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Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon: An Important Piece of the Fabric of the Multi-Religious Arab World

posted on: Aug 22, 2018

Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon: An Important Piece of the Fabric of the Multi-Religious Arab World
Maronites settled in Mt. Lebanon

By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Arab Christian Maronites (a sect of Catholic) of Lebanon present a complicated picture historically. Their history is typical of other minority religions adapting to the vast sweep of Sunni Islam in the 7th century. Some historians date their origin to the early time of Jesus. Whether they date to that time is debatable, but what is not in question is that the Maronites survived the expansion of the Ottoman presence from the 15-20th century, and today they play a vital role in the life of Lebanon and in their communities around the world.

From the 20th century to the present, Maronites and Sunni and Shia Muslims have been part of a fragile, three-way control of the Lebanese government. This is called a “confessional” system, meaning that high offices of government are reserved for members based on their religion.  The author writes about Maronite history and their role in shaping the governance of Lebanon with Shia and Sunni Muslims, also with the Hezbollah militant party and, up until recently, the Syrians.

The Maronites—Who They Are, Where They’re From, and How They Adapted to the Early Islamic Expansion

The Maronite population is a relatively small, geographically-limited ethnoreligious grouping of Arab people. There are a total of around 1 million Maronites who live in Lebanon. Because no official census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932, it makes the population count uncertain. There are many other Maronites scattered around the world, including Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine and in North and South America. About 200,000 live in the U.S. Maronite tradition has it that their sect of Christianity dates to the time of Jesus, while history points to their origin around the 5-6th century A.D. Christians generally in this pre-Islamic period flourished in or near the cradle of Christianity.

Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon: An Important Piece of the Fabric of the Multi-Religious Arab World
Maronite Catholic wedding ceremony.

Christians during the pre-Islamic period were often at war with each other over differences in theology. One such issue the Maronites fought over was their insistence, following the Roman Catholic Church, that Christ had two natures, one human, one divine but that these two natures are, at the same time, inseparable and distinct. Thus, Christ is seen as divinely part of God and humanly part of humanity. However, Maronites diverge from Roman Catholicism in certain respects, including the practice of allowing priests to marry and their distinct form of worship, which is based not on Latin but on the Syriac language, which is an ancient language that includes the language spoken by the Assyrians and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

During a later Islamic period, under the Ottoman Turks, the Maronites settled in the hills of Mount Lebanon, east of the capital city, Beirut. Their isolation in the mountains from the rest of Lebanon led to a fierce sense of survival, defensiveness, and loyalty. Internally, living in their isolated mountain communities in the absence of external enemies, Maronite clans became involved in extensive feuding with one another.

Eventually, in the 18-19th centuries, Maronites dispersed from the core of Mount Lebanon into the surrounding mountains, and later into coastal cities, but mostly in East Beirut. The Maronite Church itself became the owner of much of the land occupied by its constituents. The Maronite experience in mountainous feuding provided a lesson in warfare, which became useful to the Maronites in the subsequent Lebanese Civil War.

Lead-up to the Lebanese Civil War

A backdrop to the 20th-century Lebanese civil war was the colonial powers’ treatment of Lebanese ethnoreligious populations. First, the Ottomans split the region into a Christian state and a Druze state (Druze are Arabs, an offshoot of Shia Islam but profess to be non-Muslims). Maronites and Druze had fought ferociously over their respective mountain positions. This division was later followed by French support for the Maronites, while the British backed the Druze.

French influence gave the Maronites the sense of a separate identity, namely through the acquisition of the French language and culture. Some older Maronites mainly spoke French because they never learned Arabic. In fact, the French influence was so strong that Beirut came to be known to foreigners as “the Paris of the Middle East.”

Maronite Lebanese have tended to be more nationalistic than Pan-Arabist. In 1958, Egyptian President Nasser attempted to overthrow the Maronite dominated government of Lebanon in order to draw the country away from Western influence and into the orbit of Pan-Arabism. Some Maronites, however, have never fully accepted their Arab roots, in part to maintain their identity as Christians. Some Lebanese Christians even suggest that they are descendants of the ancient Phoenicians and therefore not Arab. This is much like some Coptic Christians in Egypt saying they are descendants of Pharaonic people and also therefore not Arab.

Civil War—Pitting the Country’s Religions Against One Another

In 1975, sectarian tension in Lebanon led to a full-scale civil war among a coalition, on the one hand of Christian groups, headed by Maronites, and on the other, a combined force of Druze and Muslim militias and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In response, the Maronite Christian president requested the Syrian government to intervene and restore peace. The Arab League of States, in 1976, followed up with a Deterrent Force to support the peace. Complicating the civil war was PLO attacks on Israel from Lebanon. Israel responded in 1982 by viciously attacking Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila communities of Beirut, with help of some Maronites.  In the meantime, the Maronite President, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated.

Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon: An Important Piece of the Fabric of the Multi-Religious Arab World
The Lebanese civil war starting in 1975 directly affected many citizens.

The election of President Gemayel’s successor had failed due to differences among the Christians, Muslims, and the overseer Syria. An Arab League summit was formed by Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria to resolve the crisis. A peace plan followed, including the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Meanwhile, many lives had been lost, the economy destroyed, and the political system remained divided along sectarian lines.

Complicating the situation in Lebanon was the rise of the Shia Hezbollah (party of God) political-military force. It has taken on a role of “protecting” Lebanon, namely through periodic attacks on Israel. Hezbollah also supports Iran on the ground in the present civil war in Syria, intended to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Sectarianism Holding Strong in Lebanon—Maronites, Sunnis, and Shias

By 1988, Maronite president, Amin Gemayel, older brother of Bashir, appointed General Michel Aoun, a Maronite, commander of the army, as head of the Israel-backed military government in west Beirut and Syria-backed government in east Beirut. In that timeframe, the Lebanese army, backed by Hezbollah, defeated the PLO in southern Lebanon. Subsequently, Maronite General Emile Lahoud was elected president, with the help of Syria. In 2005, Hezbollah was accused of murdering the Sunni prime minister, Rashid Hariri, though Israel was also implicated in the assassination. His son, Saad, was elected without Syrian interference as the current prime minister and has served since 2016 to the present.

Population figures have always mattered in Lebanon, given the sensitivity about an assumed balance in the control of government among Maronites, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims. The fact that no official has been taken since 1932 is indicative of this sensitivity. An independent population survey from 2012, however, indicates a total national population of 4.3 million, of which 27% is Shia, 27% Sunni and 21% Maronite, the rest being other Christian sects and the Druze. In 2018, Lebanon’s demography, much less its society and economy, has become complicated by the presence of an additional 2 million Syrian refugees and almost .5 million Palestinians, both living in camps.  

Lebanon—A Democracy or Not?

Maronites have played a critical role for many decades in achieving a sectarian balance of power in governing the complicated state of Lebanon. This country is theoretically known as a ”parliamentary democracy” based on “confessionalism,” in which the president is usually designated as a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the head of parliament and minister of defense, a Shi’a Muslim. Such a system is supposed to provide a balance among the major religious sects and, thus, hopefully, to mitigate religious conflict.

Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon: An Important Piece of the Fabric of the Multi-Religious Arab World
Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy based on confessionalism or sharing leadership positions along religious lines.

While Lebanon was recently characterized as relatively “politically free,” it is now recognized by the Freedom House rating method as only “partly free.” However, it is still considered by the U.S. as one among very few Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, to be more or less “democratic.”