On July 31st, Jocelyne Khoueiry passed away compassionately five days before Beirut was destroyed again. A key figure in the civil war that once tore the city apart, she spent the rest of her life putting it back together and all of Lebanon doing it.
The Beirut explosion August 4th reminded many of the worst days of the 1975-1990 conflict. The Lebanese capital was divided into a Christian East and a Muslim West, which were alternately bombarded by militias and foreign armies vying for control.
But although far smaller than the port explosion, the 1976 deaths from Jocelyne’s hand grenade also rocked the nation.
Jocelyne was born as one of two daughters in a Maronite Christian family of ten and grew up opposite the Beirut headquarters of the Phalange.
Originally a Christian youth movement committed to an independent Lebanon, the Phalange was very offended by the state within a state formed by 300,000 Palestinians who fled the war with Israel. The 1969 Cairo Accords gave the refugees sovereignty to organize their own communities and continue armed struggle, with the blessings – if not participation – of their host country.
The Khoueiry family provided some of the earliest fighters to the Phalange Christian militia formed in response, and a under 20-year-old Jocelyne joined her brothers. In 1975 civil war broke out in earnest and several Lebanese Muslim militias sided with the Palestinians.
Jocelyne was not a practicing Christian; She preferred the night life in Beirut. But on May 7, 1976, while on a routine patrol on the roof of the Regent Hotel, she had a vision. She said the Virgin Mary appeared to her and saw herself kneeling in adoration. But she was also overcome with a sense of fear and prayed that God would protect the six other female fighters stationed there with her.
On the way from the roof she saw advancing Palestinian militants.
The regent sat on a dividing line between the mixed and all Christian parts of Beirut, and Jocelyne’s party was completely alone. While the men of the Phalange militia expected to defend another hotel camp, a 300-strong Palestinian regiment attacked the female outpost instead.
The battle lasted six hours. Eventually, Jocelyne risked exposure by climbing back on the roof and dropping a hand grenade that miraculously killed the Palestinian commander. The militia dispersed and the line was held.
Jocelyne became a legend.
But in the following years she thought about becoming a nun.
“Nothing was enough for me,” Jocelyne said in a 2012 interview with Zenith. “I wanted to belong to God and belong to him completely.”
However, various monasteries rejected her, saying her place was in the world. She began studying theology at Holy Spirit University north of Beirut. As the fighting intensified in 1980, Bashir recruited Gemayel, the charismatic leader of the Lebanese armed forces who united the Phalange and other Christian militias.
After long remembering her courage, he wanted Jocelyne to head a renewed women’s department. She was determined to refuse him.
Instead, she heard from God again.
“These young soldiers are walking without a guide,” she felt God say. “Give them the gospel and teach them the true faith.”
Within two minutes she said yes.
And the legend became a scandal.
“We were described as monsters, but the ladies were different,” said Assaad Chaftari, deputy intelligence chief of the Lebanese armed forces. “I said no to Bashir, we don’t want them to talk to our men – their girls will weaken them.”
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
“I was against women who fought, I wasn’t very happy,” said Raymond Nader, a commander in the Lebanese armed forces. “But deep down I thought we needed them – just because we need fighters.”
And then the scandal became a scourge.
“It made us feel fearful,” said Chaden Hani, a Muslim from the Druze sect who, as a teenager, had to flee her mountain home because of the intensity of intercommunal clashes.
“Even their women fight – that is, it gets violent and shows their hatred of us.”
But the Scourge became an inspiration.
“Jocelyne was my hero,” said Nawal Fares, who was enrolling with her at the time. “She was everything I wanted to be as a woman.”
Jocelyne eventually commanded 1,500 women during the war and served in various capacities, including the front line. She trained them during the day and conducted Bible studies at night. And she put together a team of 30 priests and 12 spiritual leaders who traveled with the fighters everywhere.
All were dedicated to the “cause”.
“For us, Lebanon was as holy as God when we mixed our nationalism and Christianity,” Chaftari said. “Jocelyne was one of the pioneers in thinking about the difference.”
It began in 1985 when Christian struggles brought them into the war. A faction that included Chaftari and Nader overthrew the leader of the Lebanese armed forces, who was very close to Jocelyne.
She announced that her girls would lay down their arms when politics divided her brothers in faith. Nader asked them to stay with them. Jocelyne reprimanded him angrily and told him to go with her.
He did not.
Over time, Nader’s faction Chaftaris fell. In the final years of the civil war, Christians stood against Christians and weakened everyone. The 1990 Taif Accords humiliated Christians. Their political powers were curtailed and while the leader of one side was exiled, that of the other was sent to prison.
Instead of saving their country, they lost it.
Jocelyne had meanwhile shifted her fight – from her arms to her knees.
She went into a spiritual retreat for two years. When she appeared, she mobilized again.
In 1998 she founded the Movement for Lebanese Women on May 31st. It was dedicated to a Marian spirituality and aimed to purify their spiritual life and keep families together.
In 1995 she founded Yes to Life and expanded its focus to include the fight against abortion.
And in 2000 she founded the Pope John Paul II Center to uplift the marginalized.
“Maybe I didn’t choose my path,” said Jocelyne toldL’Orient-Le Jour in 2015. “I was just following the signs God sent me.”
Image: Courtesy of Shiraz Awad
In the meantime, God also gave signs to their former fellow combatants.
“After the war, many officers eventually encountered the god of faith and not just ideology,” said Fares, who became a senior member of the spiritual education committee within the May 31 movement.
“And after they came to Jesus, they told Jocelyne.”
In 1994, Nader said he experienced a life-changing blissful vision. With a new spiritual orientation, he devoted himself to the reconciliation of once feudal Christian officers.
It included his own reconciliation with the colleague he had once offended, Jocelyne.
Together they worked to prepare Lebanon for the 1997 visit of Pope John Paul II. And she consulted with him on Lebanon: The Message, the 2007 political project inspired by the celebrated papal declaration.
“Lebanon is more than a country,” said the Pope. “It’s a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
While Jocelyne and Nader primarily focused on rebuilding Lebanon by healing the Christian population, Chaftari’s vision was broader.
A deep spiritual introspection, considered a traitor at the time of his fall from the Lebanese armed forces, caused him to reevaluate his life. As an intelligence officer, Chaftari had given orders to decide whether a captured Palestinian would live or die.
In 2000, he was the only Lebanese religious fighter to publicly apologize for his role in the war. And it offended even Jocelyne, who, despite her reservations, still believed in the purity of the “cause”.
In 2014, Chaftari co-founded Fighters for Peace to reconcile everyone, both Muslims and Christians. Three years later he succeeded with Jocelyne – after reading his book.
Although she had never joined his organization, in 2018 Jocelyne went with him to West Beirut – the Muslim Quarter – to give a speech on the role of women in peace and war. She joined the daughter of a prominent Shiite Muslim leader from the civil war.
“Thank you,” Jocelyne told me, “recalled Chaftari.” ‘You made me cross that fictional line.’ “
Later in her life, Hani crossed an even bigger intersection and became a follower of Jesus in 2000. Finally, she forgave the Christians for their conduct in war. But although she understands “the cause,” it now worries her for a deeper reason.
“I admire her love for Lebanon as a patriot,” said Hani. “The blood in her boils in me too.
“But I still blame the Christians – they had a knowledge of Christ while we didn’t. There were other ways to fight for Lebanon. “
Jocelyne finally found her, as did Hani. In 2017, Hani joined the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary as a peacebuilding researcher. She is co-leader of the Friendship Network to bring together lay Christians and Muslims, often from non-integrated areas of Lebanon.
Nader continued his friendship with Jocelyne through the difficult last few years when pancreatic cancer largely confined them to their home. But he remembers keeping up with “her girls,” veterans from the Civil War who oversee their organizations.
Chaftari is convinced that Jocelyne would have been more active in grassroots interreligious reconciliation if she hadn’t gotten sick. He hopes that “their girls” will take up his cause in the years to come.
But although Jocelyne’s calling was to serve the Christian community in Lebanon, it intersected with the whole. She recalled counseling a Palestinian woman who was considering abortion. Jocelyne challenged herself, stayed by her side during the delivery, and made up for any loss of income from keeping the baby.
“Jocelyne’s belief in Lebanon was in a diverse Lebanon,” Fares said. “She never deviated from this path.
“She wasn’t the same person as a fighter as she was before her death, but her life was an ascension to God.”
Two days after her death, God honored her original wish: Jocelyne was received and buried as a Carmelite nun.
Like them once told One interviewer: “The grace of God does not allow the plagues of war to determine my behavior.
“I felt really free.”
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