Archbishop Encourages Lebanese Maronite Christians to Stay

August 20, 2006

Source: USA Today

On August 20, 2006 USA Today reported, "Chucrallah Nabil Hage, the Maronite Christian archbishop of Tyre, added a twist to his Sunday sermon here: hold your ground. 'Wherever you are — in Hajji or Tyre or Marjayoun — if you're patient and believe, you'll make it through this,' Hage told a standing-room congregation at St. George's Church in this southern Lebanese village. 'The most important thing is to stay on this land.' Since last month, the 63-year-old priest has braved bombs, rockets and ground clashes between Israeli forces and the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah, racing over cratered roads and threading past bombed-out bridges to visit his flock in the few Christian towns and villages that dot predominantly Shiite southern Lebanon. His message to the faithful has been that they must stay, despite the danger. Thin and bearded, Hage speaks with a raspy voice and is fluent in Arabic, English and French. He took advantage of the fragile, week-old cease-fire to celebrate Sunday Mass here and in another village nearby. The exact number of Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon is a mystery. A census could be politically explosive in Lebanon, bringing calls by Muslims to do away with a spoils system that awards Christians the country's presidency and half the seats in the parliament. Since the end of Lebanon's 16-year civil war in 1991, Christians have steadily lost power to Shiite and Sunni Muslims, whose populations have grown. The CIA estimates the nation's population of 3.8 million is roughly 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. An exodus by Christians could upset the delicate balance of power in the country. The 34-day war that began July 12 prompted Hage to try to prevent such an exodus. A string of Maronite villages along Lebanon's southern border, towns such as Debel, Rmaich and Ain Ebel, is in a particularly tight spot: sandwiched between Hezbollah-controlled towns slightly north and the heavily fortified Israeli border just to the south. Maronites, who constitute most of the Christians in southern Lebanon, are members of an Eastern-rite church in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Hage has worked for years to keep the villages populated. He said Maronites act as a peaceful buffer between two warring entities. When shelling began last month, he dashed from town to town as bombs rained down, delivering food and medicine and urging followers to stay put."