This may be the strangest way to decorate a Christmas tree: hanging a photo of the leader of Hezbollah. A Lebanese Christian woman named Randa Relam told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television that she hangs a picture of the radical Shiite group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah every Christmastime, honoring him on her tree.
“I hang the picture of Nasrallah on the tree every year as Jesus is our savior and Nasrallah is a gift from Allah and someone in whom we have great trust,” she told the channel, according an account posted on Ynet. “He has brought us great victories and his decisions are always the right ones.”
In an apparent effort to present a tolerant image of Hezbollah which the U.S. and others classify as a terrorist group, Al-Manar television devoted extensive coverage to the Christian holiday this year, broadcasting live feeds from masses in Lebanon, Syria and Bethlehem, France 24 reported.
Trying to improve its image in Lebanon is understandable considering Hezbollah faces unprecedented opposition domestically for its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, having sent thousands of militants to fight alongside Syrian government forces.
Besides providing coverage of Christmas services on its television channel, Hezbollah also sent its officials to meet Christian leaders as they celebrated the holiday.
Viewers of the conservative Shiite channel also had a rare opportunity to see women interviewed while not wearing veils, as they were Christian.
France 24 spoke to locals who said they believe Hezbollah’s aim is to position the party as a protector of minorities while Al Qaeda-linked jihadi Sunnis flock to next-door Syria to try to depose Assad and establish a sharia state.
Al-Manar news editor Ali Hajj Youssef told France 24, “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.”
A Lebanese Christian who didn’t want to provide his name believes Hezbollah wants to align itself with the Christian minority in the country, something he believes could benefit Christians in the future.
“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,” he told France 24.
“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,” Lebanese journalist Ali Hamade told France 24, adding Hezbollah is trying to “legitimize” sending its militants to fight in Syria.
“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,” Hamade said, thus comparing Hezbollah with its backer Iran which since President Hassan Rouhani’s election has been trying to present a more moderate image to the west.
Christians make up about 40% of the population of Lebanon.