The Maronites: Far-flung flock

The Maronite presence in Israel maintains its Lebanese character.

Speaking in flawless English with a hint of a brogue, a legacy from his years as an undergraduate in Dublin, Archbishop Paul N. Sayah could be called a "jolly" prelate. Born in Ein al-Kharoub, Lebanon, Sayah also has degrees from the American University of Beirut and Boston College, where he earned a doctorate in clinical psychology. "I certainly need my psychology training in this job," he laughs. "I move all the time between Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon, so I have to speak different languages and relate to different cultures. I speak my mind, though I may do it diplomatically." In some circles, Sayah has a reputation for being outspoken. "I've been vocal on issues of dialogue and interfaith, and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict here. But I speak from my church's point of view and as a Christian," he affirms. Not far from the Jaffa Gate, tucked away in the Armenian Quarter, is the Maronite Convent, which houses the archbishop's residence and a guest house, Foyer Mar Maroun. The building is maintained by the nuns of the order of St. Therese, who also administer church buildings and schools in Haifa and Galilee. Even within the tiny confines of the Old City, the Maronite convent is off the beaten path. The building, which served as a hospital for German Protestants in the 19th century, was purchased and restored by the Maronite Church. Inside is the chapel, the only Maronite place of worship in Jerusalem, decorated with paintings of Lebanese cedar trees and St. Maroun. The Maronites trace their founding to St. John Maroun, who died around 410 CE. A bell from Lebanon stands in the spacious courtyard. Maronites, one of the principal religious groups in Lebanon, are members of one of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. The Maronite Church is the only eastern church which never separated from Rome. While it elects its own bishops, its ultimate authority is the pope. Instead of Latin, the language of the liturgy is Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic. Paul Sayah's formal title is Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Exarch (Patriarchal Vicar) in Jerusalem, Jordan and the Palestinian Territory. While there are an estimated seven million Maronites worldwide, and some 800,000 remaining in Lebanon, Sayah's "flock" is relatively small, though geographically widespread. There are approximately 12,000 Maronite Christians throughout the entire area, of whom 9,000 are in Galilee and 1,000 in Jerusalem. There are Parish priests in each location, as well as nuns who have a key role in running the church's institutions. "We try to give women more of a role to play in the life of the church," says Sayah. There are a few Maronite families living in Jordan, who fled there from the Lebanese civil war. "It's been hard to reach these believers who were attending other churches, but now we are starting to gather them back in Amman. "There is a religious and traditional revival worldwide, with people looking for their roots, and this is true of descendents of Maronites as well," he says. "Most clergy who serve in the world were born in Lebanon, but now there are two American-born bishops in the US." MUCH OF the archbishop's time here is taken up with his responsibility for the members of the South Lebanese Army (SLA) and their families who live in Israel. The SLA was the Israeli-backed Christian militia which was disbanded in May 2000 when Israeli troops were withdrawn from Lebanon. Several thousand of its members sought refuge in Israel. Of the 7,500 former officers and their families, some 2,500 remain in Israel. "I have been involved from the beginning in trying to repatriate as many as possible, running back and forth between Israel and Lebanon." About 70 percent of the families are Christians, the majority of whom are Maronites. The others are Druse and Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. "But I'm looking after them all," he says. "The Lebanese state is aware that these people were victims. "Many of them were sent to the south of Lebanon originally by the government, but then they were cut off because of the military situation and were told by the Lebanese to make do. That meant they had to come to Israel to earn a living, since they didn't have hospitals or work in the south." In general, he insists, the question of repatriation "has been handled in a reasonable way. The men continue getting their Lebanese compensation payments, the Hizbullah were not as nasty as had been expected, the Lebanese government has tried to find solutions, and the Israeli government did some good things for them here. If they leave they are given a bonus and compensation." There has been retribution for some SLA members who returned to Lebanon; some have had to serve short prison terms. "On the whole it hasn't been too bad. But when you've lost your home, no one can compensate for this." One major problem for those family members remaining in Israel is education for the children. For the first two years they were in Israel, Sayah helped to set up Arabic-language schools with a Lebanese-style curriculum. But funding for this has been discontinued and the children now all attend regular Israeli schools, mostly in Haifa and the north. Based in Lebanon for centuries, the Maronite Church has a specifically Lebanese national character. The Maronites were one of the main factions in the Lebanese Civil War, alongside the Sunnis (ideologically tied to the Palestinians and Syrians), Shi'ites and Druse. "The church has had a long-standing involvement in the life of the country," explains Sayah. "After the First World War, we were very involved in the negotiations for Lebanese independence from the French. Since the seventh century, the Maronites have had a kind of autonomy within the country. "This is in our genes: freedom, independence and autonomy is something we paid a very high price for and still are," he says. "When you take the present situation of the Syrians in Lebanon, for example, it's the Maronites who are pressing for them to leave. "The church has always been present in people's day-to-day lives," he continues. "Even today the monasteries in Lebanon exert an economic force; people look to them to see what prices to get for their crops." Ordained 38 years ago, Father Paul, as he likes to be called, says he is "first and foremost a pastor who is preaching the gospel. My mission is to be present for my people in the service of my people." At a sudden downpour during the interview, Sayah rushes out to the roof to bring in his jogging suit hanging on the clothes line. The rain clears almost as quickly as it had arrived, leaving behind a rainbow arching over the Mount of Olives. "Here we see the blessing of living in Jerusalem," exclaims the archbishop. One of Archbishop Sayah's most important concerns is the village of Bir'am in the Galilee, four kilometers south of the Lebanese border. Together with Ikrit, a similarly destroyed village nearby, Bir'am has long been a cause celebre. Before 1948, Bir'am was a small Maronite Christian village with a population of 1,050. On October 29, 1948, Israeli forces occupied the village as part of Israel's attempt to prevent infiltration from Lebanon into the newly established state. The villagers from Bir'am and Ikrit were evacuated with the promise they could return in days. Some were taken in by relatives and friends from Jish (known in Hebrew as Gush Halav) four kilometers from Bir'am. Others took shelter in the tobacco fields and olive groves, or in the caves near the vineyards. In 1949, Ben-Gurion issued a statement saying: "The government has no intention to deprive the residents of Bir'am of their land and their means of living" - but neither he nor any one else made any effort to enable them to return. Eventually the Israeli government would allow the villagers to restore their church and to bury their dead in the local cemetery, but not to return or re-build their homes. Today most of the villagers and their descendants live in Jish and Haifa. They have petitioned the High Court four times to be allowed to return, the last time being four years ago. Hearings were postponed seven times at the request of each of three successive governments, including the current one. Attorney Avigdor Feldman, who represents the petitioners, says that his clients have a court judgment from 1950 allowing them to return to their homes. The residents say they will not agree to any settlement other than to return to their land. Twice a year, local Maronite children are taken on heritage visits to the village, which, according to local tradition, dates back at least 400 years. Bir'am descendants also sponsor summer camps for the children, who sleep in the buildings and work to renovate and maintain the church. "They are told the story of the village to keep them aware of their tradition," explains Sayah. Last May, relates Archbishop Sayah, he ordained a priest in the church. While the lands that belonged to the village of Ikrit were distributed to neighboring communities, the bulk of the lands that belonged to Bir'am, were not. "No significant amount of Bir'am land has ever been sold, which is an important fact," says the Maronite Archbishop. "We've kept our hope alive for 55 years, and we will keep it up."