More recently, Maronite Christians have been among the most feared militia fighters in Lebanon's civil war, waging fierce campaigns against Lebanese factions—Shiite, Sunni, Druze, and Palestinian—in the combat zones of Beirut between 1975 and 1990. But today Lebanon's Christians, once the majority, find themselves increasingly relegated to the same role that Christians elsewhere in the Middle East know so well. After decades of emigration, their numbers have fallen below 40 percent of the population. To cope, Maronite leaders have forged new alliances: one with the ascendent Shiite group, Hezbollah; another with a coalition of Sunnis and Druze. Meanwhile, the Christian militias have gone underground—but that doesn't mean they've gone soft.
Milad Assaf is a genial, middle-aged tile contractor who serves as a foot soldier in the Lebanese Forces (LF), a powerful Maronite political party. From the balcony of his bullet-riddled fifth-floor apartment in east Beirut, Milad has a clear shot at the sprawling Shiite neighborhoods that lie just beyond a busy thoroughfare marking the "red line" between Christian territory and that of the Shiite militias fighting for Hezbollah and its ally, Amal. "It's kind of like living in a shooting gallery," he says, laughing.
Milad was six years old in April 1975, when a gang of Christians ignited Lebanon's civil war by opening fire on a bus full of Palestinian refugees; they did it to send a message to the Palestinian fighters then roaming the streets of Beirut, who wanted to turn Lebanon into a base for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The bus attack, which killed 27 people, went down a block from Milad's house, in front of a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary. Despite hailstorms of small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and Israeli bombs that have whistled through the air here since 1975, the statue doesn't have a scratch on it. "Think about that for a minute," says Milad. "Tell me that's not a miracle!"
Milad's neighborhood, Ain al-Rumaneh, is a tough place, full of bullet-pocked apartment buildings and small shops. Every flat surface, it seems, is branded with the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a cross with its base sliced off at an angle, like a sword. After recent clashes with Shiites, Milad and his buddies raised a 15-foot wooden cross on the sidewalk and plastered a plywood wall behind it with huge posters of Jesus. Then they installed floodlights so that Hezbollah fighters across the road would get the following message 24 hours a day: "Ain al-Rumaneh is Christian. Keep the hell out."