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People, Languages & Religions in Lebanon


Ethnic mixtures dating back to various periods of immigration and invasion are represented, as are peoples of almost all Middle Eastern countries. A confusing factor is the religious basis of ethnic differentiation. Thus, while most Lebanese are Arabs, they are divided into Muslims and Christians, each in turn subdivided into a number of faiths or sects, most of them formed by historical development into separate ethnic groups. The Muslims are divided into Sunnis and Shi'is. The Druzes, whose religion derives from Islam, are a significant minority. The Christians are divided mainly among Maronites, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics.

All the major groups have their own political organisations, paramilitary units and territorial strongholds. Other ethnic groups include Armenians (most of them Armenian Orthodox, with some Armenian Catholics) and small numbers of Jews, Syrians, Kurds and others. The number of Palestinians is estimated at 450,000-500,000. In addition, there are about 180,000 stateless undocumented persons. Some of these are inhabitants of disputed border areas.


Lebanon's official language is Arabic per article 11 of the Constitution. The law allows French to be used for some official purposes, and French is therefore considered as an administrative and national language. The majority of Lebanese people speak Arabic and either French or English fluently.

The colloquial variant of Arabic used in Lebanon is one part of a grouping of dialects called Levantine Arabic, differing in a way from the literary Modern Standard Arabic, owing its historical blend to Arabic, Turkish and the Syriac dialect of Aramaic. Lebanese people usually tend to mix a variant of French and English when speaking Arabic. In recent years, it has become increasingly common for Lebanese people, especially the better educated, to converse in a combination of Arabic, English and French whereby the same sentence would include words or expressions from the different languages.

Regional influences and occupations throughout the centuries could possibly explain why Lebanese people speak so many languages, even incorporating them into their own. In addition, due to the importance of the Lebanese diaspora and business interests of Lebanese worldwide, it has always been important to master languages other than Arabic.

In the Christian communities, until the Lebanese Civil War, it was seen as a mark of status to not speak Arabic. The reason for this could possibly be that Christians generally were educated in many of the French educational institutions and so a general Francophonic class emerged in their communities. English has been making significant headway in the past two decades. However, as the Muslim population increased in previously Christian areas, Arabic in public is omnipresent, not merely commonplace.


Religious communities in the Ottoman Empire were largely autonomous in matters of personal status law and were at times treated as corporations for tax and public security matters. Membership in a millet, as these groups were called in Ottoman law, gave the individual citizenship, and this position, although somewhat modified, has given Lebanese politics its confessional nature. Religion is closely connected with civic affairs, and the size and competing influence of the various religious groups are matters of overriding political importance. The imbalance of power between Christians and Muslims, aggravated by the presence of large numbers of Palestinians, was a major factor contributing to the bitter civil war in 1975-76.

As of 2002, it has been estimated that about 70% of the population practice Islam (5 legally recognised groups – Alawite or Nusayri, Druze, Isma'ilite, Shi'a and Sunni). Christians made up 23% of the population (11 legally recognised groups – 4 Orthodox Christian, 6 Catholic and 1 Protestant). The Maronites are the largest Christian group with Greek Orthodox being the second largest. There was also a small number practicing Judaism. Muslims have come to outnumber Christians as the result of long-term demographic trends and population displacements during and after the civil war. The main branches of Islam are Shi'a and Sunni.

Under an unwritten agreement made at the time of the National Covenant of 1943, the president of Lebanon must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi'a Muslim, with a ratio of six Christians to every five Muslims in the legislature. But this arrangement has subsequently ceased to reflect the strength of competing religious groups in the population and is widely criticised. The climate of religious freedom in the country has attracted a great deal of immigrants from neighbouring countries who are themselves facing religious discrimination. Both Christian and Muslim holidays are officially observed.





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