Lebanon. The heart of every Christian in the Middle East
Between sea and mountains, Lebanon has survived wars and invasions, faithful to his faith in Christ. Today, in the middle of a region in crisis, the Lebanese Christians - 50 per cent of the population - keep alive their identity, between tradition and modernity.
Upon arrival at the airport of Beirut and after taking the car toward the city, we immediately find ourselves immersed in the frenzy of the Middle East. On the road, there are no rules. We passed by the suburb south, dominated by Hizbulah, the Shiite Islamist group. We then the famous Corniche in Beirut, the esplanade for which there is a succession of skyscrapers in front of to the Mediterranean Sea. Once we get to the eastern part of the Lebanese capital, the Christian area, the atmosphere changes completely. In Lebanon, all coexist, although each group resides in its own neighborhood.
This geography reflects the political system in force since the independence of the country (1943): The confessionalism, i.e. the distribution of power among the many confessions that make up the country, which makes is maintained in a fragile balance.
Miraculously, after the terrible civil war that took place between 1975 and 1990, and after the presence of the Syrian army in the territory from 1990 to 2005, the country continues to resist. Has Spare, again and again, of conflicts and the waves of violence tend to ravage the region, although the buildings of Beirut exhibit traces of past wars.
In the Christian area, we found a statue of the Blessed Virgin or a cross on each corner. We arrived at the neighborhood of Sabtieh, within walking distance of the center, where Father Elias Bou Saba has welcomed us into his house. Its 71 years, this priest of the Greek-Catholic rite, married and father of five children and grandfather of five grandchildren, enjoys a full life. Tells us how is organized to live this vocation of service in the Eastern tradition. Each day, at eight in the morning, celebrates the Mass in the church located a few minutes’ walk from the apartment where she lives with her family. In this Christian Quarter, the many steeples jump to the view. "Here is the Maronite church, this is the Syrian Orthodox and that is where the Baptist Church," teaches the abuna ('father' in Arabic) Bou Saba before entering to yours, San Simon, the Greek-Catholic rite or melkite.
The Melkite are Christians of Byzantine Rite; they form part of the Catholic Church from the 18th century. With 1,300,000 members, is the second largest Catholic community in the Middle East. It is located in Lebanon, Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt and Jordan. But in this country, the larger community is the Maronite, a Lebanese specifically rite. By their particular history, the Oriental Rites ecclesial received authorization to maintain its tradition ritual and therefore, in these rituals we can find men already married who receive the sacrament of holy orders.
"From small, it was clear that I wanted to be a priest and, therefore, I studied at the minor seminary, but as my parents did not want it to be, I had to return to the people…", tells the Abuna Bou Saba. After completing the studies, began to work as a teacher of French. To the 26 years, married with one of his students. Lived in his village quiet of southern Lebanon.
On Saturdays, was devoted to study catechesis and liturgy. One day, your parish priest was presented in your home with the bishop. "Asked me if I wanted to be a cure and I told them that I did, but the question I was not removed from the head," recalls. After a few months, picked up the car heading to the archdiocese. A year later, ordered it and gave a parish in the area. "Then, had three children. The war was always harder in the south; the Israeli army was in the villages, the Palestinians are opposed to this occupation… We decided to retreat the whole family in Beirut and since then I am the pastor here".
This story is a reflection of what they have lived a great number of families of Lebanon; it is no coincidence that today has many more Lebanese outside that within its borders. The abuna Bou Saba and his wife had two more children. "It is not always easy to commensurate all, the availability for the family and for the parish, but God guides us forward," says.
Land of saints
in this tiny country, full of mountains and valleys, is a great spirituality. For all the Christians of Lebanon, his point of reference is, without doubt, Our Lady of Lebanon, which dominates and welcomes, with his arms outstretched, the bay of Jounieh, a town some twenty kilometers of Beirut.
The statue is located at some 650 meters above sea level in the mountains of Harissa. "Oh Mary, Queen of the mountains and the seas and the Queen of our beloved Lebanon....", were the words that he dedicated the Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoyek on the day of its inauguration, in 1908. Its fiesta is on the first Sunday of the month of May, but every day of the year receives the visit of many pilgrims.
In 1997, Saint John Paul II visited this special place. For its part, in 2012, Benedict XVI chose the Melkite Basilica San Pablo, within walking distance to sign the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in the Middle East".
Going up toward the north, we arrive at the convent of St Maron in Annaya, where he lived for the patron saint of Lebanon, San Chárbel (1828-1898). Born into a poor family in the mountain, Youssef Antun Makhluf religious was made of the Maronite Order. Fifteen years later, was installed as a hermit in a casita little above the convent, where lived the other brothers, and since then he has dedicated his life to the prayer.
Accompanied by two of the sons of the Abuna Bou Saba, we arrived at the tomb of the Saint, whose body has not ceased to shed blood after his death. This miraculous phenomenon contributed to disseminate its fame of holiness.
In the midst of the many pilgrims who have come to pray to San Chárbel, we called attention to a couple of young Muslims. The woman, who was carrying veil, is crying of emotion. "Come many Muslims - explains Michel, one of the sons of the Abuna Bou Saba - they also ask for miracles to heal a loved one sick, for example".
Rafqa (in Spanish, 'Rebeca') of Himlaya (1832-1914) is another santa by whom the Lebanese feel great devotion. This nun of peasant origin, also Maronite, suffered several diseases. But, even though blind and almost paralytic, offered all to Christ. The place of his burial is located in the convent of San Jose, which she founded and built, with some Sisters, in the region of Batrun.
The cradle of the Maronite rite
Followed by roads, further north, we arrive at the Wadi Qadisha, the holy valley where they hide some of the oldest monasteries of the Middle East. This spectacular place, declared Patrimony of the Humanity by Unesco, is formed by two deep canyons. It is said that at their meeting point, God would have created Adam and Eve. It is in the abrupt cliffs of this part of the mountain range of the Mount Lebanon where he was born on the Maronite rite, and also where it was installed the first printer in the entire region.
This immersion in the source of the Eastern Christianity may need at least two days, because, in the vicinity, is the forest of the cedars of God, trees, which formerly covered all the slopes of Mount Lebanon. Its wood served for the construction of many buildings, particularly religious.
Historically, Lebanon has always been the country with more Christians in the region and the only one in which they are fully involved in the political system. "The fact of having an effective representation and established in our Constitution is a guarantee", stresses the General Michel Aoun, the main Christian leader, head of the party of the Patriotic Current Free. In fact, by law, the president of the Lebanese Republic has to be a Maronite. However, by a political deadlock, it has failed to elect a new head of State since the end of the mandate of the last two years ago.
Even so, Lebanon is one of the few countries which are relatively stable in the region. If you walk at night in the bars of Achrafieh or of the cities of the coast, nobody would say that, a few tens of kilometers, are producing the fighting of Syria. Lebanon is one of the most active night life of the region.
However, behind appearances, hide many problems. In this tiny country have reached more than 2 million Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict. These are added to the many Iraqis who have fled their homes, many of them Christians and for the 300,000 Palestinian refugees arrived after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, after being expelled from Jordan at the beginning of the seventies. Refugees are not intended to settle in the country, but to get a visa to travel to Europe or America. But sometimes spend many years… and are still there.
"The country is assuming a charge remaining big", stresses the General Aoun. Relations with Syria have not been easy in the last decades, since Damascus occupied Lebanon for thirty years in the second half of the twentieth century.
The Lebanese spirit
Near the Abuna Bou Saba, the parish of San Miguel prepares, each day, the food for those who have lost everything in the war. This type of mobilization is active in the whole country. The Catholic Church assures an aid that coordinates with the United Nations and various NGOS. However, the situation seems increasingly less sustainable and the lebanese call for a political resolution.
The Christians of Lebanon are also before a demographic challenge. In the last fifty years, many of them have emigrated. And those who have remained in the country living with their Muslim brothers.
In spite of everything, the cheerful and strong of the Lebanese draws attention: are especially attractive and do not leave to smile despite its difficult history. As is the case in most of the Lebanese families, the Abuna Bou Saba has many members abroad (United States, Canada, Australia, France,...), who, during the holidays, returning to their land to enjoy its beautiful customs, faithful to his beloved Lebanon, because few countries are saved with such fervor in the heart.
In the church of the convent where he lived saint Chárbel, just behind a wrought iron railing, is the tomb of the most famous hermit of Lebanon. The inhabitants of the country, Christians and Muslims know that everything is what they can trust: penalties and hidden desires. In the twilight, wrapped in the fragile light of the candles and the smell of incense, thousands of worshippers pray every day. The miracles attributed to the holy are many; one of the biggest is that, in this shrine, Christians and Muslims pray together.
Down the throats of mount to return toward the coast, you can pause a restaurant to try some of the lebanese specialties: hummus (mashed chickpeas and sesame cream), the famous kibbeh (meatballs of meat, onions and sprockets) and the tabulé (salad with much parsley, mint, tomato and bulgur). These dishes are classics of the large family meals. In Zaitunay Bay, by the tourist port of Beirut, as in the penthouse in the center of the capital, you can also enjoy a good dinner.
Translated by catholic.net