After Attacks, Lebanese Christian Town Casts Wary Eye on Syrian Refugees

The mourners packed the vast hall behind the Mar Elias Church and crowded around five white coffins, some clutching flowers or photographs of the dead. A marching band struck up a dirge, and relatives of the deceased raised their arms, wailing and swaying with the rhythm.

Outside, armored vehicles rumbled through the streets, and soldiers, police officers and militiamen stood on rooftops and guarded intersections, seeking on Wednesday to prevent further catastrophe from striking this ordinarily sleepy, predominantly Christian town.

Two days earlier, two waves of suicide bombers — four who carried out nearly simultaneous attacks in the morning and four who attacked in close succession in the evening — had blown themselves up here, killing five men and wounding dozens.

The attacks were a new, terrifying spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria, and they fractured the tenuous coexistence that had developed in Al Qaa and beyond between Lebanese residents and the Syrians who have flooded their towns seeking refuge from the violence at home.

In many ways, the questions in Al Qaa echo those that followed attacks in Orlando, Fla.; Paris; and Istanbul: How can a community protect itself from a lone assailant or a small team of attackers with guns or bombs? And local leaders are struggling with the same issue facing Europe as it deals with its own influx of migrants: How to balance the desire to help with fears that the newcomers could harbor a threat?

“It is not easy for people, when their sons have died or are in critical condition, to differentiate between terrorists and refugees,” the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, the Roman Catholic priest who oversees Al Qaa’s churches, said during an interview in his home. He had coordinated aid for refugees and would help lead the funeral for the town’s dead.

The scale of the refugee crisis in Lebanon would make Western leaders cringe. The country has added 1.5 million Syrians to a population of only 4.5 million, giving Lebanon the world’s highest refugee count per capita.

Much of that burden has fallen on towns like Al Qaa in the Bekaa Valley, where low rents, proximity to Syria and an abundance of agricultural jobs have encouraged so many Syrians to settle that they now outnumber locals in many towns, straining municipal services.

Al Qaa, which means “the bottom” in Arabic, sits in the valley’s northeast corner, at the foot of barren hills a few miles from the Syrian border. Its native population has dwindled to about 3,000 in recent decades, and there is little work for those who remain. Many of the town’s men serve in the Lebanese Army, returning home to tend apple orchards and olive groves after retirement. Other than the soldiers’ salaries, the central government provides little.

“I’d need to think a lot to come up with something,” said Elian Nader, a member of the town council, when asked what Al Qaa got from the state.

The town’s residents are nearly all Christians, and standing amid red flowers in the central roundabout is a towering statue of Mar Elias, or St. Elijah, holding a long, curved sword.

But relations with nearby Muslims are good. During the interview, Father Nasrallah quoted Moussa al-Sadr, a prominent Lebanese Shiite cleric. And during the funeral, another Shiite cleric in a white turban spoke from the pulpit, quoting the Quran and the Bible and lauding the dead as “martyrs for all of Lebanon.”

More than 20,000 Syrians have settled in the area around Al Qaa, according to local officials. Some rented empty apartments or farmhouses and took jobs as day laborers, while local and church officials helped the least fortunate secure basic services.

But the Syrians’ overwhelming numbers have made many nervous.

“We welcomed them and helped them, thinking that it was a short-term crisis,” said Mr. Nader of the town council. But as the war dragged on, destroying Syrian towns, many began to worry that the Syrians would never go home, he said, or that the extremism spreading in Syria would erupt in Lebanon.

Then, on the morning of June 27, a father and son from the town’s only Muslim family were eating the pre-dawn meal in preparation for the Ramadan fast when they spotted a stranger in their garden. When they confronted him, he blew himself up, wounding them both.

The blast was so loud that some residents thought they were being bombed from the air. When neighbors and the town’s ambulance rushed to the site, another attacker targeted them, also blowing himself up. Then another, and another.

Soon, the ambulance was smashed, five residents were dead, and others were on their way to the hospital.

That evening, residents were outside the church preparing for the funerals of the five killed in the morning when they saw a stranger approaching. One of the residents shot him, and he blew up. Other attacks followed near the church, a security office and an army vehicle, wounding dozens.

The attacks baffled the town’s residents, as they have played no role in the Syrian crisis. The Islamic State and the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda both have a presence across the border in Syria and regularly carry out suicide bombings. No group has claimed responsibility.

But the blasts inflamed tempers in a country drowning in refugees. Some politicians have gone on television to call for the refugees to be sent home or to be detained in camps. The anger in Al Qaa, too, has focused on the Syrians.

“Now, people won’t accept that the situation continues like this,” Mr. Nader said. “I welcomed you, and you hit the hand that I extended.”

The price for some refugees in Al Qaa was swift. Residents told them that they had 72 hours to get out, and no Syrians appeared on the streets on Wednesday. A group of shacks where refugees had lived on the edge of town stood empty, the locks on their doors broken and chickens left behind pecking at the dust.

The morning blasts had woken up the Juma family, who had fled Syria for Lebanon three years earlier and rented a simple two-room farmhouse in Al Qaa, where the parents lived with their four children. Once they learned there had been an attack, they expected the worst.

“As soon as I heard that the explosions were here, I said, ‘It’s over,’” Fariha Juma, the mother, said.

A day later, a group of local men looking for a suspicious person detained a group of Syrians including her husband, Abdul-Moti. They pulled the refugees’ shirts over their heads, bound their hands and beat their heads and chests.

“For sure, there is a broken bone,” Mr. Juma said, wincing with one hand on his ribs and a bright red abrasion on his cheek.

A Syrian family next door had already packed its belongings but had nowhere to go. None of the members of the family had legal residency in Lebanon, meaning they could be detained if they tried to cross security checkpoints.

Their landlord, Tony Matar, said he understood the anger of his fellow townspeople. His son was wounded in the attacks and was still in the hospital. Even so, he said it could be disastrous if they turned on the refugees.

“There are those who benefited the village and those who hurt it,” Mr. Matar said. “The problem now is that people talk as if all the Syrians are responsible.”