In Lebanon and the Middle East, saying you were or are part of “the Resistance” almost always means one thing today, that you are part of the axis of powers working for Iran: the Iranian and Assad regimes, Iranian-controlled militias and politicians in Iraq, Hezbollah and Hezbollah-controlled politicians and parties in Lebanon, and some Palestinian terrorist groups.
Jocelyne Khoueiry (1955–2020), who died on July 31, was a “resistance” fighter, but not the type of resistance found on Che Guevara t-shirts and among the Iranian axis. She was part of a Lebanese Christian resistance to foreign occupation and revolution. As a teenager, she joined the Kataeb or Phalangist Party and joined the party’s militia in 1975. In the early stages of the Lebanese Civil War, they fought in the famous “battle of the hotels” and on other fronts. Less than five years earlier, Palestinian guerrilla groups tried and failed to overthrow the Jordanian government, and now another version of that drama played out in Lebanon. Leftist and Arab nationalist groups allied with the Palestinians in the initial stages of a war that would last a generation.
Khoueiry was born into a rural Maronite Catholic family, but when the war broke out she “was not a practitioner, I was more taken with the lights of Beirut.” Khoueiry was immortalized in a series of photographs showing her in action: an attractive young woman in a tank top and blue jeans firing her Kalashnikov at Palestinian gunmen during a May 1976 firefight in downtown Beirut. She was 20 years old. She reportedly took out a Palestinian commander with a hand grenade dropped from a building. Some would call her the Lebanese Joan of Arc.
The Lebanese Civil War was not a long continuous conflict but many clashes on different fronts—between enemies and ostensible allies, part revolution, part struggle for survival, and part gangland fighting between rival cartels. The fighting began to bring Khoueiry back to her faith, and she spoke of lighting a candle to the Virgin Mary behind the sandbags and imploring Our Lady for safety for the young girl fighters in her care, some of whom told their parents that they were helping out as nurses or making sandwiches. Khoueiry once said that “this tragic experience gave me the perception that not only does God exist but He is present. We were in a place forsaken by all, but God was there.”
As with others who are marked by conflict, she thought that there must be more than war, and in the late 1970s she thought of becoming a Carmelite nun. Instead, in 1980 Lebanese Forces commander Bashir Gemayel—a polarizing figure both beloved and demonized to this day—summoned her. She expected to be offered some sort of military command and was ready to reject it, but she was allowed to provide some sort of moral and spiritual guidance to people who had been hardened and brutalized by war. Some lives, a few, were changed by the power of the Gospel. But by 1985 she was finished with both war and politics as the cynicism and bloodletting—among all sides, including her own—reached epic proportions.
Khoueiry turned to the spiritual life she so desired, studied theology, and in 1988 began her first charitable organization, “The Lebanese Women of May 31st” (May 31 being the Catholic Feast of the Visitation of Mary, when she visited Saint Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke). Appropriately, the organization and others that would follow would be concerned mostly with providing social and spiritual support for women and families, in Lebanon as in other places shattered by war, abuse, and divorce. In September of that year in Castel Gandolfo, she met Pope John Paul II, who told her that he was sure she could make great contributions to her country in ways other than fighting.
That same year Khoueiry was immortalized in the documentary The Killer (La Tueuse) by pioneering Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab. Khoueiry would be far better known in France and Italy than she ever was in the Anglophone world.
In 1995, motivated by the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, she founded another NGO, “Yes to Life,” focusing on right to life issues from conception to natural death. In 2000, a third organization she started, the John Paul II Center for Cultural Dialogue, worked to reconcile families and marriages and for interfaith dialogue. She received her doctorate in theology and was a prominent lay delegate to the Vatican’s 2014 Synod on the Family.
In 2016, Jocelyne Khoueiry spoke movingly of God’s love expressed through families and highlighted the traditional family as the indispensable element of stability and social peace. She noted the strengths of Eastern Christians, particularly in Lebanon, that faith traditions are still alive, and that the church, unlike in other places, has no shortage of vocations. But she also decried how “young people, especially Christians, in Lebanon are influenced negatively by the cultural contributions of de-Christianized West through social and mass media.”
The old fighter also highlighted in her remarks the terrible situation of Syrian and Iraqi Christian refugees trapped in Lebanon, “living in humility with a smile in impossible situations,” abused and cheated by all, “including, I am sorry to say, even by some Lebanese Christians.”
Upon her death, Jocelyne Khoueiry was honored by many of Lebanon’s Christians. The old Kataeb Party, for which she had fought (and where her brother Sami was a high ranking official), honored her as did the Carmelite Sisters she had thought of joining. Some were less generous and could never forgive her because she never fully condemned her past or that political party; she never repudiated “her side” of that fratricidal conflict. The fact that she had moved on from Christian identitarianism to a broader and more generous faith would never be enough for those critics.
But looking at the Lebanese Civil War and the country’s many travails, which continue to this day, one must think that she chose a better path compared to those who made the war a racket or a political career that continues to this day. For a decade, she was a resistance fighter, and then for more than three decades she fought, truly, for her faith, human dignity, and those most marginalized and downtrodden among us.