The Maronite Church

History of the Maronites

On the mountains of Lebanon, in this mystical land, in these deep valleys, among these white-topped mountains, in the land of milk and honey, in the nation of the Cedar and the Alphabet, in the Phoenician land, there the Maronite Church, the smallest of all the churches, has grown like a mustard seed and became a tree. The Holy Valley of Kadisha, with its hermitages carved in rocks overhung by the cedars trees which endlessly extend the summits of the mountains, are the symbols of the Maronites’ tenacity, vitality and independence. The history of the Maronites is marked by persecution and martyrdom for the sake of freedom, independence, and the preservation of the true faith as it was passed down to us by the Apostles. The Patriarchal Monastery of Qannoubine, perched as an eagle’s nest, summarizes their entire history.


Who are the Maronites? What is the Maronite Church?
The Maronites are those Christians who gathered around a monastery called Bet Maroun (the House of Maron in English) built in 452 AD on the Orontes River, after the Council of Chalcedon, the 4th ecumenical council of the Great Church, was convoked by Emperor Marcian. Those Chalcedonian Christians who defended their faith in Jesus Christ as true God and true man were called Maronites after a hermit priest, St. Maron, who was a great saint in that region of Syria and their spiritual father. Fascinated by his unwavering faith and his profound holiness, devotees from various parts of the region gathered around St. Maron who lived a life of asceticism and preaching.


St. Maron
St. Maron was a man of Syriac ancestry who lived in the open air on the mountains of Cyrrhus, near Antioch (near modern day Aleppo, Syria), in the 4th century AD. God bestowed on him the gift of healing, which made his fame spread in the entire region. During his life time, he lived an ascetic and monastic life, and devoted his existence to preaching the Good News that the God of All People had become a man. St. Maron died around the year 410 AD. His disciples continued his mission. St. Abraham the Hermit, the Apostle of Lebanon, converted many of the native Phoenician inhabitants of the mountains of Lebanon. These Phoenician pagans became Maronite Christians.
 

Bet Maroun
In 451, the Fathers of the Church (bishops and patriarchs) held a meeting called the Council of Chalcedon. They sought to clarify the teaching of the Church concerning the person of Jesus Christ. They proclaimed that Jesus Christ was both human and divine: true man and true God. The Maronites strongly defended the Council of Chalcedon, which made the non-Chalcedonian Monophysites their bitter enemies. Pope Leo requested a monastery be built on the Orontes River for the disciples of St. Maron and the defenders of the true faith. The monastery was called Bet Maroun. The conflict between the Maronites and the Monophysites led to a strong persecution that resulted in the death of 350 Maronite Christians (whose we remember as the 350 martyrs) and many refugees in 517. The Maronites informed Pope Hormizdes about their martyrdom and their struggle for the preservation of the true faith. The Pope of Rome sent them a letter to strengthen the Maronites describing the Maronite martyrs as soldiers of Jesus Christ and members of his Living Body.


St. John Maron

Around 685, the Maronites appointed a patriarch, St. John Maron, who became the first patriarch of the Maronite Church, which made the Byzantine Emperor furious. The appointing of the patriarch was a very important event in the history of the Maronites, which led to another persecution that resulted in 500 martyrs. The monastery of Bet Maroun was heavily damaged. Many Maronites left their lands in Syria and joined their brethren in the mountains of Lebanon. In the valleys of Lebanon, the Maronite Church began to grow.


The Mountains of Lebanon
The Maronites lived at a crossroad of different cultures and beliefs and thus, their history was marked by continuous and numerous constraints which lead to numerous persecutions. In 936, the monastery of Bet Maroun and other Maronite monasteries were completely destroyed in Syria at the hands of members of a new and foreign religion: the Muslims who were persecuting Christians for their belief that the true God, the author of Love, had incarnated. The Maronites and their patriarch had to take a very difficult decision: to leave the rich plains of Syria and take the mountains of Lebanon as a refuge. The Syriac Maronites joined the Phoenician Maronites and the Mardaites in the Lebanese mountains where they enjoyed peacefulness and security under the shadow of the cedars. Protected by the mountains of Lebanon, the Maronites and their patriarch were able to organize their Church away from persecution.


The Crusades
For 350 years, the Maronites have been isolated in the valleys and mountains of Lebanon until the beginning of the crusades. When the Crusaders invaded the East, they were surprised when they found out about the existence of the Maronites, for communication between Christians in the East and the West had been severed as a result of many religious and political disputes, and the isolation of the Maronites in the mountains. The Pope of Rome himself was astonished that this pocket of Christians had survived among the Muslims. During the Crusades Period, the Maronites succeeded in building relationships with France (especially after the visit of St. Louis IX, King of France) and the Pope of Rome. 


The Mamlooks
At the end of the crusades and after the defeat of the Crusaders, the Maronites were attacked by the Mamlooks. Between 1268 and 1283, persecution began with the Mamlooks, who attacked the strongholds of the Maronites sowing destruction in Ehden, Bsharre, Hadath El-Jibbet, Meifook, and other villages. They captured the Maronite Patriarch and sent him to his death. Between 1291 and 1305, the Mamlooks destroyed Kesrwan and the Maronites were forbidden to enter it. The Maronites had to learn how to survive and to protect their freedom. But in 1357, they became divided against themselves: The Maronites of Byblos-Batroun against those of Bsharre. Consequently, the Mamlooks invaded Byblos and Batroun, destroying their villages, and burning their Patriarch alive in 1367. Many people escaped to Cyprus. The Maronites lost their freedom. Because of the many disasters that happened in the world in that period of time (13th- 16th century), especially in the Middle East, the Pope of Rome, Leo X, described the Maronite Church as a rose among thorns, an impregnable rock in the sea, unshaken by the waves and fury of the thundering tempest. Despite heavy persecution throughout the ages, Maronite Christians are renowned for their strong commitment to the precepts of the Church.


The Ottomans & Independence
In 1516, the Ottomans defeated the Mamlooks. The Maronites were granted protection by France. They expanded in Lebanon and mixed with other minorities. The Maronites built churches, founded religious orders, formed schools, and cultivated arid lands. The valleys and the mountains were filled with monks and hermits. Many families, some of whom had been forcibly converted to Islam, converted to Christianity, joined the Maronite Church, and celebrated their freedom. But between 1845 and 1860, hatred was incited by the Ottomans, who worked so hard to break the Maronites’ spirit of independence. Dozens of villages, churches, and monasteries were completely destroyed. Thousands were martyred or displaced, and many immigrated. The persecution returned between 1914 and 1918, when the Ottomans blocked the roads to the mountains of Lebanon causing a human disaster. Tens of thousands of people died of famine and diseases, and thousands immigrated. This was happening simultaneously as Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians were also being killed at the hands of the Ottomans in their respective genocides for the same reason: they were proud Christians who refused to be be compelled to a false religion. After the First World War, Lebanon was liberated from the Ottomans. France, Lebanon’s compassionate mother, entered the mountains of Lebanon. The Maronite patriarch left for Paris. He arrived on October 25th, 1919. He requested the recognition of Lebanon as an independent country. On September 1st, 1920, General Gouraud proclaimed the State of Greater Lebanon in the presence of the Maronite patriarch. In 1943, Lebanon won its independence. Ever since, Lebanese Independence Day is celebrated on November 22nd.


Persecution & Diaspora
Peace did not last too long. Between 1975 and 1990, the people of Lebanon engaged in a terrible civil war. Tens of thousands died, and thousands emigrated. The Maronites defended their country with great courage, but in 1990, they divided against themselves, fighting each other. Consequently, their enemies invaded them, bombarding their cities and villages, sending their leaders into exile, and putting others in jail. The Maronites lost their independence and hundreds of thousands left the mountains of Lebanon and immigrated. Freedom became threatened. But God did not abandon his people. He consoled the Maronites, giving them three saints: St. Sharbel, St. Rafqa, and St. Nimatullah Hardini. In 1997, the Pope of Rome, John Paul II, visited Lebanon to give hope to the Lebanese people and particularly to the Maronites. He said, "Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message." The history of Maronites has been intertwined with that of Lebanon. Without Maronites, Lebanon would not have existed as an entity, and without Lebanon, Christianity in the Middle East may never have survived. Lebanon remains undoubtedly the only spiritual land of the Maronites. And the Lebanese Maronites still preserve to this day day, as strongly as ever, their hospitality, thirst for freedom, love of God and neighbor, and who resolutely unite around their patriarch. Due to the severe persecution of the Church in Lebanon, many were scattered throughout the world, which made the Church grow outside Lebanon. That’s how the Early Church grew outside Jerusalem. The Maronite Church became international. Now, she does not only include Phoenician Maronites, Syriac Maronites, Mardaites, and Arab Maronites, but also American Maronites, European Maronites, Brazilian Maronites, African Maronites, Australian Maronites, and so forth. Maronite Christians have remained loyal to the true faith since their inception as a movement in the Fourth Century, and have never broken communion with the Church of Rome. The Maronite Church is the only Church to hold the name of a Saint, and we are very proud of our history.


The Five Distinguishing Marks of the Maronite Church

The Maronite Patriarchal Assembly (2003-2004), made up of over 500 Maronite participants – clergy, religious and laity - from throughout the world, described the identity of the Maronite Church by five distinguishing marks: First and foremost Maronites are Antiochene – where Christ’s followers “were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Maronites share a historical, liturgical and spiritual heritage with all the other Catholic and Orthodox Antiochene Churches. Maronites are also heirs of Syriac cultural and religious heritage, whose language, poetry, and hymnody were the means used to express the mystery that God is beyond all descriptions yet has come close to us in Christ.


Second, Maronites are Chalcedonian, meaning they were staunch supporters of the Council of Chalcedon, convened in 451 AD, which taught that Jesus is true God and true man. In this formula, Maronites found a balance and way of life that placed them forever in the communion of the universal Church, despite persecution from the non-Chalcedonians they lived around. 


Third, the Maronite Church is patriarchal and monastic in her nature. St. Maron was a hermit priest. The first Maronites were monks, priests, and laity associated with the monasteries of St. Maron in the 5th - 8th centuries. Her first patriarch, St. John Maron, was chosen from among the monks. Maronites have a cherished history known for an ascetic life of sacrifice, devotion to God, and peace, both in one’s own soul and toward one’s neighbor despite persecution.   


Fourth, the Maronite Church is known for her love and devotion to the See of Peter in Rome. This relationship has allowed Maronites to fully express the true Catholic faith held from the beginning, and at the same time be part of the balance between East and West, for St. Peter was not only the founder of the See of Rome, but also the See of Antioch. 


Fifth, the Maronite Church is tied to Lebanon, her spiritual homeland and the dwelling place of her patriarch. This is something to be admired, for Lebanon is a land of exceptional beauty and history. Situated on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Lebanon mountain range rises majestically from the sea to snow-capped mountain peaks that reach over 10,000 feet. Nestled in the mountains in the north are the famous Cedars of Lebanon, often mentioned in the Bible such as in the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was built from the Cedars of Lebanon, as described in the First Book of Kings 5-7. The prophet Elijah attended to the widow and her son in Zarephath near Sidon in First Kings 17, and even Our Lord Jesus himself preached and healed people, like the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, in the south of Lebanon during his public ministry. The Lord tells us, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, and they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92:12). Though being a Lebanese citizen or having Lebanese ancestry is not a requirement to be a Maronite Christian - on the contrary, all people are welcome to encounter Christ though the unique Maronite tradition, even St. Maron himself was not Lebanese - we can agree that Lebanon is a blessed land, and the Maronite Church is blessed to have her as a spiritual homeland on earth.


For an even more detailed history of the Maronite Church, see the Canadian Eparchy of St. Maron's website: maronites.ca/maronites/origins-of-maronites/




 


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