The Al-Manar channel broadcast this photo showing a Christian woman decorating her Christmas tree with a photo of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.
 
Hezbollah’s television channel, Al-Manar, provided widespread media coverage of Lebanon’s Christmas festivities—an unusual move for the media arm of the Lebanese Shiite party. According to some of our Observers, this is a strategy intended to position the party as a protector of minorities.
 
Screenshot of a Maronite Christmas mass broadcast by Al-Manar. Credit: The Beirut Report.
 
Even though Hezbollah’s TV station broadcasts Christmas Mass every year, Al-Manar significantly increased their coverage of this year’s festivities. Various Christmas Masses were broadcast live from different churches in Beirut as well as from more remote areas, including from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s delegations went on official visits to meet Christian clerics, and were filmed by the channel’s cameras every step of the way.
 
An embrace between Christian and Shiite clerics, broadcast by Al-Manar.Courtesy of The Beirut Report.
 
Devout Christians were interviewed coming out of churches, including women not wearing veils -- a rare sight on Al-Manar channel. This special coverage surprised many people in Lebanon. Habib Battah, a journalist, even devoted an article to this subject on his blog, The Beirut Report, detailing the significant resources that went into Al-Manar's coverage.
 
Screenshot of an Al-Manar interview with a Christian woman coming out of mass.Courtesy of The Beirut Report
 
When interviewed by FRANCE 24, Ali Hajj Youssef, Al-Manar's news editor, provided the following explanation: “The channel is committed to openness toward others; this was always part of our culture, even before the start of the recent regional conflicts. We are, after all, all in the same boat in the face of the extremism that is threatening our region”.
 
Screenshot of the Al-Manar channel showing a church and a mosque in the same village.Courtesy of The Beirut Report.
 
Indeed, Hezbollah's military branch is fighting on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian conflict. According to Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, the goal is to protect Christian and Muslim minorities (Shiites are a minority in Syria) against religious extremists.
 
Hezbollah is a political and military Shiite organisation that was created in 1982 as an act of Islamic resistance against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The organisation benefited from the support of Iran as well as Syria via President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president. The European Union, and the United States before it, classified Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation in July 2013.

"The party is seeking closer ties to and more openness with the Christian community in Lebanon"

Hassan A. (not his real name) is a Shiite university professor. He lives in Beirut’s southern suburbs. 
 
It is true that the coverage was highly unusual compared with past years. We saw the channel’s journalists broadcast all day long from a considerable number of cities and villages. Hezbollah chose to do this because of the regional context. The party is seeking closer ties to and more openness with the Christian community in Lebanon [editor’s note: Christians account for just under half of Lebanon’s population], as well as in Syria and the region as a whole.
Screenshot from an Al-Manar presenter in front of a Christmas tree.Courtesy of The Beirut Report. 
 
Al-Manar’s desire for rapprochement is very much in line with the attitude of the average Shiite. Aside from political positions, we Shiites have adopted a compassionate outlook toward Christians, given that we are both minorities in the Middle East. But we Shiites have the means to defend ourselves.

"The goal is to create a common alliance in the face of Sunni extremism, which we see as a positive step"

Jean A. (not his real name) is Lebanese and Christian.
 
I believe that this special coverage reveals Hezbollah’s determination to work towards a real understanding between Christians and Shiites in Lebanon. The political rapprochement began in 2006 with the alliance between Hezbollah and General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. But now, we’re seeing a desire for closer connections that would allow each community to overcome their biases.
 
However, in my opinion, the Shiite community is the real target for this coverage. Al-Manar is seeking to familiarise its audience [which is primarily Shiite and pro-Hezbollah] with Christian rituals and the symbols surrounding Christmas. You’d be surprised by the level of ignorance that each side has about the other’s religion, even though Shiites and Christians live in the same cities and even sometimes the same neighbourhoods. Hezbollah is making it possible to create fraternal links with the Christian community. The goal is to create a common alliance in the face of Sunni extremism. This is a positive step for us Christians.

"Hezbollah is trying to falsely depictitself as moderate"

Ali Hamade is a Lebanese journalist that opposes Hezbollah.
 
Hezbollah wants to be seen as a moderate party that opposes radical Sunni groups like the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
 
I am actually surprised that this PR campaign came about so late. Through this positioning, Hezbollah is trying to legitimise its military engagement in Syria alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime, by endowing it with a noble cause.
 
On the domestic front, we must remember that the president’s term will be ending soon, in May. [Editor’s note: Lebanon's president is necessarily a Maronite Christian. Hezbollah will support a Christian candidate of its choosing]. Through this rebranding campaign, Hezbollah is trying to gain the support of undecided Christians. But this image of a moderate party and trusted interlocutor for the Christian community is being acquired through manipulation.
 
Thisapproach echoes Iran’s new communication strategy since the election of President Hassan Rohani. The Iranian authorities are trying to play the “alliance with regional minorities” card, knowing perfectly well that this will please western audiences.
 
 
Post written in collaboration with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).