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Jacques Naoum

On the Trails of Maro {*}


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 10/2008, P. 113f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Lebanon is in a deep crisis. Already for months the political parties cannot agree on a new president. The Maronite Christians are amidst this political mesh. They form the largest with Rome united Church, which due to the extended family associations is also the most influential one in the country.


Also the fifteenth attempt at last to elect in the Lebanese Parliament a new president - as successor of Emile Lahoud - failed, despite the determined mediation by the Arab League. The political life goes on to be paralysed. The opposition supported by Syria and Iran has up to now prevented any solution in the land of the cedar. It includes the Shiite parties Amal and Hezbollah and the Christian "Free Patriotic Movement" of the Maronite ex-General Michel Aoun. They want to enforce the right to a blocking minority in Parliament before they agree on a candidate for the presidency. But this is rejected by the anti-Syrian and pro-western majority coalition under the Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

In Lebanon since 1926 the so-called National Pact provides that the highest state offices are equally divided among the religions. According to it a Sunni is to be head of government, a Schiite president of parliament and a Maronite Christian head of state. But that carefully chosen balance increasingly gets out of plumb. Not only because of the Islamic extremists or the Syrian power, but also because the once most powerful and wealthy Christian families of Lebanon are increasingly losing influence and mutually block each other. Yes, they are now partly fierce enemies. The FAZ writes: "As in the days of the civil war (1975-1990) today's Christian leaders face each other as enemies. Only at the beginning of the year the former Minister of the Interior Suleiman Frandschijeh called upon the Maronite patriarch, Pierre Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, to resign. (Ex-General) Aoun defamed the church head as 'ordinary citizen'. The era of the great Christian clans ... is long gone."


Argument about the Understanding of Christ

The 87-year-old Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir, who enjoys high reputation beyond the borders of his church, in spite of everything keeps on imploring the parties of the country and his own faithful at last to clear a way that puts the personal interests of individuals last and to look at the future, especially at the younger generation. The Maronites - 1.4 million Lebanese among 3.8 million inhabitants - have in the complicated power structure of the former "Switzerland of the Middle East" a special position, not least due to their own history. They still are of great importance for the Lebanon and thus for the delicate fabric in the war-peace-process of the entire Middle East. In order to understand nature and development of the Maronite religious communion, one must deeply go into the history of the East-Roman Christianity, into that period when the East Roman Empire extended from Constantinople up to Upper Egypt. Since the middle of the 4th century the conflict between East Rome and Iran dominated the history of the Middle East. What then moved the minds of people was the global, absolute rule of the one or the other of the two superpowers of that time. Who had the final say also decided on the religious confession.

But while the Persian Zoroastrianism - a dualistic creation cult which knows a sacred Scripture and several deities - was nationally too much tied to be able to extend to non-Persian territories, the inner-church faith struggles turned out to be of far greater explosiveness for the unity of church and empire. The political dimension of those religious arguments consisted in the relationship between emperor and church. The pledge of allegiance that bound each individual to the person of the emperor included as binding sign both the formula of the oath of allegiance and the wording of the Christian creed. The formulation of an unambiguous formula of faith as the church's task was consequently important for the political stability.

The Syrian church historian Joseph Hajjar is of the opinion that the emergence of the Maronite Church is owed to the schism between the Monophysites and the East Roman state church. Monophysitism means a theory held in the 6th century according to which one single physis (Latin: natura) emerged by the union of the divine logos with Jesus' human reality in the Incarnation. With it Jesus' human nature is absorbed by the divinity to the point of being unrecognizable. Especially Emperor Heraclius, who came from Armenia and reigned from 610 to 641, recognized the political danger of the schism. His attempt to harmonize the Orthodox Church with Monophysitism was widely accommodating towards the followers of the doctrine of the one nature of Christ (Greek: monos physis). The formula of agreement, so Hajjar, included the recognition of two natures in Christ, but the unity of the person of Christ guaranteed also the unity of his will and action. Accordingly the human will and action of Jesus was superseded by the divine (will and action). The doctrine about the one mode of action - energeia - was replaced by the doctrine of the "one will" - thelema.

The new faith formula could satisfy neither the Orthodox believers nor the Monophysites. This led to the emergence of a new group, the Monothelites. The Byzantine Orthodoxy faced a further secession. The Monothelites rapidly won followers. They saw themselves as orthodox mediators between Orthodox Christians and Monophysites.

Monotheletism was condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 680. Its followers eluded the subsequent persecution by the Byzantine state by fleeing southwards across the Orontes river. There the power of Constantinople was already broken by Islam. The Monothelite Christians scattered found protection in the rugged mountain region of northern Lebanon, near a monastery of St Maro existing since the 6th century. They elected the monk John Maro as their chief. From now on the members of the grouping called themselves after him Maronites.


Regarded as "Heretics"

In the remoteness and inaccessibility of the canyons of Wadi Kadischa the small groups could form a hierarchy of their own and develop an autonomous Maronite Church in the footsteps of Maro. Joseph Hajjar: "The doubling of their hierarchical system (the patriarch was spiritual and political head), their rural origin, as well as their will to reach an agreement with the Monophysite and with the state church" reconciled the Oriental and the Hellenistic intellectual heritage. Until the Middle Ages the Patriarch performed his office by virtue of election by the people and the monks. He levied poll taxes and church taxes.

The contact with the crusaders who in 1099 conquered Jerusalem and built their fortifications along the Mediterranean coast meant for the Maronite community an extension from the high valleys of Wadi Kadischa to the coast and thus the connection with the western Christianity.

In 1182 they for the first time got in contact with the Pope. But the approach was not to be a smooth one. For Rome the Maronites were at first Oriental Christians got lost, heretics indeed. Only the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 under Innocent III and the Seventeenth Ecumenical Council in Rome in 1445 brought the complete union. In intervals of more than one hundred years in 1584 the founding of a Maronite College in Rome for the training of Maronite clergymen and in 1736 the adoption of the resolutions of the Trent Council and the Roman Catechism by a Maronite General Council followed.

Thus the Maronites were a full member of the Roman Catholic Church. That did not prevent many Latin clergy from meeting the Maronites with suspicion. Some Maronite peculiarities are the likely reason for it. There is until today the strange liturgical language: the Old Syrian. In addition, priests are allowed to get married; only after their ordination they must no longer enter into matrimony. The Maronites also allow mixed monasteries, where monks and nuns live side by side.



The Maronites endeavoured to found a Christian state in Lebanon. The community's living together in the mountains of the Lebanon Mountains had let the Maronite community merge into one nation, a development as it similarly happened with the Muslim "heretics" of the Druze. The Druze are an Old Syrian tribe the religion of which is coined by Islam and Gnostic ideas. But unlike them the Maronites never abandoned their efforts to establish their own state.

When the rule of the Ottoman Empire included also the areas of the Maronites, they were from 1588 on forced to pay tribute. Supported by the Turkish power the traditional dependency relationships in society gradually changed.

When during the 17th century the hegemony of the Druze under their Emir Fachr ed-Din began, the Maronites as part of the Catholic world turned for help to the Catholic France. By that step the Maronites tried to protect their local autonomy from Druze and Turkish attacks - a move that particularly in the 19th century should become the guiding principle of Maronite politics.

The awareness to be backed not only by the spiritual authority of the Roman Church but now also by the political power of the French increased on the Maronites' side the desire to have a state territory of their own. The French knew well to use the connection with the Maronites. By it the Lebanese market was opened to the French. The Maronites benefited from the French silk factories' need for silk. Lebanese mulberry plantations and the silkworm breeding rapidly developed and contributed apart from to the different farming cultivation to the formation of a Maronite bourgeoisie. From now on the Maronites controlled the long-distance trade. The Franco-Lebanese relations strengthened especially after the end of the First World War, when France in 1920 from the League of Nations got the mandate over Lebanon.

The Lebanon gradually became francophone, an outward sign of the success of French cultural policy. But appearances were deceptive! It was clear that the Franco-Maronite special relations would not be accepted by the Muslim majority in the Lebanon. Bloody clashes had already taken place in the years 1845 and - particularly seriously -in 1860 mainly between Maronites and Druze. The two world wars led to the collapse of the Turkish Empire and the independence of Lebanon.

But the enmity between Maronites and Druze continued, albeit in a changed political constellation. At the beginning of the 20th century the pan-Arab movement had succeeded in relativizing the enforcement power of small Muslim groups such as the Druze, and in replacing it by the idea of a comprehensive identity of all Arabs. But this movement failed. The founding of the Jewish state took also place at that time and met with rejection by all Arab countries.

But the attitude of the Maronites is different. They share with the Israelis the view of the threat from the Muslim world, which wants to cut the traditionally pro-Western ties of Lebanon and to see the country entirely under Islamic influence. Similarly to the Israelis also the Maronites see their right to exist endangered by developments in the Muslim world.

The fact that the Maronite Patriarch time and again openly intervenes in politics also suggests that the Christians fear they may soon have to deal with a new Islamic side - with the Shiites. In his pastoral letter for Lent Cardinal Sfeir appealed to Beirut and Damascus at last to strive to improve the relationship for the benefit of both countries. There is at present no great hope that this call is heard.


    {*} The original text of Jacques Naoum was published under the title "Imperiale Kaisertreue - Die Maroniten vom Libanon" in the "Ökumenischen Information" of the Katholischen Nachrichten-Agentur (KNA-ÖKI 1/2008, 3 Januar 2008). (C) 2008 KNA Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur GmbH. All rights reserved. Any medial use and passing on is only permitted by written agreement with KNA.


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