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How Lebanon’s First Female Militant Made Her Fight More Faithful

Jocelyne Khoueiry inspired over 1,500 Christian women to enlist during the civil war, then shifted her efforts from arms to knees.
How Lebanon’s First Female Militant Made Her Fight More Faithful
Image: Marwan Naamani / AFP via Getty Images
Jocelyne Khoueiry, a former Christian Maronite Phalange party fighter, looks at an iconic picture of herself holding a gun during fighting in downtown Beirut in 1975 at the height of Lebanon's civil war.

On July 31, Jocelyne Khoueiry passed away mercifully five days before seeing Beirut destroyed, again. A key player in the civil war that once tore the city apart, she spent the rest of her life trying to stitch it back together, and all of Lebanon with it.

The Beirut explosion on August 4 reminded many of the worst days of the 1975-1990 conflict. The Lebanese capital divided into a Christian east and a Muslim west, alternately shelled by militias and foreign armies vying for control.

But though far smaller in scale than the blast at the port, the deaths caused by Jocelyne’s 1976 hand grenade also shook the nation.

Born as one of two daughters in a Maronite Christian family of ten, Jocelyne grew up across the street from the Beirut headquarters of the Phalange.

Originally a Christian youth movement dedicated to an independent Lebanon, the Phalange took great offense at the state-within-a-state formed by the 300,000 Palestinians who were fleeing war with Israel. The 1969 Cairo agreement gave the refugees sovereignty to organize their own communities and continue the armed struggle, with the blessing—though not involvement—of their host nation.

The Khoueiry family provided some of the earliest fighters to the Phalange Christian militia formed in response, and a not yet 20-year-old Jocelyne enlisted with her brothers. In 1975, the civil war broke out in earnest, and several Lebanese Muslim militias sided with the Palestinians.

Jocelyne was not a practicing Christian; she preferred the Beirut nightlife. But on May 7, 1976, on a routine patrol on the roof of the Regent Hotel, she had a vision. She said the Virgin Mary appeared to her, and she saw herself kneeling in veneration. But she was also overcome with a sense of dread, and prayed that God would protect the six other female fighters stationed there with her.

On the way down from the roof, she saw advancing Palestinian militants.

The Regent sat on a dividing line between mixed and wholly Christian neighborhoods of Beirut, and Jocelyne’s squad was completely alone. While the Phalange militia’s men had anticipated defending a different hotel encampment, a 300-strong regiment of Palestinians attacked the female outpost instead.

The battle lasted six hours. Eventually, Jocelyne risked exposure by climbing back to the roof, and threw down a hand grenade that miraculously killed the Palestinian commander. The militia scattered, and the line was held.

Jocelyne became a legend.

But in the years that followed, she contemplated becoming a nun.

“Nothing was enough for me,” Jocelyne said in a 2012 interview with Zenit. “I wanted to belong to God, and to belong to him totally.”

Various convents, however, turned her down, saying her place was in the world. She began studying theology at the Holy Spirit University to the north of Beirut. But when the fighting intensified in 1980, Bashir Gemayel, the charismatic leader of the Lebanese Forces which united the Phalange and other Christian militias, came recruiting.

Having long remembered her courage, he wanted Jocelyne to head a renewed women’s division. She was determined to turn him down.

But instead, she heard from God again.

“These young soldiers are wandering without a guide,” she sensed 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 for the Lebanese Forces. “I said no to Bashir, we don’t want them talking to our men—her girls will weaken them.”

But desperate times call for desperate measures.

“I was against women fighting, I was not very happy,” said Raymond Nader, a Lebanese Forces commander. “But deep inside of me, I thought that we needed them—just because we needed fighters.”

And then the scandal became a scourge.

“She instilled in us a sense of fear,” said Chaden Hani, a Muslim from the Druze sect, who as a teenager had to flee her home in the mountains due to the intensity of intercommunal clashes.

“Even their women are fighting—that means it is getting fierce, and shows their hatred toward us.”

But the scourge became an inspiration.

“Jocelyne was my hero,” said Nawal Fares, who enrolled with her at that time. “She was everything I wanted to be as a woman.”

Jocelyne eventually commanded 1,500 women during the war, serving in different capacities, including the front lines. She trained them during the day, and led Bible studies at night. And she set up a team of 30 priests and 12 female spiritual guides, who traveled with the fighters wherever they went.

All were dedicated to “the cause.”

“For us, Lebanon was as holy as God, as we mixed our nationalism and our Christianity,” said Chaftari. “Jocelyne was one of the pioneers who thought about the difference.”

It began in 1985, when Christian infighting soured her on the war. A faction including Chaftari and Nader overthrew the leader of the Lebanese Forces, who was very close to Jocelyne.

She announced her girls were laying down their arms, as politics divided her brothers in faith. Nader pleaded with her to stay with them. Jocelyne angrily rebuked him, telling him to leave with her.

He did not.

In time, Nader’s faction overthrew Chaftari’s. The final years of the civil war pitted Christian against Christian, weakening all. The 1990 Taif Accord humiliated the Christians. Their political powers were curtailed, and while one side’s leader was sent into exile, the other’s was sent to jail.

Instead of saving their country, they lost it.

Jocelyne, meanwhile, had shifted her struggle—from arms to knees.

For two years, she went into a spiritual retreat. Upon emerging, she mobilized anew.

In 1998, she founded the May 31st Movement for Lebanese Women. Dedicated to a Marian spirituality, it aimed to purify their spiritual lives and keep families together.

In 1995, she founded “Yes to Life,” expanding the focus to combat abortion.

And in 2000, she founded the Pope John Paul II Center, to lift up the marginalized.

“Maybe I didn’t choose my way,” Jocelyne toldL’Orient-Le Jour in 2015. “I just followed the signs God sent me.”

Jocelyne Khoueiry and Pope John Paul II
Image: Courtesy of Shiraz Awad

Jocelyne Khoueiry and Pope John Paul II

Meanwhile, God was also giving signs to her former colleagues in battle.

“After the war, many officers eventually encountered the God of faith, and not just of ideology,” said Fares, who became a leading member of the spiritual formation committee within the May 31st movement.

“And after coming to Jesus, they would go tell Jocelyne.”

In 1994, Nader said he experienced a life-transforming beatific vision. With a new spiritual orientation, he dedicated himself to reconciling once-feuding Christian officers.

It included his own reconciliation with the female colleague he 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 statement.

“Lebanon is more than a country,” said the pope. “It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism, for East and West alike.”

But while Jocelyne and Nader primarily focused their activities on rebuilding Lebanon by healing its Christian population, Chaftari’s vision was more inclusive.

Deemed a traitor at the time of his ouster from the Lebanese Forces, deep spiritual introspection led him to reevaluate his life. As an intelligence officer, Chaftari had given orders to decide if a captured Palestinian would live or die.

In 2000, he became the only Lebanese fighter from any religion 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, Muslim and Christian alike. Three years later, he succeeded with Jocelyne—after she read his book.

Though she 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 civil war-era Shiite Muslim leader.

“‘Thank you,’ Jocelyne told me,” Chaftari recalled. “‘You made me cross this fictitious line.’”

Later in her life, Hani traversed an even greater crossing, becoming a follower of Jesus in 2000. Eventually, she forgave the Christians for their conduct in the war. But though she understands “the cause,” it now troubles her for a deeper reason.

“I admire her love for Lebanon as a female patriot,” said Hani. “The blood in her boils in me as well.

“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 eventually found them, as did Hani. In 2017, Hani joined Arab Baptist Theological Seminary as their researcher in peacebuilding affairs. She co-leads its “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 final years when pancreatic cancer confined her mostly to her home. But he recalls how she continually kept up with “her girls,” veterans from the civil war who oversee her organizations.

Chaftari is convinced Jocelyne would have become more active in grassroots interfaith reconciliation, had she not fallen ill. He hopes “her girls” will take up his cause in the years to come.

But even though Jocelyne’s calling was to serve the Christian community of Lebanon, it intersected with the whole. She recalled counseling a Palestinian woman contemplating abortion. Challenging herself, Jocelyne stayed by her side through delivery, and compensated all the lost income from keeping the baby.

“Jocelyne’s faith in Lebanon was in a diverse Lebanon,” said Fares. “She never deviated from this path.

“She was not the same person as a fighter as she was before she died, but her life was an upward progression, toward God.”

Two days after her passing, God honored her original desire: Jocelyne was received and buried as a Carmelite nun.

As she once told an interviewer: “The grace of God does not allow the plagues of war to decide my behavior.

“I felt that I was really free.”

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