Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s roots run deep in what is today the modern nation of Lebanon. Founded in 1926 to serve the Eastern churches, CNEWA began its work rushing aid to Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean Christian refugees who sought refuge in Lebanon’s remote mountains and canyons as they fled the horrors of post-Ottoman Turkey — a centuries-old practice among the region’s minorities, Christian and non-Christian. Today, Lebanon is home to the Middle East’s most complex and diverse society, baffling policymakers, especially in the West.
The country’s constitution, which was adopted in May 1926, officially recognizes 18 religious communities: Antiochene Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, Melkite Greek Catholic, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Christians; Sunni, Shiite and Ismaili Muslims; Jews; and the Alawi and Druze, which are esoteric sects rooted in Shiite Islam. Each community has competence to legislate family law according to its own customs, traditions and courts. Such constitutional recognition has also created a special political system to distribute power as equitably as possible, making Lebanon the most complex state in the Middle East — if not the world.
While sectarian differences are often blamed for the violent clashes that have impacted Lebanon over the years, the sources of conflict are not theological but economic, familial and political. Each group jockeys for influence and power; they are not homogenous internally. Druze, Shiites and Maronites, for example, are plagued by divisions that threaten to create permanent fault lines within each community. And, as most communities have allegiances beyond Lebanon’s borders, regional powers continue to influence — even dominate — internal dialogue and positioning.
Lebanon remains the only country in the Middle East where Christians continue to play a major cultural, political and social role. The president of the republic may only be elected from the Maronite Catholic community. In addition, the chief of the army must be drawn from the Maronite community and half of the members of parliament and cabinet must be Christian — this despite the fact that Christians no longer command the majority of the country’s population.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to practice all religious rites, provided public order is not disturbed. In practice, the government respects these rights. Despite years of civil strife, the relationships that developed as a result of interreligious communication have also contributed to a sense of tolerance and the free exercise of faith. Consequently, thousands of persons fleeing religious mistreatment and discrimination in neighboring states have immigrated to the country, including Syrian Sunnis and Kurds, Shiite Arabs and Chaldean Iraqis, as well as Coptic Orthodox Egyptians and Christian Sudanese.
Despite internal displacement and emigration, Lebanese Christians continue to represent more than a third of the total population. Most view their particular church as their point of reference and expect their respective hierarchs to take leading roles in the economic, political and social spheres.
As poverty increases, those in need — Christians and Muslims — have turned to Lebanon’s many Christian institutions for help. In Pope Benedict XVI’s historic 2009 meeting with Lebanon’s prime minister, the pope recalled “the importance of the work of Christians in the country” on behalf of “the entire society, especially through its educational, health and welfare institutions.”
Ironically, as more Lebanese look to the churches for food, medical and tuition assistance, care for the vulnerable and the aged, Christian-operated efforts — strapped for funds — are increasingly unable to respond to the growing needs. Christian child care facilities and schools are full; programs for the elderly poor and the handicapped operate at capacity; health care and treatment centers for alcohol and drug abuse remain too few and too small to accommodate all requests.
This is where CNEWA has been of assistance for decades, helping the many Eastern churches of Lebanon witness the Gospel — listening, healing, caring, feeding, teaching and loving all Lebanon’s people, for the greater glory of God.