Maronite Christians
April 11th, 2010 by SM





A Maronite community exists in northern Israel, numbering 7,504.

Persecution & struggle: Maronite Christians felt fear and exclusion from Pan Arabism in Lebanon, part of its historic suffering is the Damour massacre by Islamic Palestinians and by Syrian forces. Until recently, the Cyprus Maronites battle to preserve ancestral language. The Maronite monks maintain that Lebanon is synonymous with Maronite history and ethos; that its Maronitism antedates the Arab conquest of Syria and Lebanon and that Arabism is only a historical accident.

Maronites are members of one of the Lebanese or Syriac Eastern Catholic Churches, with a heritage reaching back to Maron, a Syriac Monk in the early 5th century. The first Maronite Patriarch, John Maron, was elected in the late 7th century. Although reduced in numbers today, Maronites remain one of the principal ethno-religious groups in Lebanon and they continue to represent the absolute majority of Lebanese people when the Lebanese diaspora is included. Unique amongst Eastern Catholics, the Maronites are Eastern Christians who have always remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

The head of the Maronite Church is the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, is elected by the Maronite bishops and resides in Bkerké, close to Jounieh, north of Beirut (the Maronite Patriarch resides in the northern town of Dimane during the summer months). The current Patriarch (since 1986) is Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. When a new patriarch is elected and enthroned, he requests ecclesiastical recognition by the Pope, thus maintaining their communion with the Vatican Holy See. As an Eastern patriarch, the patriarch joins the College of Cardinals, being enrolled in the order of Cardinal Bishops; he does not receive a suburbicarian see, since he is a head of a sui iuris Church.

Maronite Patriarch and bishops in Rome, 1906.

Maronite Patriarch and bishops in Rome, 1906.

Maronites share the same doctrine as other Catholics, but they retain their own liturgy, theology, spirituality, discipline and hierarchy. The Maronite church belongs to the Antiochene tradition and is a West Syro-Antiochene Rite. Syriac is the liturgical language. Nevertheless, they are considered, along with the Syro-Malabar Church, to be among the most Latinised of the Eastern Catholic Churches although there have been moves to return to Eastern practices.

Cardinal Sfeir’s personal commitment accelerated liturgical reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, bearing fruit in 1992 with the publication of a new Maronite Missal. This represents an attempt to return to the original form of the Antiochene Liturgy, removing the liturgical latinisation of past centuries. The Service of the Word has been described as far more enriched than in previous missals, and it features six Anaphoras (Eucharistic Prayers).

Celibacy is not strictly required for deacons and priests with parishes; monks, however, must remain celibate, as well as bishops who are normally selected from the monasteries. Due to a long-term understanding with their Latin counterparts in North America, Maronite priests in that area are expected to remain celibate. The bishops who serve as eparchs and archeparchs of the eparchies and archeparchies (the equivalent of diocese and archdiocese in the Roman Catholic Church) are answerable to the Patriarch.

Before the conquest by Arabian Muslims reached Lebanon, the Lebanese people including those who would become Muslim and the majority who would remain Christian, spoke a dialect of Aramaic. Syriac (Christian Aramaic) still remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Church.

The Peshitta is the standard Syriac Bible, used by the Maronite Church. The illustration is of the Peshitta text of Exodus 13:14-16 produced in Amida in the year 464

The Peshitta is the standard Syriac Bible, used by the Maronite Church. The illustration is of the Peshitta text of Exodus 13:14-16 produced in Amida in the year 464

It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Antioch, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, became a centre for Christianity. According to Catholic tradition, the first Bishop was Saint Peter before his travels to Rome. The third Bishop was the Apostolic Father Ignatius of Antioch. Antioch became one of the five original Patriarchates (the Pentarchy) after Constantine recognized Christianity.

St. Maron, a contemporary and friend of St. John Chrysostom, was a monk in the fourth century who left Antioch for the Orontes River to lead an ascetic life, following the traditions of Anthony the Great of the Desert and Pachomius. Many of his followers also lived a monastic lifestyle. Following the death of Maron in 410, his disciples built a monastery in his memory and formed the nucleus of the Maronite Church.

The Maronites held fast to the beliefs of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. When 350 monks were slain by the Monophysites of Antioch, the Maronites sought refuge in the mountains of Lebanon. Correspondence concerning the event brought papal and orthodox recognition of the Maronites which was solidified by Pope Hormisdas (514-523) on February 10, 518. A monastery was built around the the shrine of St. Maro after the Council of Chalcedon. The most widely accepted theory stipulates that the Maronites fled Jacobite monophysite persecution, because of Monothelite heresy as advanced by Sergius of Tyr a scholar of the 10th century. It is most probable, because nearly all the sects became Monothelite after that it was introduced by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople. The Maronite migration to the mountains was over a long period, but the main migration must have occurred during the 7th century.

The martyrdom of the Patriarch of Antioch in 602, left the Maronites without a leader, a situation which continued because of the final and most devastating war between the Byzantine and Persian Empires of the early 7th century. In 687 the Emperor Justinian II agreed to evacuate many thousands of Maronites from Lebanon and settle them elsewhere. The chaos and utter depression which followed led the Maronites to elect their first Patriarch, John Maroun, in 687. This however was seen as a usurpation by the Orthodox churches. Thus, at a time when Islam was rising on the borders of the Byzantine Empire and a united front was necessary to keep out the Islamic infiltration, the Maronites were focused on a struggle to retain their independence against imperial power. This situation was mirrored in other Christian communities in the Byzantine Empire and helped facilitate the Muslim conquest of the most of Eastern Christendom by the end of the century.

After 637, the Maronites were effectively isolated from Christians of the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe. As a result they appointed their own Patriarch, starting with John Maron, who had been a bishop of Batroun, Mount Lebanon. Through him, the Maronites of today claim full apostolic succession through the See of Antioch. Nonetheless, controversy surrounds this claim as some Maronites have been accused of having fully adopted the Monothelite heresy; this led to a number of civil wars (e.g. 1282 and 1499).

Muslim rule: Under Arabic rule after the Muslim conquest of Syria, the Maronites’ relationship with the Byzantine Empire improved. The imperial court, seeing its earlier mistake, saw an advantage in the current situation. Thus, Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV provided direct ecclesiastical, political and military support to the Maronites. The new alliance soon coordinated devastating raids on Muslim forces, providing a welcome relief to the besieged Christians throughout the Middle East. Some of the Maronites relocated to Mount Lebanon at this time and formed several communities that became known as the Marada. That is from the view of 17th Century Patriarch Estephan El Douaihy (also known as Stephane Al Doueihi Arabic: “The Father of Maronite History” and the “Pillar of the Maronite Church”).

Another view is of Ibn al-Qilaii, a Maronite scholar from the 16th century who proposed that Maronites fled Muslim persecutions of the Umayyads, late 9th century.

Around 1017, a new Muslim sect emerged calling themselves the Druze. At this time the Maronites, as dhimmi, were required to wear black robes and black turbans so to be easily identified; they were also forbidden to ride horses.

Maronite villagers building a church in Mount Lebanon, 1920s.

Maronite villagers building a church in Mount Lebanon, 1920s.

Following the conquest of Eastern Christendom outside of Anatolia and Europe by the Muslims, and the establishment of secured lines of control between Islamic Caliphs and Byzantine Emperors, little was heard from the Maronites for 400 years. Secure in their mountain strongholds, it was not until the crusader Raymond of Toulouse on his way to conquer Jerusalem in the Great Crusade that the Maronites were re-discovered in the mountains near Tripoli, Lebanon. Raymond later returned to besiege Tripoli after his conquest of Jerusalem and relations between the Maronites and European Christianity were re-established.

The 11th century Crusaders made their way to the lands of the Levant to overthrow Islam; on their way they passed through Lebanon where they came across the Maronites. The Maronites had been largely cut off from the rest of the Christian world resulting in part from a blockade that was said to have lasted for around 400 years. The Church in Rome had been unaware that the Maronites were still in existence. The crusaders and Maronites established ties and from this point provided each other with mutual assistance.

During the Crusades in the 12th century, Maronites assisted the Crusaders and affirmed their affiliation with the Holy See in 1182. Consequently, from this point onwards, the Maronites have upheld an unbroken ecclesiastical orthodoxy and unity with the Catholic Church. To commemorate their communion, in 1100 Maronite Patriarch Youseff Al Jirjisi received the crown and staff marking his patriarchal authority, from Pope Paschal II. In 1131 Maronite Patriarch Gregorious Al Halati received letters from Pope Innocent II in which the Papacy recognized the authority of the Patriarchate.

It was in the 16th century when Western religious groups started settling in Lebanon. The migration began in 1626 with the Capuchins, followed by the Jesuits. The groups moving at this time did this in order to serve the Lebanese, opening schools for the Maronite people until there was a school next to each church. This made it possible for the Maronites to acquire a formal eduction. The Maronites were on the forefront of the cultural Renaissance in the Middle East.

However, connection to Rome was arduously maintained and through diplomacy and maneuvering, European powers helped keep the Maronite community from destruction. Eventually, a Maronite College was established at Rome on July 5, 1584. From this college, the Maronite community obtained some valuable assistance in maintaining their Christian identity. In 1610, the Maronite monks of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya imported one of the first printing presses in what is known as the Arabic-speaking world; however that press was printing in the Syriac language and not Arabic.

The monasteries of Lebanon would later become key players in the Arabic Renaissance of the late 19th century as a result of developing Arabic, as well as Syriac, printable script.

Ottoman rule: Following the defeat of the Mamelukes by the Ottoman Empire, and to reward their new Druze ally who fought with them in the battle of Marj Dabek (1516), the Ottomans rewarded Prince Fakher el Din al Maani I, with the Principality of Lebanon, where he established a Druze-Maronite alliance lasting for hundreds of years and resulted in the establishment of a prosperous principality which would be the base of the modern Lebanese Republic.

The Maronites were partners in governing the new principality; often the post of Moudabbir (roughly Prime Minister) and the post of Army Commander were given to a Maronite, usually a Khazen or a Hobeich of Keserwan. During this period (1516-1840), the Maronites started returning to southern Mount Lebanon where they had lived before they were almost exterminated by the Mamelukes in 1307. Thus the historic Keserwan and all the Druze mountains were repopulated. It was this love and affection between the Maronites and Druze that helped establish the Lebanese identity.

On July 15, 1584, a Maronite college was established in Rome with Pope Gregory hosting the grand opening.

Fakhr-al-din II, who was said to have been brought up by a Maronite family, fought for Lebanese independence for over 50 years. In the mid 16th century, 25,000 Ottoman troops launched an attack on Lebanon. During the ensuing battles, Fakhr and three of his sons were captured and subsequently executed in Istanbul on the 13th day of April 1635

In 1638, France declared that it would protect the Catholics within the Ottoman Empire, including the Maronites.

In 1856, the Maronites’ uprising took place against governor (Dawood pasha). Youssef Karam was the son of Sheikh Boutros Karam, at that time the Sheikh was lord of Ehden and surrounding district.

In 1997, Pope of the Catholic Church, John Paul II visited Lebanon to give hope to Lebanese Catholics. He said, “Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message.”

The exact worldwide Maronite population is not known, although it is at least 3 million according to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Based on a 2007 report, approximately there are 930,000 Maronites in Lebanon where they constitute up to 22% of the population. According to an agreement between the various political and religious leaders of Lebanon, the president of the country must be a Maronite. Syrian Maronites total 51,000 and they follow the archdioceses of Aleppo and Damascus and the Diocese of Latakia.

There is also a Maronite community in Cyprus which speaks Cypriot Maronite Arabic. They are a recognized religious minority on the island and the community elects a representative to sit in the House of Representatives to voice their interests. They are descended from those Maronites who accompanied the crusaders, although more recent Lebanese immigrants are often included as part of the community, which numbers 10,000.

Modern Maronites often adopt French or other Western European given names (with biblical origins) for their children like Michel, Marc, Marie, Georges, Carole, Charles, Antoine and Pierre. Given names of Arabic origins identical with those of their Muslim neighbors are also common, such as Khalil, Samir, Salim, Jameel, Hisham, or Toufic. Other common names are strictly Christian and are Aramaic, or Arabic, forms of biblical, Hebrew, or Greek Christian names, such as Antun (Anthony or Antonios), Butros (Peter), Boulos (Paul), Rami, Semaan or Shamaoun (Simon), Jergyes (George), Elie (Ilyas or Elias), Iskander (Alexander) and Beshara (literally Good News in reference to the Gospel). Other common names are Sarkis (Sergius) and Bakhos (Bacchus), while others are common both among Christians and Muslims, such as Youssef (Joseph) or Ibrahim (Abraham). Some Maronite Christians are named in honour of Maronite saints, including the Aramaic names Maroun (after their patron saint, Maron), Nimtullah, Charbel and Rafqa.



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