Lebanon's Geography

Christian Sects

| Maronites |
| Greek Catholics |
| Roman Catholics |
| Greek Orthodox |
| Syrian Orthodox |
| Armenian Orthodox or Gregorian |
| Assyrian or Nestorian Church |
| Protestants |
| Jews |
| Others |


The Maronites are the largest Uniate or Eastern church in Lebanon and represent an indigenous church. Maronite communion with the Roman Catholic Church was established in 1182, broken thereafter, and formally reestablished in the sixteenth century. In accordance with the terms of union, they retain their own rites and canon law and use Arabic and Aramaic in their liturgy as well the Karshuni script with old Syriac letters. Their origins are uncertain. One version traces them to John Maron of Antioch in the seventh century A.D.; another points to John Maron, a monk of Homs in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The words maron or marun in Syriac mean "small lord."

In the late seventh century, as a result of persecutions from other Christians for the heterodox views they had adopted, the Maronites withdrew from the coastal regions into the mountainous areas of Lebanon and Syria. During the Ottoman era (1516-1914) they remained isolated and relatively independent in these areas. In 1857 and 1858 the Maronite peasants revolted against the large landowning families. The revolt was followed by a further struggle between the Druzes and Maronites over land ownership, political power, and safe passage of community members in the territory of the other. The conflict led France to send a military expedition to the area in 1860. The disagreements diminished in intensity only after the establishment of the Mandate and a political formula whereby all sects achieved a degree of political representation.

The Maronite sect has been directed and administered by the Patriarch of Antioch and the East. Bishops are generally nominated by a church synod from among the graduates of the Maronite College in Rome. In 1987, Mar Nasrallah Butrus Sufayr (also spelled Sfeir) was the Maronite Patriarch.

Besides the Beirut archdiocese, nine other archdioceses and dioceses are located in the Middle East: Aleppo, Damascus, Jubayl-Al Batrun, Cyprus, Baalbek, Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, and Cairo. Parishes and independent dioceses are situated in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Côte d'Ivoire, and Senegal. There are four minor seminaries in Lebanon (Al Batrun, Ghazir, Ayn Saadah, and Trablous) and a faculty of theology at the University of the Holy Spirit at Al Kaslik, which is run by the Maronite Monastic Order. The patriarch is elected in a secret ceremony by a synod of bishops and confirmed by the Pope.

In 1986 it was estimated that there were 356,000 Maronites in Lebanon, or 16 per cent of the population. Most Maronites have historically been rural people, like the Druzes; however, unlike the Druzes, they are scattered around the country, with a heavy concentration in Mount Lebanon. The urbanized Maronites reside in East Beirut and its suburbs. The Maronite sect has traditionally occupied the highest stratum of the social pyramid in Lebanon. Leaders of the sect have considered Maronite Christianity as the "foundation of the Lebanese nation." The Maronites have been closely associated with the political system of independent Lebanon; it was estimated that in pre-Civil War Lebanon members of this sect held 20 percent of the leading posts.

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Greek Catholics

Greek Catholics are the second largest Uniate community in Lebanon. They emerged as a distinct group in the early eighteenth century when they split from the Greek Orthodox Church. Although they fully accept Catholic doctrines as defined by the Vatican, they have generally remained close to the Greek Orthodox Church, retaining more of the ancient rituals and customs than have the Maronites. They use Arabic and follow the Byzantine rite. In Lebanon, when one speaks of Catholics, one is referring to this group, not to Roman Catholics or the Maronites.

The highest official of the church since 1930 has been the Patriarch of Antioch, who resides at Ayn Traz, about twenty-four kilometers southeast of Beirut. The patriarch is elected by bishops in a synod and confirmed by the Pope in Rome, who sends him a pallium (a circular band of white wool worn by archbishops) in recognition of their communion. Greek Catholic churches, like those of the Greek Orthodox, contain icons but no statues.

The Greek Catholics live primarily in the central and eastern parts of the country, dispersed in many villages. Members of this sect are concentrated in Beirut, Zahlah, and the suburbs of Sidon. They have a relatively higher level of education than other sects. Proud of their Arab heritage, Greek Catholics have been able to strike a balance between their openness to the Arab world and their identification with the West, especially the United States. Greek Catholics constituted 3 percent of the population (72,000) in 1986.

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Roman Catholics

Catholics who accept the full primacy of the Holy See and follow the Latin rite comprised less than 1 percent of the population in the 1980s. The Lebanese refer to them as Latins to distinguish them from Uniate groups. The Latin community is extremely variegated, since both laity and clergy, including large numbers of foreigners, are mainly Europeans. As Roman Catholics, they acknowledge the supreme authority of the Pope in Rome, venerate the Virgin Mary and the saints, and recognize the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (the sacrament of the Lord's Supper), confession and penance, ordination, matrimony, and extreme unction (given when facing the danger of death). Members of the clergy are celibate.

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Greek Orthodox

The Greek Orthodox adhere to the Orthodox Eastern Church, which is actually a group of autocephalous churches using the Byzantine rite. Historically, these churches grew out of the four Eastern Patriarchates (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople) which, from the fifth century diverged from the Western Patriarchate of Rome over the nature of Christ. The final split took place after the fall of Constantinople in 1096. From that time, with the exception of a brief period of reunion in the fifteenth century, the Eastern Church has continued to reject the claim of the Roman patriarchate to universal supremacy, and has also rejected the concept of papal infallibility . Doctrinally, the main point at issue between the Eastern and Western Churches is that of the procession of the Holy Spirit. There are also divergences in ritual and discipline.

Originally a peasant community, the Greek Orthodox include many free- holders, and the community is less dominated by large landowners than other Christian denominations. In present-day Lebanon, the Greek Orthodox have become increasingly urbanized, and form a major part of the commercial and professional class of Beirut and other cities. Many are also found in the southeast and north, near Tripoli. They are both highly educated and well versed in finance. The sect has become known for its pan-Arab orientation, possibly because it exists in various parts of the Arab world. The church has often served as a bridge between Lebanese Christians and the Arab countries. Members of the sect constitute 5 percent of the population.

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Syrian Orthodox

The doctrinal position of the Syrian Orthodox Church is "that the incarnate word of god has one person of two, and one compound nature without confusion or mixture or change. Since this child is real god and real and perfect man and his mother was theotokos or good-bearer" (from The Syrian Orthodox Church). The church follows the Syriac liturgy of St. James and has an independent hierarchy under the Patriarch of Antioch, whose seat was formerly at Mardin in Turkish Kurdistan and is now at Homs, Syria. As of 1987 there were only a few thousand Syrian Orthodox in Lebanon.

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Armenian Orthodox or Gregorian

The Gregorian Church was organized in the third century and became autocephalous as a national church in the fourth century. In the sixth century it modified the formulations of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 that confirmed the dual nature of Christ in one person. Instead the Gregorian Church adopted a form of Monophysitism that believes in the single divine nature of Christ, a belief which is slightly different from the belief of the Copts and the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Armenian Orthodox Church has five patriarchs, of whom the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin in Soviet Armenia is the most revered. It also has an Armenian liturgy.

The Armenians in Lebanon were refugees who had fled Turkey during and after World War I. In 1987 they resided in Beirut and its northern suburbs as well as in Anjar. They are admired for their skills as craftsmen and diligence, which have enabled them to gain prominent economic positions. Politically, Armenians advocate compromise and moderation.

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Assyrian or Nestorian Church

The Assyrians are the remnants of the Nestorian Church that emerged with the Christological controversies in the fifth century. The Nestorians, who have a Syriac liturgy, stressed that Christ consisted of two separate persons, one human and one divine, as opposed to having two natures in one person. Their doctrine was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. Subsequently, those Nestorians who accepted this doctrine formed an independent church, which has only a few thousand members in Lebanon.

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The Protestants in Lebanon were converted by missionaries, primarily English and American, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are divided into a number of denominations, the most important being Presbyterian, Congregational, and Anglican. Typically, Lebanese Protestants are educated and belong to the professional middle class. They constitute less than 1 percent of the population and live primarily in Beirut.

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Lebanese Jews historically have been an integral part of the Lebanese fabric of confessional communities. In 1947, they were estimated to number 5,950. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Lebanese Jews did not feel compelled to emigrate because they enjoyed a prosperous status in Lebanese society and had been granted equal rights by law with other citizens. Moreover, they suffered no harm during the anti-Zionist demonstrations of 1947 and 1948. However, the intensification of the Arab-Israeli conflict politicized attitudes toward local Jews, who were often associated with the policies of Israel. In the early 1950s their synagogue in Beirut was bombed, and the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies witnessed heated debates on the status of Lebanese Jewish army officers. The discussions culminated in a unanimous resolution to expel and exclude them from the Lebanese Army.

During the June 1967 War, Lebanese authorities stationed guards in Jewish districts, when hostility toward Lebanese Jews became overt. Several hundred chose to leave the country; until 1972 Jews were free to leave the country with their money and possessions. During the 1975 Civil War, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Lebanese leftist-Muslim forces posted militia in the Jewish neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jamil, that housed what remained of the dwindling Jewish community, estimated to number less than 3,000. Nevertheless, the rise of Muslim fundamentalists, especially in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of 1982, constituted a real threat to Lebanese Jews. Organizations such as the Khaybar Brigades and the Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing several Lebanese Jews between 1984 and 1987. As of 1987 it was estimated that only a dozen Jews remained in West Beirut, and some seventy others in the eastern sector of the city.

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In addition to the above-mentioned sects, in 1987 there were a number of small religious and ethnic communities that numbered only in the hundreds. Such groups comprised Chaldean Catholic, Bahais, Armenian Catholics, Copts, Turkomans, and Circassians.

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Source: Federal Research Division - Library of Congress (Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)

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Last changes: March 2, 1998