assistance to all in need."

Many Orthodox Israeli Jews have also rushed to the refugees' aid. They include men like David Ben Shimon, a tour guide and native of Safed, who fought alongside the Lebanese force as an Israeli soldier in Lebanon and whose own grandfather hails from the Ba'albek region of eastern Lebanon.

"The community in Tzefat (Safed), religious and secular, has tried to help them as much as possible," said Ben David, meeting with refugees in the Hotel Tel Aviv lounge.

"For 18 years the south Lebanese suffered innumerable sleepless nights in order to keep Katyusha rockets away from Galilee towns like Safed," said Ben David. "So the least we can do is to spend a few sleepless nights now helping them out."

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