Lebanon in Crisis: A Land of Patriarchs and History

Depending on the season — and these days, security — Lebanon is home to a number of Christian patriarchs, each of whom leads a distinct and proud community dating hundreds of years. What are the origins of these patriarchs?

“Patriarch” is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for father or chief of a clan, family or race. The title was reserved for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob, and King David. In a more general sense, patriarch also refers to many if not most of the great figures of the books of Moses.

In the early Christian period, this title — as with many other Jewish titles — was applied to Christian dignitaries. Many bishops were called patriarchs as an expression of honor, noting they were fathers of Christian communities. These titles were not recognized as official.

After the Roman emperor Constantine extended toleration to the empire’s Christians in 313 A.D., the title of patriarch indicated a certain rank in the hierarchy of the church, chief bishops of major cities associated with the works and ministries of the apostles. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, held in the year 325, formally recognized the patriarchal rights held by the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Not only were these cities the major economic and political centers of the empire, they were also connected to the person and ministry of St. Peter.

As Christianity flourished, believers flocked to the sites associated with the stories of the Bible. In the year 326, Constantine’s mother, the dowager empress Helen, journeyed to the Holy Land in search of the instruments of Jesus’ passion and death — uncovering the sacred sites long revered in secret. As pilgrimages increased to the sites associated with Jesus, Jerusalem’s bishop was viewed increasingly as a patriarch. The fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) officially constituted the bishopric of Jerusalem as a patriarchate.

Constantine’s decision to move the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek port of Byzantium dramatically altered life in the Mediterranean world. As the city of the emperor, Constantinople, increased in size and wealth so, too, did the prestige of its bishop, who sought patriarchal recognition. The Council of Chalcedon cited Constantinople as the “residence of the emperor and the Senate” and established the church as a patriarchate with jurisdiction over Asia Minor and Thrace.

Since Chalcedon, the church was considered to have five major patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. This “pentarchy” is considered by most theologians and historians as essential to the constitution of the church.

Even as the fathers of the ecumenical council in Chalcedon confirmed the patriarchal structure of the universal church, cultural, linguistic, philosophical and political disagreements among them fractured it. This happened particularly in the Patriarchate of Antioch, then centered in the capital city of the empire’s province of Syria, which includes the territory of modern Lebanon. Non-Greek speaking Christian communities elected rival patriarchs, which after succeeding generations evolved into rival patriarchal churches.   

Today, the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch is led by Patriarch John X, whose see is based in the old city of Damascus. But from time to time the patriarch takes up residence at Balamand University, near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where the church has a prominent theological academy.

The Syriac Orthodox Church, which evolved from the early church in Antioch, is led by Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. While the patriarchal see is located in Damascus, the patriarch travels frequently, pastoring his flock living in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and the West.

Over the centuries, antagonism grew between the churches of the East and the church of Rome. Eventually communion between these churches was ruptured, separating the Catholic West from the Orthodox East. Attempts to restore full communion have waxed and waned over the centuries, and Catholic parties were formed within these Orthodox churches. Eventually, rival Catholic patriarchs were elected and Eastern Catholic churches formed, rooted in the Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox traditions.

Today, the patriarchs of both the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church, Patriarch Youssef I of Antioch of the Melkites, and Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III, respectively, spend many months of the year in Lebanon, where their seminaries are located.

Lebanon is home to two Armenian patriarchs, one Apostolic and the other Catholic. This reflects the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide, when some 1.5 million Armenians perished in the lands that now compose the nation of Turkey. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria. (Turkey disputes the term genocide and the number of the dead and expelled.) Eventually, the leaders of the Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic churches in the former Ottoman Empire restored their sees in Lebanon. Catholicos Aram I shepherds his worldwide flock from the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Armenian Catholic Patriarch Krikor Bedros XX resides northeast of Beirut, in the patriarchal monastery of Bzommar.

The Maronite Church, however, is Lebanon’s largest Christian community. Driven into the peaks and valleys of Mount Lebanon for more than a thousand years, the Maronites have persevered in their Eastern and Catholic faith, forging a unique relationship between patriarch and people, and playing a crucial role in the creation of modern Lebanon.

The fortunes of the Maronites are often tied to those of Lebanon; to separate either of these symbiotic entities would do neither of them justice. But equally inaccurate is the suggestion that to be Maronite is to be Lebanese, or vice versa. Some 10 million Lebanese live elsewhere, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania; as many as half are Maronites.

Bechara Peter Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, not only shepherds a worldwide church from Bkerke, located high in the mountains overlooking the port and city of Beirut, but is a constant voice for Lebanon, hammering home the message of Christian-Muslim coexistence, that Lebanon is not just a nation, but a message.   

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