Before the 1975 war, Christians represented about 45 per cent of the population. Now they are no more than 5 per cent. The main reason for their migration is economic, especially the lack of jobs. Yet, their presence is not only felt in religious matters, but also in cultural, social and political life. Courtesy of L’Orient-Le Jour.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – In some villages, even those with a Christian majority, the faithful sometimes struggle to find enough churches to make the pilgrimage of the seven churches on Holy Thursday. In some cities, the pilgrimage is sometimes done by car since the churches are too far from each other to do it on foot.
But in Tripoli, capital of northern Lebanon, Christians are spoiled by the number of choices. In the heart of the city, eight churches are on the same street which, unsurprisingly, is called Church Street. In an hour, Tripoli Christians can make their pilgrimage, walking and reciting brief prayers inside each church. They can go to St Maroun’s Church, to the Latin church, then the Protestant church, whilst passing by the Maronite Cathedral of St Michael, St George’s Church, St Nicolas Orthodox Church, and St Joseph’s Syriac Catholic Church.
The pious can also gather at the church of the Catholic archdiocese, thus making a pilgrimage of eight churches instead of seven.
Five per cent of city residents
Every Sunday, new faces appear at St Maroun’s Church or among the faithful who come before the priests for the communion. "We meet familiar faces, as well as strangers from Zgharta, Koura or Akkar, who come to celebrate Sunday Mass in Tripoli," said Fr Joseph Farah, pastor at St Maroun’s in Tripoli and administrative director of the Mejdlaya-Zgharta campus of the Université Antonine (northern Lebanon), who is quick to note that before the civil war, a good number of people from Zgharta lived in Tripoli, and always feel great nostalgia for and attachment to this parish.
According to Father Farah, every year on Holy Friday, the St Maroun’s Church, home to the largest Maronite parish in Tripoli, is teeming with people, so that the faithful gathered in the church square are twice the number of those who found a seat inside the church.
"Talking big numbers would be an overstatement at a time when the number of Christians in Tripoli, all denominations included, is no more than five per cent of the city’s population," said the Maronite priest. Before the 1975 civil war, Christians made up nearly 45 per cent of the population of the capital of northern Lebanon, he explained. "In Tripoli, we firmly believe that the Christian presence is a one of quality. We do not say this because the number of Christians in the city is small. We have always had this conviction, with the same firmness, even when they constituted half of the population of the northern capital."
For Father Farah, "Not only are we attached to the Christian presence in Tripoli, but Muslims – residents, political leaders and religious authorities – say as much and even more.” For the Maronite clergyman, Muslims value this presence because it guarantees diversity and openness, and creates and maintains bridges between the city and abroad.
Rami Hosni, an engineer from el-Mina and an active member of the Orthodox Youth Movement, agrees. "The presence of Christians in the city is not only felt in the practice of religion, but also in its cultural, social and political life. "
Highlighting the vibrancy created by the Orthodox Youth Movement across Tripoli, but especially in el-Mina, where there is the largest number of Greek Orthodox, he goes on to say that "The members of this movement are very active and very involved in the city. They organise religious and other events, launch initiatives.” Indeed, "It is in this group that most young people get to know each other, where friendships are made and where the community feels like one."
"This community is far from being inward-looking," Hosni noted. “On the contrary, the Orthodox Youth Movement is very open and enjoys very good relations with Muslim groups and other associations in the city.” The example he gives is the annual initiative by the movement and a Muslim association to help Muslim children during the month of Ramadan.
Father Farah admits, not without some humour, that Tripoli’s Greek Orthodox have always had better relations with their Muslim neighbours than Maronites. "This probably goes back to the fact that Greek Orthodox and Sunni Muslims have lived in cities and the coast, and share by tradition a common temperament and habits." But the Maronites are not far behind. "Muslim neighbours of St Maroun’s first called me,” said Fr Farah, “on a Sunday when we could not ring the church bells to announce the beginning of Mass because they had malfunctioned."
Christians, guarantors of diversity
According to Hosni, twenty-five Greek Orthodox families left el-Mina last year to settle in neighbouring areas such as Zgharta and Koura. Over the past decade, the number of Greek Orthodox families in el-Mina has dropped to 975 from almost 1,500.
If people really cared about the Christian presence in the city, why does does the number of residents continue to decline? "Before the 1975 war, the number of Christians in the city was very high. The Christian presence in Tripoli dates back to the time of the Apostles, since the Apostle Peter passed through the port of Tripoli. And the Franciscans, to cite only their example, will soon celebrate 1,500 years of presence,” Father Farah said.
But for the Maronite priest, as for Mr Hosni, the main reason for the migration of Christians is economic and affects all Tripoli residents, of all faiths. "Because of the lack of job opportunities in Tripoli, young people leave the city for the capital, or leave Lebanon in search of a job," Fr Farah explained.
According to Mr Hosni, the fighting of recent years between two rival neighbourhoods, Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbaneh, was, for many young people, one more reason to settle outside Tripoli, in neighbouring areas.
Is the steady decline in the number of Christians in Tripoli a reason for the faithful to feel more attached to their parishes? Father Farah and Mr. Hosni think so. "The Maronite Archdiocese of Tripoli has recently decided to appoint relatively young and dynamic priests, since these parishes, especially the most active among them, attract worshippers from all areas and age groups," Father Farah noted.
Maronites in Tripoli are divided into five parishes: St Maroun’s Church, the largest and most active; followed in descending order, el-Mina, Zahriyé, Kobbé and Bab el-Tebbaneh, the latter mostly symbolic.
The Greek Orthodox, who are more numerous than the Maronites, are grouped in two parishes with four churches: the Cathedral of St George and St Nicholas Church in Tripoli, and another Cathedral of St George and St Elias Church in El-Mina.
According to Mr Hosni, the Cathedral of St George in El-Mina is practically the only one church in Lebanon that to offer daily morning and evening services, Matins and Vespers, in the Byzantine rite. For Fr Farah, "Without Christians, Tripoli would turn inward, towards extremism and lose forever what is left of the richness and diversity that characterised it before the civil war."