The Lebanese wars, commonly referred to as the Lebanese Civil War, engulfed the country in cycles of violence from 1975–90. This conflict is synonymous with destruction, makeshift checkpoints, militia rule, warlords, refugee camps, occupation, and foreign interference. The war captured the interest of scholars in different fields such as history, political science, and sociology, and of course journalists studied the conflict from different angles. Nonetheless, little has been written on the role of a silent, albeit important actor: the church.

In popular conscience, the Lebanese church, and by extension Lebanese Christians, is associated with the Maronites, who are historically one of the cofounding communities of modern Lebanon. However, during the war other Christian sects, including the Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox, played a momentous role in protecting their communities.[1]

The church’s involvement was political and social at a time when the state was struggling to maintain territorial cohesion. But the war brought into the open power struggles among Christians, particularly between the senior clergy and monks, regarding different perceptions of the threat and enemy. The patriarchs often called for moderation and dialogue, condemning violence. Conversely, bishops and monks closer to the laity took a more militant approach. They justified that their people bore weapons in the name of resistance and defense of the homeland.

Covering the history of the Lebanese church during the war goes beyond this essay’s limits. Instead, the following covers the critical period of 1975–81. First, I highlight the influential role of the Maronite monks, as well as the social actions of the Greek Catholic Bishop Grégoire Haddad. Second, I shed light on the participation of the church in the city of Zahle. Finally, I close with the unarmed resistance movement that united clergies from different churches during one of the war’s darkest episodes.

The Church at War: Between Political & Social Activism

In the modern history of Lebanon, the Maronite patriarch was always considered an influential player in the country’s political life. In times of major crises—such as the civil war of 1860, which pitted Druzes against Christians, or during the famine that eradicated a third of Mount Lebanon’s population in World War I—the patriarch embodied the image of the defender of his community’s interests. More importantly, it was the role of the Patriarch Elias Hoayek and his lobbying for the creation of the Lebanese state at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 that confirmed the patriarch’s preeminence in Lebanese political affairs and foreign policy.

But the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 showed the patriarch’s dwindling influence and the limits of his leadership. In fact, Patriarch Anthony Peter Khoraish was at odds with the monks of the Lebanese Monastic Orders: the former opted for a cautious line condemning the fighting and calling for dialogue, while the latter stood by the Christian militias.[2] Khoraish became isolated, and both his church and Christian politicians criticized him. They blamed the Maronite patriarch for failing to take a firm stance against attacks on Christian villages that threatened innocent civilians.

In the first two years of the war, for example, enemy attacks forced Christians in the Beqaa region and others in the south to flee. With the government gradually losing the “monopoly of violence,” these towns were at the mercy of the Palestinian militias who soon took control. The Lebanese army, already splintered, could not provide even basic security for these villages. Patriarch Khoraish missed the opportunity to respond to the political void and stop forced Christian displacement.

But two successive superiors of the Permanent Congress of the Lebanese Monastic Orders, Abbott Charbel Kassis and Abbott Boulos Naaman, took the opposite tack from the country’s patriarchal see and overtly supported Christian militias, namely the Kataeb.[3] Considered the “heart and the soul” of the Kataeb, Abbott Kassis was also one of the four pillars of the Lebanese Front, the political coalition of Christian parties fighting the Palestinians and their allies.[4]

Perhaps the event that crystallized the monks’ role and mission in the war was the episode of Damour. On January 21,1976, Palestinian militias and embedded Syrian proxy fighters mounted a surprise assault on the Christian coastal town of Damour, which is south of Beirut. They killed innocent townsmen in their homes and forced thousands to flee on foot or by sea. Overwhelmed by the events, the government was paralyzed in how to respond. Abbott Kassis and Abbott Naaman spearheaded the mission to rescue Christians stranded at sea and bring them to the safe harbor of Jounieh and to nearby monasteries, which provided urgent relief.

Other than putting the monasteries at the service of Christian militias and their paramilitary so that they could hide weapons, the Maronite Order served as the ideological backbone of the Lebanese Front, which by 1980 morphed into the Lebanese Forces. The Holy Spirit University of Kaslik became the hub for the Christian intellectuals who formed the Research Committee of Kaslik, a think tank closely aligned with the Lebanese Forces. Their work and publications influenced the Lebanese Forces’ leader, Bachir Gemayel, and his vision for a strong and democratic state and his candidacy to the Lebanese presidency.

The monks also became a preferred diplomatic channel for foreign diplomats who did not want to get in touch directly with figures such as Gemayel. Abbott Naaman’s presence was a staple at meetings with French Ambassador Louis de la Marre and US Ambassador Robert Dillon, and later President Reagan’s special envoy Philipp Habib. During the trying period of 1980–82, Naaman and the Maronite Superior Order indirectly influenced the rapprochement between Gemayel and the US administration. The election of Gemayel as president of Lebanon in August 1982 testifies to the direct influence the monks had on events and the decline of Patriarch Khoraish’s role.

The Greek Catholic Church was also influential throughout the conflict. Behind closed doors, the patriarch and some of the bishops clashed. Chief among them was Bishop Grégoire Haddad, who pitted the senior clergy against himself at the eve of the war. Considered the “Red Bishop” and notorious for his social actions in the capital, Haddad had been speaking out on issues of injustice and inequality in Lebanon and the region since 1974 and had called for the church to invest in social projects to alleviate the struggles of the poor. Moreover, his humanitarian support to the Palestinian refugees only added to the controversy. This aid fed the campaign against him by traditional Christian groups and the Greek Catholic patriarch, who called for his eviction.[5]

In the summer of 1975, after several meetings and negotiations with politicians and even the Vatican, the special synod of Ain Trez concurred to expel Gregoire Haddad from the Beirut dioceses.[6] But war and religious grievances that turned into violent clashes gave Bishop Haddad the opportunity to become a privileged negotiator between the opposing Christian and Palestinian factions. He secured the release of civilians taken hostage at checkpoints, which was common practice at the time. His greatest achievement during this period was the social movement he spearheaded reaching across the aisle and demonstrating the church’s effectiveness. Representing civil society in meetings with the Druze chieftain Kamal Joumblatt, he was able to negotiate against violencebetween the Druzes and Christians in Aley District.[7]

His war effort centered mainly on children and protecting the youth. In the midst of violence, he and a group of civilians cofounded l’Association du Foyer de lEnfant Libanais (AFEL), which sheltered orphans throughout the war. AFEL is active to this day and takes care of 500 children. The success of the non-governmental organization is a testament of his work and mission for Lebanon.[8]

Zahle & the Bishops

Outside Beirut, the city of Zahle clearly illustrated the grievances of the people and their special relationship with the church. The capital of Beqaa, Zahle is considered the capital of Greek Catholics in Lebanon and the Middle East. Having fled persecution from the Greek Orthodox in Aleppo and Damascus, Uniates Greek Melkites, commonly referred to as Greek Catholics, found refuge in this city throughout the eighteenth century.[9]

By the time the war spread to Zahle in September 1975, the youth, disappointed in their local political leaders’ attitude, looked to the church and particularly the Greek Catholic Bishop Youhanna Bassoul to back their self-defense actions. The town was organized into Tajamo’ Zahle, the city’s local militia, to repel Palestinian-Leftist advances.

While calling for peace and compromise in official meetings, Bassoul understood the cry for help from locals and soon rallied behind the Tajamo’. This movement of solidarity trickled down the ranks of the church. Abbott Ibrahim Nehme, superior of the Char’iye school, opened the doors for the Tajamo’ to use it as a base for its operations and to issue its newspaper, Sawt Zahle (The Voice of Zahle). As a result, the school was shelled repeatedly, and Abbott Nehme was personally threatened with his life. The blackmail did not deter his resolve, and he remained one of the pillars in charge of gathering funds for the Tajamo’.[10]

Father Semaan Abdel Ahad, an outspoken supporter of the Tajamo’s mission, became its spokesperson at the meetings of the Lebanese Front in Beirut.[11] As the need to arm soon grew urgent, the Tajamo’ leadership looked for middlemen to discreetly transport weapons to the town. The task fell upon Father Semaan and other priests. Since the clergy did not arouse suspicion at enemy checkpoints (Palestine Liberation Organization and its allies), they were the best choice for this type of mission.

But the entrance of Syrian troops into the Zahle district in June 1976 drastically altered the role of the church, particularly after the relationship between Zahlawis and Syrians soured a year later. Protecting their townsmen, Bishops Augostinos Farah Georges Iskandar (first Maronite bishop of Zahle), and Spiridon Khoury (Greek Orthodox) all united in the face of Syrian interference because the city’s politicians were ineffective, especially in the notorious 1981 battle.

When the battle erupted on April 2, 1981, between Syrian forces positioned at the outskirts of the city and embedded Christian fighters in the town, the bishops turned into spokesmen for the dire situation unfolding in the city and the lead resisters.[12] Despite keeping lines of communication open with Syrians, the three bishops did not hesitate to blame the latter for the violence and disproportionate use of force. Meanwhile, church leaders provided moral support and resources to the fighters and civilians, setting an example of unity in the midst of destruction and political deadlock.

The Sit-In

Since Zahle was cut off from the rest of the country, a group of priests from the city decided to contribute in their own way to resist Syria’s unjustified shelling of the town and pressure leaders to end the siege and the worsening humanitarian situation. In early June 1981, a group of priests and nuns marched toward the presidential palace, hoping to meet the president.

Father Elie Sader, then a seminary student at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik and the instigator of the sit-in, said during an interview:

We were of course different in our political affiliations, but were united in the same demands: end the war in Zahle and lift the siege. We also supported legality. This is why we decided to go to the presidential palace.

We were Maronites, Catholics, Orthodox, Syriac. In the end, we were Christians.

I had read a lot about Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobbie Sands’ hunger strike, and it inspired me to look at a way to protest peacefully what we were seeing in Zahle.

When I took the permission from Abbott Naaman, our superior at the time, he asked me, “Are you willing to go until the end?” And by that I knew he meant if we were willing to die for the cause. And we said, “Of course.”[13]

Initially, the president did not welcome these protesters. Determined to make their voices heard, the priests and nuns camped outside the palace for three weeks, choosing prayer and patience, while some started a hunger strike.[14] The response was immediate: they galvanized monasteries and churches around the country and Patriarch Khoraish around their effort.

Lebanese politicians and foreign diplomats lauded the church’s actions as a prime example of peaceful resistance. Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan hailed their effort, while the Saudi ambassador applauded them discreetly. Newspapers around the country covered their daily activities, a testament to the resolve of the priests and nuns who went above and beyond political fault lines and chose prayer as their message to influence the outcome. Furthermore, the sit-in was a message of coexistence to the Lebanese Christians’ detractors who accused them of extremism, as they welcomed peers from the Muslim community on the site. Ultimately, the sit-in substantiated the role of the clergy and how close they were to their people and the impact they could have on senior leadership of the church and country.

In recent years, the plight of Christians in nearby Syria and Iraq and the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist groups made headlines with images of terrified children and women fleeing in the desert under a blazing sun, under threat of being killed. To older generations, it was a bitter souvenir of living as dhimmis (second class citizens).

The role of the church during the Lebanese Civil War can serve as a case study of the active role the clergy can play in the Middle East to prevent forced migration of Christians to the West, and preserve their rightful place by resisting at home. Wasn’t Christianity born in the Middle East, after all?

[1] Lebanese Christians are divided among the following denominations: the Maronites and Greek Catholics (Melkites), Greek Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox (Syriacs, Armenians, and Copts), Church of the East (Assyrians, Chaldeans), and Protestants.

[2] The Maronite monks were notorious in their support of the Kataeb, the National Liberal Party, the Tanzim, and Horras al Arez, the main Christian militias at the outset of the Civil War.

[3] Alexander D.M. Henley, “Politics of a Church at War: Maronite Catholicism in the Lebanese Civil War,” Mediterranean Politics, 13, no. 3 (2008): 353-369.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michel Touma, “Grégoire Haddad: évêque laic, évêque rebelle,” L’Orient le Jour (Beirut), December 24, 2012.

[6] Ibid., 157-158

[7] Ibid., 181

[8] Ibid., 184

[9] Leila Fawaz Tarazi, An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 33-34.

[10] Joseph Roumieh (former Tajamo’ member), in interview with author, August 30, 2018, Zahle, Lebanon. According to Roumieh, the Tajamo’ was self-funded and relied on the generosity of Zahlawis. Unlike other militias, the Tajamo’ was not funded by foreign countries or patrons.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joe Edde (Lebanese Forces commander during the Zahle war), in interview with author, April 21, 2016, Beirut, Lebanon.

[13] Elie Sader, in interview with author, May 1, 2018, Zahle, Lebanon.

[14] In the first week of the sit-in, daily newspapers such as L’Orient le Jour and Annahar reported three cases of fainting as a result of the hunger strike. The affected priests and nuns were transported to the hospital for treatment.