Maronites: the face of Christians in the Middle East

Gebran Khalil Gebran once said, “If Lebanon was not my country, I would have chosen Lebanon to be”. Lebanon is the land of diversity, ethnicity, history, culture, and beauty. It’s the land where we grew up to live with one another from different religions and different cultures. It’s the land that shows the real meaning of coexistence between ethnicities and sects between Christians and Muslims. The 18 sect country has been a model for other states that face the same sectarian cleavages.

Maronites: the face of Christians in the Middle East - GEOPOLITICA.info

Since the Ottoman rule, Lebanon has had a form of segmental autonomy due to its confessional cleavages. The Ottomans created the Millet system which refers to the separation of legal courts in correlation to personal law under which different religious communities were allowed to rule themselves. It gave an almost-total autonomy to these communities taking into consideration education, administration of properties, internal jurisdiction and religious organization. The Millet system was abolished after the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms (1839–1876). Itstated that“all Ottoman subjects are equal regardless of their religion or language”. Confessional awareness grew stronger as communities became worried about their own hierarchies and about preserving their self-autonomy and territory.

Under the French Mandate, Lebanon was declared as “Great Lebanon” in 1920 still adapting hierarchical pluralism (since the Millet system). Great Lebanon was established under the Maronite’s Patriarch Elias Hoyek revealing the Christian’s power and the autonomy Mount Lebanon has always had. In addition, the adoption took on a political statement with the establishment of executive and elected institutions where participation was based on representation quotas. The electoral law adopted in 1926 translated the sample figures proportionally into parliamentary seats. It was based on a simple majority voting principle, holding one round of voting in administrative districts based on the five Mouhafazat (or governorates): theNorth, the Beqaa, Mount Lebanon, Beirut and the South.

In 1926, a constitution was drafted, inspired by the model of Belgium and the constitution of the Third French Republic. It adopted a consociational philosophy in the practice of power in Lebanon. This meant establishing a principle of power sharing based on confessional proportionality and grand coalitions.

With Lebanon’s independence on November 22, 1943, came the National Pact which was an oral agreement between the President and the Prime Minister of the newly independent republic. The National Pact granted the presidency to the Maronites (Christians), the premiership to the Sunnis, and the representation of the parliament to the Shi’ites.

Both Christians and Muslims made certain promises: Christians promised not to seek foreign, i.e. French, protection and to accept Lebanon’s Arab face; while Muslims agreed to recognize the independence and legitimacy of the Lebanese state in its 1920 borders and to let go of their aim for a union with Syria or with a larger Arab nation.

Since it was based on an ‘existential partnership’ between Muslims and Christians, it meant that no one in the country could impose anything on the other, and that the philosophy of consensus and compromise should guide all political processes.

However, things changed before and after the civil war especially to the Christians. Prior to the war, the power was to the president of the Republic, the parliamentary policy was weak, and the council of ministers was also weak. The Post-War period and the creation of the Ta’ef Accord increased power of both the Council of Ministers and Parliament. The demographic balance shifted in favor of the Muslim reformists. Muslims were strengthened; Christian Maronite Presidency was weakened and the only thing the president retained was the symbolic position.

Christians in Lebanon have a particular role and existence mainly the Maronites. Yet, who are the Maronites and why their presence in Lebanon have a vital role globally?

The Maronites are those Christians who decided to follow a certain priest by the name of Maroun and adopted his pattern of life. Maroun left the city and made his residence on a mountain, intending thereby to leave behind the theological conflict and to worship God in solitude. However in his retreat, he found that his true vocation was to live with others, thus he resumed his community’s duties and decided to teach the true doctrine. His disciples increased in number, and they began to call themselves Maronites (derived from his name ‘Maroun’). Maroun died in the year 410, but his disciples carried on his mission. Therefore, Maronites are a very old community that roots mostly in Lebanon.

Maronites compose the biggest percentage of Christians in the country. They have many figureheads and the presidency of the country is in their hands. However, after 1990 with the Ta’ef Accord, Christians started to feel less important than they were before.  This Accord was an agreement reached to provide “the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon”. The demographic changes made Christians scared of losing their power specially the Maronites. Lebanon is now almost 40% Christians where more than half of them are Maronites, and the other 60% are Muslims (Sunnis, Shia’, and Druze). After the war, the Maronite Diaspora expanded worldwide and mostly to Brazil. Others are spread in Australia, Canada, etc. The number of Maronites abroad is estimated to be 8 million. Thus, if these 8 million come back to Lebanon, the majority gets back in the favor of Christians. Furthermore, Lebanese Maronites were always a threat to Syria. Syria always wanted to deteriorate the Maronites’ power since the establishment of Great Lebanon in the 1920 because they consider Mount Lebanon to the sea as part of Syria since the Ottoman Rule. This case was the same with Saddam Hussein and Kuwait because he considered Kuwait to be a province of Iraq since the British Mandate.

Besides these facts lies the importance of the presence of Maronites. What are their interests these days? Are they different than the ones in the past?

Firstly and one of the main things for Christians in general is to keep the balance in the parliament of 50 50 with 64 Christian MPs and 64 Muslim MPs in addition to the equilibrium in number of ministers.

Secondly, Maronites are calling for a change in the electoral laws and identity laws. The Christians want to allow Lebanese abroad to vote in Lebanese embassies and take the Lebanese identity from their ancestors. Yet, this issue is very debatable since other sects are against this.

Thirdly, Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that has its head of state a Christian and not a Muslim. Maronites thrive very hard to keep this power to them and keep the president of the republic the only Christian one in the area. It’s the most controversial presidential election that occurs in the region since every foreign entity wants a say in the elections and it’s in their favor to be the ally of the president.  The president is very symbolic to all Maronites in Lebanon and abroad since this figure is the face of the Western World in the Arab World because Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country that has trading authorities. He’s the only Christian president that represents power in a democratic-less Arab World. The Lebanese president is the mediator between the Eastern and Western ideologies.

Finally, the Maronites’ community is divided into several groups and people have different leaders from this sect. These groups share the Maronite power, showing democracy among them. They don’t share common goals, allies, or ideas but they coexist.

Lebanon is a very peculiar country full of ups and downs yet it’s a dream for Lebanese. Like Gebran Khalil Gebran, many Lebanese would have also chosen Lebanon as their country. Since the Phoenicians Lebanon has had a special view from the world in different ways. Despite all the cleavages in the country, its entire people agree on one thing: they want to live in peace and harmony. Roger Ebert, a former American film critic, screenwriter and journalist once said that “Lebanon was at one time known as a nation that rose above sectarian hatred; Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. All of that was blown apart by senseless religious wars, financed and exploited in part by those who sought power and wealth”. The real challenge remains the struggle of how to fix Lebanon and who’s in charge and this would be answered with time. Thus, could Lebanon go back to how it was blooming during the 1950s and 60s or is it doomed for this pitiful end?