Lebanon, The Catholic Church in
LEBANON, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Lebanese Republic is located in the Middle East, and is bordered on the north and east by Syria, on the southeast by the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on the south by Israel and on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Two Mountain ranges dominate the region, separated by the fertile Al Biqa' valley. In medieval times the mountains served as a refuge for religious minorities, such as the Maronites in the north and the Druzes in the south, as well as for political dissidents, their rugged heights discouraging communication with the East while the sea invited contact with the West. In antiquity the slopes of Mt. Lebanon provided fir, pine, cedar and other hardwood trees sought by Egyptian pharaohs and Assyrian emperors for building palaces, temples and boats in their treeless lands. The offshore waters of Tyre and Sidon yielded murex, the source of the precious purple dye that gave the Phoenicians ("purple red") their Greek name.
Gaining its political independence from the French in 1943 under a mandate from the League of Nations, Lebanon maintained social and political stability during the mid-20th century. In 1975 the region was engulfed by civil war, which continued for 16 years before ending in 1991 with the Ta’if Accord. While Israel, Syria and Damascus continued to maintain a military presence in the region, Lebanon attempted to return to relative stability, resuming multiparty elections and attempting to restore its weakened economy.
Early History . While maintaining their Semitic identity under Egyptian, Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian and Persian suzerainties, the Lebanese became Hellenized c. 350 b.c. Christianity reached southern Lebanon during Jesus's lifetime, and Christ Himself reached the district of Tyre and Sidon (Mt 15.21). Returning from Greece c. a.d. 56, St. Paul landed at Tyre, where stood an established church that some consider to be the earliest church in Lebanon. That of Sidon, where Paul stopped on his way to Rome, evidently came next. Books of martyrs abound with names of Lebanese victims of persecution. Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity resulted in the demolition of the temple at Afqah and the conversion of the temple of Hadad (Jupiter) at Baalbek (Heliopolis) into a church. Throughout the Roman-Byzantine period Lebanon enjoyed relative peace and security under the Pax Romana, while benefitting from participation in a worldwide market. This was reflected in increased population—hitherto limited to the maritime lowlands, which spread inland and attained a new density.
Arab conquests began in 633 and engulfed the entire region, except for the mountains. While Arabic quickly spread, it did not displace the Aramaic dialect of Syriac in some areas until the 17th century; the dialect was still in use in Maronite liturgy in 2000. Beginning in the mid-7th century Mu’āwiyah, founder of the umayyad dynasty and his successors paid a weekly subsidy to Christian bands in north Lebanon that eventually evolved into the Maronite community. These Christians provided the first Crusaders with guides and later furnished the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with a contingent of archers. When Muslim rule returned in the 13th century, such acts would receive retribution, as Mameluke sultans ravaged the community and decimated its population. After the Crusades neighboring Syria and Palestine adopted a generally Muslim aspect. In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII established a special college in Rome for Maronite clergy.
The Druzes entered southern Lebanon in about 1020 as dissident Muslims and spread northward, where Fakhr-al-Dīn II al-Manī and Bashīr II al-Shihābi ruled almost independently. The Maronite-Druze wars fought from 1842 to 1860 resulted in an autonomous Lebanon under a Christian Ottoman governor-general. World War I ended this privileged status, and World War II ended the French mandate. By the early 20th century a number of Eastern Patriarchs, including the Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic and Armenian Orthodox, had their principal residences in Lebanon.
Bibliography: h. lammens, La Syrie: Précis historique, 2 v. (Beirut 1921). n. a. ziadeh, Syria and Lebanon (New York 1957). a. h. hourani, Syria and Lebanon (New York 1946). p. k. hitti, Lebanon in History (2d ed. New York 1962). r. ristelhueber, Les Traditions françaises au Liban (2d ed. Paris 1925).
[p. k. hitti]
In 1943 the Lebanese Republic was born, and for three decades thereafter peace and prosperity characterized the region. Christians and Muslims shared equal political power and ecumenical dialogue between all faiths continued to take place. Universities and seminaries, long the center for Christian intellectual activity, trained many of the clergy, not only for Lebanon but for other countries in the Middle East as well. The University of St. Joseph of Beruit, administered by the Jesuits and the University of the Holy Spirit of Kalik, administered by the Order of Lebanese monks, both with pontifical faculties, continued to flourish. Publishing houses in Lebanon produced liturgical texts, catechetical resources and works of theology.
War in the Middle East . While Lebanon's stable political situation and strategic location aided its economic growth and gained it influence within the Middle East, problems soon surfaced. Over time the government fell into the hands of conservative Christians, leaving the substantial Muslim population without political representation and influenced by the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism. Balancing the interests of so many religious communities and cultures was bound to suffer serious strain under the tensions prevalent in the Middle East.
As the Arab-Israeli conflict escalated to the south, thousands of Palestinian Muslims crossed the border north into Lebanon, among them heavily armed militants who used Lebanon to stage attacks on Israel. In 1958 U.S. troops landed in Beirut to break up a Muslim rebellion. Finally, in April of 1975 civil war broke out between the Christian militia and Muslim groups supporting the Palestinian cause, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Christians and the loss of homes, churches, schools, convents and monasteries. In addition, several hundred thousand Christians were forced to flee from the region.
Despite an April of 1976 cease-fire declared by Lebanese president, Suleiman Franjieh, fighting continued and two years later Israel invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to destroy Palestinian bases. These forces returned in 1982 to force the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in West Beruit. Two months of bombing ended when U.S. and European troops were deployed to protect Palestinian and Muslim civilians. Still the violence in West Beirut continued: president-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, the Christian militia massacred Palestinian refugees, fighting erupted between Christian and Druze militias, hostages were taken and terrorist attacks on international peacekeeping forces and other Westerners resulted in the withdrawal of Western forces.
The Lebanese army finally gained control of Beirut and a peace was reached in 1991. By the close of the fighting, 140,000 had been killed, 300,000 wounded, 800,000 lost their homes and 950,00 left Lebanon, most of them Christians. 175 communities were destroyed. Hundreds of churches were gone, most of them Catholic, and almost a third of the region's Catholic schools had been closed. A third of the population remaining in Lebanon were left without jobs.
In 1992 a new government was elected that attempted to restore the country economically and socially. Under the peace, the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament were required to be Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shi’a Muslim, respectively, as a way of preserving political balance. In 1998 Emile Lahoud became Lebanon's new president. In 1995 Pope John Paul II convened a synod to aid bishops in their task of healing the many wounds caused by the violence of the war, although
this meeting engendered new controversy when several bishops criticized the existence of an Israeli militarized "security zone" in South Lebanon. Four years later Beirut hosted a meeting of Middle East and North African Church leaders as they addressed the future of the Catholic Church in an increasingly fundamentalist Muslim world.
Into the 21st Century . Despite the devastation of the late 20th century, Lebanon remained the one country in the Middle East where Islam and Christianity were able to encounter each other as equals. Minor religious groups included Protestants, Syrians (Suryān, Orthodox and Catholic), Nusayri and Jews, all of which were encouraged by the government to participate in interfaith dialogue. Greek Melkite Catholics, an Orthodox group that split with Rome in the 18th century, was among the nine partriarchal sects active in Lebanon by 2000. In addition, followers of five Muslim sects and 11 Christian denominations made their home in the region.
By 2000 there were over 990 parishes serving various Catholic denominations in Lebanon, and 740 diocesan and 622 religious priests tended them. The Church operated over 300 trilingual (Arabic, French, English) primary and secondary schools for the benefit of the Lebanese community, and their students accounted for 30 percent of the nation's students. Almost 3,000 sisters worked among the religiously diverse Lebanese community, serving the educational and humanitarian needs of all people, no matter what their faith.
Bibliography: p. k. hitti, Lebanon in History: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London 1967). k. s. salibi, The Modern History of Lebanon (Westport, CT 1976); Cross Roads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958–1976 (Delmar, NY 1976). p. dib, History of the Maronite Church, tr. s. beggiani (Beirut 1971).
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