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Christians in Lebanon: United in the Cross

I am a Catholic. But I had to travel halfway across the world to understand that I am also a Christian.

Despite the fact that I was raised Roman Catholic, the idea of being a Christian was merely that—an idea, a concept without a true, meaningful reality in my daily life.

In Lebanon, I found that identity made manifest.

And as Christians around the world prepare for Easter, the call to unity in the love of Jesus Christ comes through to us all, loud and clear.

Diverse, Beautiful Country

I had the privilege of traveling to Lebanon for eight days last November as part of a journalists’ immersion program sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Lebanon is a wellspring of Christian confessions, including Maronite, Melkite, Armenian and Syriac Catholic, and Greek and Armenian Orthodox, to name only a few.

The beauty of Lebanon is in its diversity. It’s a land that still blooms with the colors of cultural seeds sown over thousands of years by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamluks and Ottomans.

That same diversity, though, is what endangers the future of Christianity in this ancient land. Here, the growth of Islam and the region’s complex geopolitics find Christians facing a craggy landscape fraught with peril and uncertainty.

The tiny nation of Lebanon—it is smaller than Connecticut, the third-smallest U.S. state—is home to 18 Christian confessions. Chief among the population are Muslims, whose Sunni and Shiite communities vie for social and political power.

Bordering the country are Israel and Syria, putting Lebanon in a precarious spot in the Middle East, where political alliances almost always are tied to religion, which in turn almost always is tied to race or ethnicity.

The Christians find themselves caught in the middle, fighting for their cultural survival but fearing they’ll be crushed under the weight of a seemingly inevitable Sunni-Shiite war.

That sense of impending doom, leaders say, is pulling Christians apart and yielding division and emigration at a time when Christian unity is absolutely critical.

“Faithfulness impels us to come together,” says Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Catholicos Aram I Keshishian. “This sense of oneness is a mandate from Christ. It’s our vocation.” Yet, “We’re like separate islands in a huge ocean.”

Rudderless at Sea

In my own life, I often find myself floating adrift, looking for an anchor to hold me in place. I have a feeling that if I could stop treading water just for a moment, I could gather myself long enough to plot my direction and move purposefully on to my future.

Somehow I missed the fact that, indeed, I have been given the rock of the Church to cling to, and that on that rock I am joined by so many brothers and sisters in Christ who are searching for peace and guidance just as I am.

As an American, I’ve had the luxury of never “needing” to identify as a Catholic Christian. Any type of statement of “what I am” always has been made by choice. I have friends of various races, creeds and faith traditions, and I’m free to live my life however I wish. Somehow it has seemed as though, in a sort of overarching social or cultural way, being a Christian just isn’t especially important.

So there I was on my first full day in Lebanon, exploring Tyre, a city St. Paul visited and which later became a Crusader stronghold. Not far from Tyre is Cana, a town many Christians believe is the site of Jesus’ miraculous transformation of water into wine.

I marveled at the beauty of the Mediterranean, the majestic improbability of the remaining Roman ruins, the luscious verdancy of the coastal banana palms and citrus groves we passed on our drive.

Yet so shallow was my own understanding of my faith that even in this glorious setting, my eyes—and my heart—couldn’t focus on the true magnificence by which I was surrounded.

As my journey continued, however, God did what Scripture so often describes: He revealed the truth to me through unexpected messengers.

A Lebanese-Australian Maronite seminarian, a Pennsylvanian Mennonite professor and dignitaries from a variety of Christian confessions all helped teach me about who I am—and who I want to be.

Unique Expression of Shared Values

Johnny Mariam Wakim is a 29-year-old Australia native of Lebanese back ground. He lives at the Maronite Patriarchal Seminary in Ghazir, where he studies alongside other Maronites, as well as Syriac Catholics and Chaldeans, in preparation to serve a parish back home Down Under.

Wakim is disturbed by the divisions he sees among Eastern Catholic confessions, which seem to engage in a philosophical battle of “We’re more Catholic than what you are.”

“The fundamental aspect [of Christianity] is to put the human being before identity,” Wakim says. “Once I can understand that I’m a human being first, I can accept that not every human being has to be the same. If we live by our Christian religious standards, we’re supposed to have acceptance, not just tolerance.”

Wakim’s words in Ghazir took me right back home to Northern Kentucky, where I have watched the growth of the megachurch phenomenon and smugly thought of these “generic Christians” as attending “Church lite.”

In my mind, Roman Catholics had attained a sort of superior status. We aren’t just any old Christians, after all. We have the Eucharist and the pope and rules and rituals and incense!

Armenian Patriarch Keshishian is all too familiar with that kind of insular thinking, for he is the spiritual leader of a small, tight-knit community. Armenians cherish their ethnic roots and cultural heritage but must find their fit as part of the global Church.

The crux of the problem, explains the patriarch, is that so much of our identity is tied to what we are not.

In affirming what we are, too often we imply a rejection. The key, he says, is to confirm one’s identity but accept that of others as well.

“The absolutizing of truth should not produce a clash of civilizations,” the patriarch says.

Clearly in the Middle East, Muslim, Christian and Jewish civilizations are locked in an age-old ideological stalemate.

Similar roadblocks among the Christian confessions are becoming apparent to religious and political leaders. Archbishops and parish priests alike are calling for their congregations to move past the divisions and embrace diversity. But Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, a professor at Notre Dame University-Louaize near Beirut, is calling for Christians to take a different approach. He wants them not to focus on what is unique about each confession but instead build ties rooted in what is common: the ethical and moral foundations of Christianity.

Sensenig-Dabbous, a Mennonite from Pennsylvania whose wife is Lebanese, removes the emotion from the topic and comes at the question through the lens of a business-minded marketer. To unite Christians, particularly younger generations, religious leaders essentially must sell their customers on the “added value” of Christianity.

The professor says that means reemphasizing ethics and morality, core beliefs that overshadow the relative minutiae of worship practices, linguistic differences and liturgical traditions.

Sensenig-Dabbous says the college students he teaches are outraged by government corruption that threatens their future and that of their country. A robust, vibrant Church, he says, should address governmental ethics.

“One thing Christians have to offer is the social-justice and peace agenda,” the professor says. “The Ten Commandments are about these very things.”

But in the Middle East, “Christians have been reduced to an ethnic community and not a witnessing Church.”

Bearing Witness, Bearing Fruit

There is no better time than Easter to rededicate ourselves to being a unified, witnessing Church in the United States and around the world.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are instructed to see Christ in everyone we meet and to act accordingly: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked. We are called to be salt and light for the world. We are taught how to pray properly and even given the right words with which to do so, through the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus warns us not to judge and instructs us on the Golden Rule. He also explains that false prophets will be revealed by their fruits. “Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, a sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18, The New Jerusalem Bible).

That metaphor takes me back to the tree-lined highway along the Lebanese seacoast, where oranges, lemons and bananas ripen in the Mediterranean sun. Elsewhere in the small country’s fertile ground flourish apple and peach trees, grapevines, tobacco plants, fig trees and the nation’s iconic cedar forests.

Clearly, the roots are strong, having endured for centuries in this land, no matter which peoples were occupying it.

I hope—no, I believe—that the same is true for the roots of Christianity in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

And for the first time on my personal spiritual journey, I can see that wherever we live, and however we worship, we Christians have been grown in the same soil, pushing through the earth toward the Light.

“We’re not like a small plant you can just pick up,” says Maronite Archbishop Bishara Rai. “We’re part of a huge tree.”

Indeed—the Tree of the Cross.

Sidebar: ‘Dying Before Our Very Eyes’

More than 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II made a plea for Lebanon, calling for the Muslim community to help preserve a country he said was “dying before our very eyes.”

He also sent a letter to Catholic bishops in which he urged a day of prayer and wrote: “Should [Lebanon] disappear, freedom itself would suffer a dramatic setback. Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”

The pope’s message in September 1989 came as Lebanon was in the midst of a 15-year civil war. Though the war ended in 1990, many current Lebanese religious leaders share the concern that conflicts both internal and external will tear apart the Mediterranean nation and signal the dawn of a new level of political chaos in the Middle East.

“Lebanon should be assisted in its role as a preserver of freedom,” says Maronite Archbishop Bishara Rai. “If the international community wants freedom, they can’t just sit back and let Lebanese Christians struggle or be diminished.”

Unlike most of its neighboring nations, Lebanon is not a country identified by one religion. There are no current census figures, but estimates describe the population as close to 60 percent Muslim—split among Sunni, Shiite and Druze—and 30 percent Christian.

Since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, the number of Christians in Lebanon has been on a steady decline due largely to emigration precipitated by a lack of physical and financial security.

Meanwhile, Islamic communities have grown, experiencing higher birthrates than those in Christian families.

Now those Muslim sects are vying for political control in Lebanon, where the Maronite Catholics traditionally have carried the most influence. Christians find themselves squeezed, struggling to decide whether to support Sunnis or Shiites or try to remain neutral.

“Lebanon, as we understand it, is in danger,” Rai says. “Liberties are threatened; the government is in a state of dysfunction. Christians are seeking alliances to find a place for themselves in this new formula.”

The Middle Eastern dynamic is hard for the Western world to understand, he says. “In the West, you have a state that protects your civil rights. In the Arab world, you have a state that protects you based on your religious affiliation.”

On January 12, the Lebanese government was thrown into disarray when 11 ministers from the Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah resigned from the national Cabinet. A United Nations tribunal had been investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing widely attributed to Hezbollah.

In 2006, Hezbollah engaged in a clash with Israel, which borders Lebanon to the south. That conflict killed about 3,500 Lebanese in only one month of fighting.

Amid all this volatility—and all the more in light of recent events in other parts of the Middle East—the younger generation tries to discern if it has a future in Lebanon.

College students generally earn their degrees and then leave for employment or graduate studies in the United States, Canada, Australia or the Persian Gulf.

Whereas Muslim youth often return to their communities in Lebanon, young Christian adults tend to assimilate more readily to the Western world.

At only age 13, Tamara Chamoun already is planning to study in the United States or Canada as she works to earn a law degree and become a judge.

“An education outside is better than here,” says Tamara, who speaks flawless English.

She might be young, but Tamara can clearly express her personal dilemma. On one hand, she is a precocious girl with big dreams, and she knows she’ll find more opportunity abroad.

At the same time, she says she thinks Christians should stay in Lebanon, and she voices appreciation for her native country.

Her conundrum is how to reconcile


Read on location reports from the author’s trip to Lebanon .

Following Francis to Lebanon

Before I joined St. Anthony Messenger Press in July 2010, I truly had no concept of the Franciscan charism. Yet during a November trip to Lebanon, St. Francis was with me day after day.

Throughout the week, I noted to my fellow traveling journalists that our trip truly was inspired. God kept us in his protection and also gave us the grace to be enlightened, moved, educated and excited.

It was, for me, a rare time when I could feel God’s presence in my life every day.

What I didn’t expect was to find so many connections to St. Francis and Franciscanism.

Of course, it was there in some obvious ways. One of the groups we visited was the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal El Dib, near Beirut. They embody their charism by serving the mentally and physically ill, the elderly and the abandoned with tireless devotion.

I also would see Francis in smaller,unexpected ways.

One day after lunch, as we travelers headed back to our bus, we saw a Franciscan nun walking along the sidewalk, just going about her daily business. A small thing, yes, but in that place at that time, it was a reminder of my new and growing Franciscan ties.

One morning, our group met with Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan, who spoke in detail about the ordeal of Iraqi Christians.

We spent an hour with Patriarch Younan in a gorgeous, elegant reception room. Yet because I had been riveted to the patriarch’s interview, I had not paid much attention to some of my surroundings. As I grabbed my backpack and started to leave, I noticed what had been behind me all morning: a huge, beautiful tapestry depicting St. Francis.

I scarcely could believe my eyes.

Imagine my amazement a few days later when, as I waited at my gate in New York’s JFK Airport, two seats down from me sat a Franciscan bishop in full habit. Ever think God is tryin