ArDO: Yes we want Lebanon to be the Switzerland of the East and Beirut the Paris of the East


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Archbishop tells church to stay in Lebanon: 'You'll make it'

By Rick 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 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.

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 conflict."

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 fighters.

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 native.

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 military action."

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."

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