Archbishop tells church to
stay in Lebanon: 'You'll make it'
Jervis, USA TODAY
EL QLAIAA, Lebanon — 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
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
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.
On Sunday, he was careful to
avoid blaming Hezbollah or Israel for the conflict that has trapped
Christian non-combatants. "The Christian message is the same everywhere: a
message of peace, a message of love and a message of tolerance," he said.
"Even if we have different beliefs, it doesn't mean it should lead to
The Christian villages, some
less than a mile from the Israeli border, are often recognizable by
statues of the Virgin Mary in town squares or the crosses atop churches.
Just down the road from St. George's in El Qlaiaa, there are billboards of
a smiling Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader. Other Hezbollah billboards
feature bearded Iranian ayatollahs or the faces of slain Shiite militia
Christians in southern Lebanon
confront a job shortage. The Maronite Church can't compete with the vast
social welfare net that Hezbollah has built for Shiites — clinics, schools
and other facilities — said Daniel Nicholas, 26, an unemployed El Qlaiaa
Nicholas, who holds a master's
degree in physics, said his fiancée's family won't let him marry her
unless he has a job. "There's no future here. This conflict was enough to
make me leave."
Hage wanted to begin visiting
Christian towns immediately after the start of fighting in mid-July, but
he found himself stuck in Tyre as his driver, cook and priests fled. He
turned to the group going most often into the war zone: journalists.
Hage hitched rides with Dutch
television crews, British newspaper reporters, French radio
correspondents. Soon, he said, journalists headed into battle zones began
dropping by his small stone church in Tyre to ask if he needed a lift.
During a lull in fighting, Hage,
dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt rather than his traditional white
cassock, reached Ain Ebel, 2 miles from Bint Jbail, site of some of the
heaviest fighting of the war.
"It was like someone had been
cutting off your air supply and suddenly you get a breath of fresh air,"
said Jean Ammar, 42, a civil engineer in Ain Ebel. "We were so surprised
to see him. Every move you made out here at that time was a target for
Days later, as Hage left the
Christian enclave of Debel for Tyre, explosives thundered around him.
Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah sailed overhead from the right;
mortars and rockets whistled past from Israeli positions to his left.
"I felt a sort of peace," Hage
recalled. "I had done my duty. Also, I was with the Western press.
So I thought I would be safe."