ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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


Not just a nation, but a message

Christianity’s roots run deep in Lebanon. Jesus, writes St. Mark, “went off to the district of Tyre,” where he drove the demon out of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Though divided by a multitude of customs, jurisdictions, liturgical languages and traditions, Lebanese Christianity is a key component of the apostolic church of Antioch, one of the great cities of the Roman Empire.

The Acts of the Apostles reports that the Gospel was taken to Antioch by disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene, men who reached out to the city’s Jews and Greeks. Before traveling to Rome, the apostle Peter made the city his base for seven years, and “it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

Historically, Lebanon has been dominated by the Maronite Church, whose monastic hermitages and terraced communities have dotted the mountainous landscape since the ninth century. Today, it remains the largest Christian community in Lebanon, with as many as 1.53 million faithful.

Other major Christian communities are the Antiochene Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic churches. The former includes up to 530,000 people in Lebanon, the latter, more than 340,000.

Lebanon is also home to about 230,000 Armenians, most of whom fled to the country during the persecution of Armenians (and Christians in general) in Turkey after World War I. Most are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, led by Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, who is based in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Some 35,000 Armenians belong to the Armenian Catholic Church and are guided by Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX, who also lives in Beirut. A smaller number belong to the Armenian Evangelical Church.

Two of the five patriarchs of Antioch and All the East also live in Lebanon: Cardinal Nasrallah Peter Sfeir of the Maronites and Ignace Youssef III of the Syriac Catholics.

Demographics. Despite its small size, Lebanon’s diversity baffles policymakers. An official census has not been taken since 1932, reflecting the sensitive nature of Lebanon’s religious diversity that buttresses the country’s political structure. Yet, most authorities believe between 4.1 and 4.5 million people live there, including 425,640 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and as many as 60,000 Iraqi refugees.

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.

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.

Sociopolitical situation. The Lebanese civil war (1975-90) ended a relatively prosperous era in Lebanese history. Before 1975, this “Switzerland of the Middle East” flourished as a regional banking and commerce center. Wealthy tourists from the West and the East mingled on its pristine beaches and ski slopes or spent millions in its casinos and nightclubs. Nevertheless, Muslim discontent with the influence, power and wealth of the Christian community grew, particularly as the number of Christians emigrating increased and Muslim birthrates escalated. These tensions erupted in 1975 as Maronite militias and the Palestine Liberation Organization launched a series of retaliatory strikes on civilian targets, which the Maronite-led national army was unable to control or prevent.

The 15 years of intermittent violence and war destroyed the Lebanese capital of Beirut, devastated much of the country’s infrastructure, killed as many as 250,000 people, wounded or maimed nearly a million more and drove hundreds of thousands of people into exile. The Taif Agreement, which was ratified in late 1989, ended this chapter in Lebanon’s history and divided political power more evenly between Christians and Muslims. However, the lack of a strong central government, coupled with the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese soil and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, invited regional tensions to continue to play out in the country for the next decade or so.

Other factors continued to destabilize Lebanon. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 led to a political crisis that divided allies, forged new partnerships and ultimately led to the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

Mr. Hariri’s violent death also sparked a campaign of political assassinations through 2007, destabilizing the country even further. The rise of Hezbollah as a leading Shiite militia and political party, particularly in the south, eventually led to an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006, which ravaged the southern half of the country and revealed Lebanon’s frailty.

Despite a wave of optimism in the middle of 2008 — which saw the election of a new president and the formation of a national unity government — significant factors threatened Lebanon’s fragile existence: increased regional tensions, especially between Iran and Israel; remote, but potential conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel; increased pressure within the Palestinian refugee camps; and the targeting of international peacekeeping forces and militia attacks. The election of Saad Hariri (the second child of Rafiq Hariri) as prime minister in November 2009 concluded a drawn out but quiet political process.

Economic situation. A sense of optimism has prevailed among the country’s economic and political elites, despite the worldwide economic meltdown. For the last few years, real economic growth has topped 7 percent: 8.5 percent in 2008, 7 percent in 2009 and, according to the World Bank, about 7 percent through 2011.

Lebanon’s remarkable ability to prosper amid the global recession has boosted investor confidence, both at home and abroad. Yet the country’s debt burden continues to cloud the outlook: It is now estimated at U.S. $51 billion, or 155 percent of the country’s GDP, and is expected to rise by a further $5 billion this year. To address this issue, as well as concerns for education, health care and unemployment, economic and political reforms must move forward, as inefficiency and corruption are endemic in state institutions.

Though Lebanon may boast of a GDP per head three times that of Syria and Egypt, there is a wide income gap between Lebanon’s small, urban elite and its poor, who live in rural areas and the outlying suburbs of major cities. Rising prices for consumer goods, fuel and food have burdened the most vulnerable groups of Lebanese society, such as small-scale businesses, households headed by women and the elderly and poor. The situation of the poor is particularly acute, as the government provides little social assistance.

Health indicators remain relatively high for the region, with the average life expectancy at 75 years. However, health care services are primarily private and, while of a high standard, are very expensive and thus not available to a large segment of the population. To compensate, nongovernmental organizations or social arms of political parties often provide subsidized health care for rural populations.

Due to a significant shift from rural to urban environments (about 87 percent of the population now lives in Lebanon’s cities), a well educated and sophisticated workforce, and an unemployment rate around 9.2 percent with significant numbers of underemployed as well, the younger generations are finding it increasingly difficult to find meaningful work.

Up to 40,000 Lebanese leave the country every year. Most are students or young professionals seeking what Lebanon fails to offer: economic opportunities in a stable environment. Yet, despite its high numbers of emigration, Lebanon’s population is considered young.

Religious situation. Lebanon remains the only country in the Middle East where Christians continue to play a major cultural, political and social role. Even the Taif Agreement preserved the Christians’ prominent political position. 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 Sunni Kurds, Shiite Arabs and Chaldean Iraqis, as well as Coptic Orthodox Egyptians and Christian Sudanese.

These Christians, and their general conditions throughout the Middle East, were at the heart of a meeting held last 20 February between Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Vatican. The pope stressed the importance of Lebanon, which for decades has been a model of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims and will “remain a ‘message’ for the Middle East region and the entire world.”

Burdens on the churches. 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 — are turning to Lebanon’s many Christian institutions for help. In his meeting with the 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, Christian institutions — 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.

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