ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Blooming Where They Are Planted

In the midst of ancient Roman ruins, a Christian community works to strengthen its faith.

Christian tourists visit Baalbek, Lebanon, for reasons that are, quite frankly, purely pagan. These visitors come to view the extensive Roman ruins that have dominated Baalbek’s skyline for centuries.

Baalbek’s pièce de résistance, the Temple of Jupiter, holds no parallel anywhere in the Roman world. Completed in 60 A.D., 19 years before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, the temple’s six surviving columns stand proud, a tribute to Roman engineering, ingenuity and the desire to pay homage to divinity.

Christianity in Baalbek also has a long history, dating to the end of the first century. The city’s first bishop, Theodotos, came to Baalbek during the reign of the benign Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 to 117. But the fate of the area’s Christians seesawed back and forth until the rule of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great (306-337).

Those emperors who embraced the Christian faith aggressively “persecuted” symbols of their pagan Roman past, structures we view today as priceless monuments. With battering rams and chisels, temples were transformed into churches. Statues and sculptures were destroyed.

Hardly any Christian tourists who visit Baalbek today visit its Christian community. Were they to do so, one of the most welcoming persons in the city would be Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Cyril Bustros.

The archbishop provides to anyone who asks a neatly typed historical profile of Christianity in Baalbek. The story starts out with great promise, but eventually one can read both the lines and the message between them. It is a story of struggle.

After three centuries of Christianity, Islam became the dominant faith in the region. Christians remained and prospered, however, and continued their makeovers of Roman temples. In fact, today’s Greek Catholic bishopric is located across the street from an archeological site found after an earthquake in 1759. On this site, what was once the Temple of Venus had served as the Church of St. Barbara for centuries.

In 1830 Athanasius Obeid, Baalbek’s Melkite Greek Catholic bishop, built a small church that served as the cathedral until the current structure was finished in 1897. In 1997, a great celebration was held to observe its 100th anniversary.

The number of Christians in Baalbek has always reflected one political situation or another. After World War I, during the French Mandate of Lebanon, Christians numbered 7,000 strong. This number diminished after the departure of French troops in 1946, on the eve of Lebanon’s independence. Today, Baalbek’s Christian community has dwindled to just over 300, but the city is home to two Eastern Catholic jurisdictions, a Melkite Greek Catholic archeparchy and a Maronite eparchy.

Archbishop Bustros is able to converse in Arabic, English, French or German, making it clear in all languages that Baalbek’s Christian community struggles to stay alive. His bottom line is: “Here we are planted, here we will bloom.”

The civil war (1975-91) made life uneasy for many Christians in Baalbek. For those in tourism, the war was devastating. Many shopkeepers shuttered their shops and relocated to Beirut. One boarded-up shop still reads “Papa Georges Souvenirs.” But the doors have been locked since the ’70s, and Papa Georges did not leave Baalbek alone. He took with him his family, his business and his Christian faith.

Archbishop Bustros admits that many Baalbek Christians are secular, a euphemism used perhaps to explain why, on Sundays, there is plenty of room in the pews and why church activities lack volunteers.

Intermarriage between Christians and Muslims brings its own problems. Following Middle Eastern custom, women adopt the religion of their husbands; consequently when a Christian woman marries a Muslim, their children are always raised in the Islamic faith.

Members of Baalbek’s Christian community vary in profession and economic status. Christians ply the trades of teachers, lawyers, tailors, carpenters, hairdressers and grocers. Some are entrepreneurs.

Happily, one joint activity involving Christians and Muslims is no more. During Lebanon’s drug-growing years, Baalbek’s Muslims and Christians were heavily involved in growing and selling marijuana. Today, with a strong antidrug government, this industry has virtually disappeared. The economic repercussions of the venture remain, however: For those involved in the trade there was no substitute; the “business” just stopped.

Education is a major concern for parents of Baalbek’s children, just as it is in Europe and the United States. The best of Baalbek’s schools are church-supported. According to current demographics, the majority of students are now Muslim and there is a mixed teaching staff. Many families can’t afford school fees. How can a school stay open when pockets are empty?

For those who can afford it, higher education is pursued in nearby Zahleh or in Beirut, two hours away. Once away from Baalbek’s village atmosphere, however, young people tend to stay away: Jobs there are few and salaries are still behind the times.

Sometimes graduates return to Baalbek – some to teach, others to open a business. Their return is always a cause for rejoicing: Locals realize that a young spirit, combined with enthusiasm, is the key to Baalbek’s survival.

Assaad Karaa is one of the youthful success stories. He moved to Belgium for an education and studied pharmacy. While there, he married a fellow student. Now he and his wife, a Moroccan Muslim, run a pharmacy in Baalbek.

There are some Christian village schools near Baalbek; they depend on the church, both for personnel and money. In the past there were plenty of both to share, but resources have dried up.

The full extent of irony for Baalbek’s Christians is felt at a funeral – it’s the one day the pews and churches are full.

First Communion is held only every other year: There are not enough children to merit an annual church event.

It is true, however, that emigration has slowed. Family members overseas have discovered that the grass isn’t always greener: Life is hard and work is in short supply in other countries as well.

Tourism in Baalbek has experienced a resurgence. The annual Festival of Baalbek is back in swing and includes a star-studded program of international and national talent.

This rebirth of interest in Baalbek’s pagan patrimony may well be the saving grace of Baalbek’s Christians.

Two old houses stand at the entrance to the Melkite Greek Catholic bishopric. Today they are filled with squatters. Archbishop Bustros would like to convert these structures into hotels, but only after finding permanent housing for the squatters.

Other new possible projects include an irrigation plan that could spark the interest of émigrés and maintain Baalbek’s agrarian Christian community.

Metaphorically or literally, putting down roots is one thing – keeping them tended is another.

Baalbek’s Christians are committed to making their garden grow.

Marilyn Raschka is CNEWA WORLD’s Beirut correspondent.

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