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Traditions: A Profile of Lebanon’s Maronites

The Maronites have survived for 1,500 years despite persecution, war and civil strife. Our Beirut correspondent takes us to the heartland of this community.

Tannious Nakhal Faris is too old to putter around the house, too old to fix even the leaky roof that barely protects him and his wife from the winter rains. But at 93 he is a fount of knowledge.

Tannious is one of the more than a million Maronite Catholics who live in Lebanon – the heartland of the ancient Maronite Catholic Church.

Tannious and his wife, Marianna, live in the mountain village of Kfar Hay, “the village of life” in Aramaic, the ancient semitic language spoken by Jesus. Although modern roads scramble deep into the mountains, the village is quiet and seems removed from most of the events of the 20th century.

Tannious eagerly talks about his boyhood excursions to the sea on horseback from his mountain home. And until the introduction of the automobile after World War I, he had never made the 45-mile journey to Beirut.

For centuries the inaccessibility of Lebanon’s mountain villages was the key to the survival of its persecuted minorities – Christian and non-Christian. For the Maronites, their mountain refuge from their Christian and Muslim rivals saved them from extinction.

Maronite Catholics trace their origins to St. Maron of Cyr, an ascetic who lived in the latter part of the fourth century in a rocky region near the ancient city of Antioch, part of what is now modern Turkey.

His disciples, who gathered before his death around 410 A.D., erected a monastery to honor the ascetic’s memory on the banks of the Orontes River, in what is now northern Syria.

But St. Maron’s followers were persecuted for their defense of the orthodox christological doctrine declared by the church fathers of the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

In 517, more than 350 Maronite monks were slain and several Maronite monasteries sacked and burned by those Christians who disagreed with the teachings of the council fathers, Today church leaders agree that the descendants of those Christians who did not accept the council – the Armenian Apostolic and the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian and Malankara Syrian Orthodox churches – indeed share the same faith, but hold different formulas to express the complexities of the Christian faith.

In the eighth century, renewed intraChristian strife and the rapid rise of Islam forced many followers of St. Maron to migrate to the Qadisha valley, the deepest and most remote of northern Lebanon’s numerous mountain gorges. Cradled by cliffs and shaded by Lebanon’s renowned cedars, the Maronites prospered.

Clinging to the land as they hung on to their religion, the early Maronites carved embankments in the steep mountain slopes for cultivation. Today Maronite areas are still covered by these giant verdant steps. However many villages have been abandoned as the population follows the worldwide trend toward urbanization, or, as in the case of much of the Christian population in the rest of the Middle East, emigrates to more secure and prosperous lands.

As the monasteries grew in wealth, power and land, a system was developed to assist the impoverished refugees. This partnership (known in Arabic as shriiq) entitled the peasants to work on Church owned land, sharing crops and profits with the monastic community. Housing and schooling were also provided.

Tannious and Marianna raised their 11 children in a house that belongs to the church. They farmed church land. The old man easily recounts the products of his labors, counting them out on the fingers of his rough, stiff hands. Their children attended, as his grandchildren do now, the school built on the site of a late seventh century monastery that was built by St. Yuhanna Maron, the first Maronite patriarch.

But Tannious’s happiest memories are from the season of silk cocoons, mausim ish-sharaaniq. In the 17th century, a microeconomy emerged, centered around the silk trade and dominated by the Maronites.

Tannious and his family – as did generations before them – raised silkworms. Life revolved around the month-long season in late spring. He remembers receiving every year from France two cans of “seeds,” tiny black eggs that hatched into worms.

Tannious, who is now almost blind, looks into the empty corners of his simple house where this early cottage industry was set up. He still sees baskets filled with mulberry leaves and the worms who consumed them.

The work was hard, but the results were profitable. It was after a successful silkworm season that marriages took place, or a house was built.

The production of silk was also big business for a number of other religious communities. Because of their mutual economic interests, bonds were forged between the Maronites and the Druze, a syncretic Muslim sect who also sought refuge in the mountains. But the demand for Lebanese silk declined with World War I and the advent of synthetic silk in the 20s.

Raising silkworms was something the old man’s grandchildren could only appreciate while listening to their grandfather’s stories. But last May, in several nearby Maronite villages, the tradition was dusted off and renewed.

The monasteries continued their feudal like partnership with Lebanon’s peasants until the 1960s, when they began to give land to the peasants. But the collapse of the economy following the civil war has called back into service the defunct shriiq system.

At the monastery of St. Yuhanna Maron in Kfar Hay, a sad face entering the priest’s office leaves a moment later with a look of hope. The man is a Maronite refugee from the village of Deir Doreit, which was blown up house by house during the war. He and his family found shelter in Beirut where he worked as a welder.

But life has taken a hard turn for this man and his family. His demolished village may never be rebuilt and laborers from Syria, eager to work for migrant wages, have left him unemployed.

He came to the “village of life” to find a way to survive. The monks found a house for the family and the children will be enrolled in school. And soon the head of this family will be raising vegetables and tending the fruit orchards.

This ancient practice – now revived out of need – was explained by the youthful parish priest, Father Boutros Khalil, who also runs the affairs of the monastery with an admirable respect for things old and an enthusiasm for things new.

When the priest took up his post in Kfar Hay the monastery’s library of ancient texts was in a state of disarray. It is now a well kept collection of priceless Maronite artifacts. With pride he showed the oldest document, a Syriac dictionary from 1619.

The earliest extant Syriac manuscripts date to the 1600s, when Maronite monks, heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, established a printing press in the monastery of Qoshaya near Qadisha – the first printing press in the Middle East.

The Maronite nation (as they called themselves) had lived in isolation from the West since their flight to the mountains of Lebanon in the eighth century. Their patriarch was both a spiritual and secular leader; his authority, unquestioned. However, the spring of 1099 was a turning point for the community: the arrival of the soldiers from the first crusade.

Demonstrating that they shared the same faith, the Maronites welcomed the crusaders and provided them with guides as they drove on to Jerusalem. In the late 12th century, the entire Maronite nation formally confirmed its loyalty to the Holy See. And in 1215 Patriarch Jeremias II Al Amshitti attended the fourth Lateran Council in Rome, the first Maronite patriarch to visit the Eternal City. The patriarch returned to Lebanon a year later with the pallium, a symbol of the church’s union with the See of Peter.

The strong link forged between the two churches accounts for the addition of the name Boutros, or Peter, to the name of every patriarch down to the present patriarch, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites.

The Maronites belong to the Western Syrian liturgical family, along with the Syrian and Malankara Syrian Catholic and Orthodox churches. However the liturgy of St. James, as used by the Maronites, has been considerably latinized. Western vestments and sacramentals were adopted as were the Latin forms for the creed and the eucharistic prayer.

Like most Eastern Christian churches, the Maronites used wooden gongs to call the faithful to prayer. But in the early 12th century, they adopted bells.

The manufacturing of church bells in Lebanon developed into a monopoly held by the Naffa’ family in the village of Beit Shabab; a family business that is still going strong.

Yusef Naffa’, the 90-some-year-old patriarch of the family, still supervises the work done by the younger men, including the work of his son, whose enthusiasm for the tradition will insure its survival.

The Younger Naffa’ explains how the molds for casting the bells are made: mud, straw and goat hair are listed as ingredients. The mixing of these simple elements is done by the stomping of feet.

As with any tradition, bell-making was threatened by modern technology and market economics. But as Maronite churches begin to restore what was damaged or destroyed by war, there has been a renewed demand for bells.

When asked if bells are sent abroad, a worker picks up his ledger and points to an entry that reads: “Austin, Texas, 1993.”

Although the Ottoman Turks conquered the Maronite homeland in the 16th century, the Roman church did not abandon her sister church. In 1584, Pope Gregory XIII erected the Maronite College in Rome to help train the Maronite clergy.

Today Maronite clergy are active in all fields of education. Father Paul Sayah, the associate general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, works to promote among Maronite religious personnel a better understanding of Islam through study and dialogue.

The mountains of Lebanon, once a refuge in times of persecution, are now accessible. The Maronite community, religious and secular, sees the need and possesses the desire to reach out to all of Lebanon’s religious communities to achieve the cherished goal of understanding and coexistence.

Marilyn Raschka, a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East, writes from Beirut.

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