Lebanon harbours one of the world's oldest Christian communities. This weekend the Pope visits the Maronites but the whole country looks to him for help in restoring a haven of religious and political tolerance. GREG WATTS reports
pOPE JOHN Paul's visit to Lebanon this weekend marks the final phase of the Lebanese synod which concluded in Rome last December.
The long and bitter war may have ended in 1990 but the country's future still hangs in the balance with the Middle East peace process having reached a stalemate.
Hemmed in the mountains between Syria and Israel and at the junction of East and West, Lebanon was once a prosperous country. Its million or so population is roughly divided equally between Christian and Muslim, with a tiny minority of Druze.
By tradition, the president is always Maronite Christian and the prime minister Muslim. Lebanon is unique in being the only democratic country in the Arab world.
But the civil war that erupted in 1975, triggering 15 years of violence, death and destruction, as various factions and armies fought each other, plunged Lebanon into political and economic chaos and left its sovereignty in a precarious position.
Syrian troops have remained in large areas of the country, while Israel occupies south Lebanon and West Bekaa. In addition, a large Palestinian refugee population has made a temporary home in and around Beirut. In April last year, Israel launched a series of raids on Lebanon. Its attack on a UN
peace keeping post at Qana which killed 102 people provoked international condemnation.
Today a major rebuilding programme is under way in Beirut and there are signs that Western investors are slowly returning to what was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East.
The first Irish pub opened recently, primarily to serve the needs of the Irish UN contingent. However, there are still thousands of displaced people; children and the elderly without family support; sub-standard housing; a lack of affordable medical and social services; high prices and low wages; and an infrastructure in urgent need of repair.
The war brought about massive migrations of people. Many fled their villages for the Greater Beirut area where they believed that they would be safer.
CARITAS LEBANON, a member of the international Catholic federation of relief and development agencies, is part of a forum of non-government organisations, representing Christians and Muslims, who are providing a broad range of medical and social services across the country.
In the Shouf mountains, for example, Caritas is engaged in pioneering work by helping to build blocks of flats where Christians and Druze would live together.
The Pope knows that Lebanon's Christian roots go back to the first century. The Acts of the Apostles record that St Paul visited the churches of Tyre and Sidon, a part of the Lebanon where Christ himself walked.
Western Catholics tend to be poorly educated about the Eastern Catholic Church, equating Catholic with Roman. The Roman, or Latin, rite is, in fact, just one of more than 20 rites within the Catholic Church, all of which are, as the Second Vatican Council emphasised, of equal status.
The heads of Eastern-rite Churches are known as Patriarchs. They have a special status in the Church and are second only to the Pope in hierarchical jurisdiction and are the heads of the respective rites. One of the Pope's titles is Patriarch of the West.
The Maronite Church is Lebanon's largest Christian group. Its origins can be traced to the seventh century when a group of Syrian monks, followers of St Maron, settled in the mountains of north Lebanon.
The Maronites remained loyal to Rome when Christendom split into West and East in 1054, and are the only Eastern Catholic Church without an Orthodox counterpart.
Mount Lebanon with it countless churches, chapels and monasteries is the homeland of the Maronites. And it was here in Bega'Kafra, Lebanon's highest village, that the 19th-century miracleworker, St Charbel Makloof, was born.
The image of St Charbel, in his black habit and flowing white beard, is to be found in many Maronite homes and on the dashboards of the Mercedes taxis which are the main form of public transport around the country.
The 46 European religious orders and congregations working in Lebanon bear witness to the country's strong ties with Europe, which date back to the crusaders. The Christians of Lebanon say they are a people of the Mediterranean rather than a people of the desert.
They see themselves as the guardians of Christianity in a part of the Arab world which was, they point out, Christian before it was Muslim. The occupying armies of Syria and Israel are viewed as the latest in a long line of invaders.
The Christians of Lebanon have become an anxious people, believing that their Western allies have abandoned them. They fear that the Lebanese state, whose boundaries were drawn by France in 1920, is in danger of becoming part of a Greater Syria or of falling under the control of Israel. A home must be found for the Palestinians, they say but not in Lebanon.
Pope John Paul's message in Beirut, no doubt, will be similar to the one he preached in Sarajevo: peace and reconciliation. He will urge Christians and Muslims to build on what they hold in common, put the past behind them, respect each other's differences and live in harmony. But he is acutely aware that nowhere in the world, perhaps, is the political and religious landscape as complex and volatile as in the land of the Bible, among the sons and daughters of Abraham. Lebanese Christians will look at the Pope to affirm that a genuine and lasting Middle East peace settlement must include within it the rights of the Lebanese to self-government.
The Pontiff has shown himself so often in the past to be a superb world statesman as well as a supreme religious leader. The Lebanese look to him for succour in both these roles.