Lebanese Catholic University

LOUAIZE, Lebanon (CNS) — “Lebanon is not what you see on TV; it’s what you see here,” said Cyrill Reaidy, a marketing major, pointing to his fellow students and the sprawling new mountaintop campus of Notre Dame University-Louaize.

The English-language university, founded in 1987 by the Maronite Order of the Holy Virgin Mary, currently has about 6,000 students. International business and economics is its most popular degree program, followed by computer science and computer engineering.

Ameen Rihani, vice president for academic affairs, said the university adopted English and a U.S.-style curriculum to prepare students to pursue post-graduate degrees in the United States.

“We are not encouraging them to leave,“ he said. ”Part of our historical tradition is for students to study in Lebanon, go abroad for higher studies, then return home.”

Reine Hanna, a 21-year-old computer science major, said, “I would prefer to stay in Lebanon. My family and friends are here and that’s more important than any job.”

Emigration is a huge concern in Lebanon and the university, and many of its professors, are involved in a variety of research projects focused on what causes people to leave, who is leaving and its impact on the country.

Assaad Eid, vice president for research and development, said, “As Christians, we have to have this thing called hope. As teachers in a Catholic university, we must teach hope. But in the area, in the region, things are getting tense. When we see what is going on in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world,” Christians are right to be concerned.

“When Lebanese Christians have a child, the first thing they think about is getting the child a foreign passport” if the parents also hold citizenship in a North American or European country, he said.

The Lebanese population is estimated to be just more than 4 million people. Based on statistics from the Catholic churches in the country — Maronite, Melkite, Latin and Armenian — the Vatican estimates about 51 percent of the population is Catholic, although most researchers believe about one-third of the people living in Lebanon today are Christian, either Catholic or Orthodox.

No official census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932. The top political and military positions in the country are allotted on the basis of religious identity — for example, the president is always a Maronite Catholic — so many Lebanese fear a new census could trigger serious new tensions.

Joseph Ajami, chair of the university’s mass media department, said he believes only 25 to 28 percent of Lebanon’s current population is Christian.

Michel Nehme, a professor of political science, said his colleague’s figures “only take into account the people living permanently in Lebanon,” but the percentage of Christians would be higher if one counted the people living, working or studying abroad temporarily.

Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, chairman of the department of political science and an associate researcher with the Lebanese Emigration Research Center, said, “Christians have been leaving for more than 100 years.” Muslims emigrate as well, and in large numbers, but they do not tend to stay away like Christians do, he said.

The professor added that economic opportunities are by far the most important motive for leaving Lebanon, but Christians have the added “pull factor” of knowing there are well-established Lebanese Christian communities abroad that will support them and help them integrate.

He also said students at Notre Dame are not defensive about their Christian identity, but rather “are starting to ask themselves what is positive about being Christian” and what particular contribution Christians can make to Lebanon.

With the Muslims, especially the Shiites, starting more schools, hospitals and other social projects in Lebanon, he said, Christians can no longer claim to be the exclusive provider of those services.

Increasingly, he said, students are focusing on Catholic social teaching and the church’s peace agenda as important values to share with the rest of their country, especially in battling corruption.

“Today, Christians (in Lebanon) have been reduced to an ethnic group, not a witnessing church,” he said. “The entire field of ethics in government and business is being left wide open” and, he hopes, Notre Dame students will bring their faith to bear on those fields.

Clovis Karam, an anthropology professor, said, “Students are tired of the idea that we (Lebanese Christians) are martyrs. They prefer we talk about being witnesses for love and truth. The young would like to live as free people, not die here. That’s why they leave.”

CNS staff writer Cindy Wooden traveled to Lebanon with CNEWA in November.

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