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.
by Marilyn Raschka
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 Lebanons 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 ascetics memory on the banks of the Orontes River, in what is now northern Syria.
But St. Marons 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 Lebanons numerous mountain gorges. Cradled by cliffs and shaded by Lebanons 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.
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