Lebanese Christians

BEIRUT (CNS) — Maronite Father Louis Matar believes in miracles, and he believes that if there’s just one Christian left in Lebanon, Christianity will survive in the country.

The priest, who spent 21 years as superior of the Maronite monastic community at the Shrine of St. Charbel Makhlouf — a holy place visited by 4 million people a year — said the miracle-seeking visitors include Christians, Muslims and Druze and are a demonstration that Lebanese can find the common values needed for coexistence.

But even if Christians continue to emigrate, he said, the Gospel spread from the Middle East throughout the world on the strength of the witness of just Twelve Apostles and “even with one Christian person to preserve the faith, the seeds of salvation and love will continue to be planted.”

Father Matar was one of the Lebanese Christians who met with reporters in early November during a visit organized by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a relief and development agency with offices in the United States and Canada.

The 93-year-old Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, received the group at his residence at Bkerke near Beirut.

“We have always had difficulties” in Lebanon, he said. “I am concerned, but I trust in God.”

“The young people are very anxious about the future, about jobs, but if we have faith, we must go on with life,” the patriarch 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. However, most researchers believe about 30 to 35 percent 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.

In the villages of Yaroun and Ain Ebel, in southern Lebanon less than two miles from the Israeli border, very few young people remain.

“There is a danger the Christians here will die out. Most people here are old,” said Father Marios Khairallah, pastor of the Melkite parishes in the two towns.

With little water, farming isn’t much of an option. And there is no industry in the area.

“A major problem is finding private investors because of the proximity to the border,” he said. No one wants to invest in the area, which has been the scene of repeated wars and shelling from Israel.

Tarek Matta, the deputy mayor of Ain Ebel, a predominantly Christian town, said the villages suffer because “anyone who wants to throw even just a stone” at Israel comes to the border towns. And the villagers pay the price when Israel has had enough.

“We are here because our roots are deep in this land, but that is not enough. We need support,” said Matta, a member of the Focolare Movement. “As long as there is blood in our veins there will be crosses on these hills.”

Rita Sidawi, 20, said, “Young people have very few options in this part of the country to study or work. They feel they have no choice: it’s either Beirut or go abroad.”

Sidawi studies in Beirut and lives there with her brother and sister. Their parents still live in Ain Ebel and the siblings return to the village most weekends.

Rita’s father, Saadi Sidawi, said, “We feel under siege, surrounded by non-Christians who won’t give our children jobs.”

Melkite Archbishop Georges Bacouny of Tyre said he has tried some of everything: giving seed money to start small businesses, using church property to build low-income housing for poorer Christians, and looking high and low for scholarships.

“Sometimes I wonder what I am doing. Things aren’t changing. Most of the young people dream of going to university and going away. They dream of it,” he said.

The only way to slow the rate of Christian emigration, the archbishop said, is to bring a just and lasting peace to the region.

Things are better in Beirut, a bustling city with universities, a construction boom and a thriving banking industry.

The seven Antonine priests who staff the Maronite parish of St. Elias in Antelias, about three miles north of Beirut, have their hands full. The parish has close to 40,000 registered members. The priests offer three divine liturgies each week day and seven on Sundays, including a children’s liturgy.

Antonine Father Joseph Abed Sater said his parish is the largest in Lebanon “and probably the biggest in the Middle East.”

Joy Choughary, 19, is a member of the parish and a university student preparing to be a teacher.

She said she is not confident about the future of the Christian community in Lebanon, but her faith teaches her to hang on to hope.

“The responsibility of having a family, raising a family here is frightening. It will take hard work,” she said. “There are people who want to go to Europe or the States, but many of us want to stay because of our families.”

Emigration is a worry shared by all the Christian churches in Lebanon. Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia, the Beirut-based patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, said, “The churches in the Middle East have a clear policy on emigration: we are against it.”

“The Christians should not leave the region,” the Orthodox leader said. “Christians belong here and they should stay firmly attached to our land and our tradition.”

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

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