Church and Politics in the Maronite Experience (1516-1943)

By Abbot Paul Naaman, LMO 
Professor of history at the Holy Spirit University, Kaslik, Lebanon, and a former Superior General of the Lebanese Maronite Order of Monks.

This article is a brief overview of the major phases in the history of the Maronite Church and people and their quest for freedom. It addresses their alliances and interactions with the Sunni and the Druze communities and sheds light on their role in the establishment of a pluralistic society with the founding of the Lebanese State in 1920. The article also outlines the principles which have guided Maronites in the preservation of their freedom and the ethical and spiritual codes which they must continue to uphold. 

The political experience of the Maronite Church is unique and different from that of other Churches by virtue of its historical and communal development. The Maronite Church like other churches is defined as the body in which believers are united in faith, hope, love and belief in Jesus Christ. It, like the Universal Church, believes that it embodies the unseen "Body of Christ", while it simultaneously organizes, on the temporal plane, people's spiritual lives in order to gain salvation. 

Historically some Churches, like the Latin Church, have had a pervasive presence in the temporal domain. After the invasion of the Barbarians and the destruction of the Western Roman Empire, which weakened the Roman government, the Catholic Church stepped in to manage the affairs of its people. The Church became involved in public affairs in the West for several centuries. Other Churches, like the Byzantine Church, were not compelled to do the same. For example, after the Byzantine Empire was Christianized by Constantine in 312 AD, the Byzantine political authorities, and not the church, continued to be totally responsible for the temporal affairs of its people. Hence, came the separation within Byzantium of the two domains-- the ecclesiastical and the political. 

Although the Universal Church, of which the Maronite Church is part, believes in the separation of Church and State, this never entails negligence of national affairs, especially when the existence of the people, both the spiritual and physical, is endangered. Theology and law are both concerned with exercising authority over human behavior; both Church and State have the task of showing people what is good and bad and what is lawful or illegal conduct. Therefore, religion and politics are concerned with "public policies", and in this way they are intertwined. "The Church", says Bishop Manning, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, "has a legitimate role in public policy debate. It has a right and a duty to call attention to the moral and religious dimensions of secular issues, to measure policies against gospel values, and to speak out on issues involving social justice, human dignity, and the common good… Politics must be about the search for the common good, a commitment to the dignity of every person and reconciling diverse interest for the wellbeing of the whole of society. Otherwise, there is only cynicism, power for power's sake and disillusionment with the political process" (Church Listing Media Release, 1996).

While the Maronite Church was theologically in the midst of the Church schisms and geographically in the arena of regional wars and conquests, the Maronites, by establishing communities around their monasteries and Churches, formed a kind of 'monastic" community rather than a "political entity" and chose to delegate their leadership to the Church. Consequently, the Church was compelled to be present and to intervene and at times direct the temporal affairs of its people. 

Before discussing the role of the Maronite Church in politics before 1920, we need to examine the governing factors that led to the establishment of the Maronite Church in the Phoenician-Lebanese district of the Antiochian Patriarchate.

A Provincial Church

The early Maronites were Christians who lived in the countryside of Antioch within the jurisdiction of its Patriarchate. The territory of this Patriarchate covered nine provinces of the Roman Empire from Isauria, Cilicia and Urfa (Edessa) in present-day Turkey, to Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, Euphratesia, Mesopotamia, and Arabia. They were devout and much given to worship and prayer in their Syro-Aramaic language with a slight use of Greek. 

Although they lived within the Byzantine Empire, they never interfered in government matters as long as their freedom and welfare were secured. A lukewarm relationship existed between the Syriac people and the Byzantine Empire, which, with an excess of pride for Greek culture, was contemptuous of Syriac-Semitic culture. Also, there was heavy taxation imposed by Byzantium and later perpetuated by its Islamic successors. Nevertheless, the Maronites who existed within the vast Antiochian Patriarchate did not consider forming their own local Church. But the arduous conditions of life -- both religiously and socially -- following the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) forced the Maronite people to concentrate in the area of Apamea within a flourishing monastic community. 

After the conquest of Antioch by the Arabs in 636 AD and the rupture in communications between Antioch and the other Patriarchates, including that of Rome, the Maronite people elected a Patriarch chosen from among the heads of their monasteries. For the first time, the Maronites had a religious authority of their own. Then in the early eighth century, they regrouped in the mountains and valleys of Lebanon, while the Islamic conquest advanced in the lowlands against the Byzantine Army.

Settling and Concentrating in Mount Lebanon

Since Mount Lebanon had no political organization and was on the periphery of the political life and the religious conflicts of the Byzantine Empire, the Maronites were able to organize their own lives according to the rural feudalism prevalent at the time. The Church had great influence on the community, especially during times of wars and internal disputes. The people looked to the Patriarchate for guidance and authority even as the Maronite Patriarch continued to live as a monk in a monastery near his community. The Church had no direct involvement in public life and temporal rule. Rather, it was content to influence and guide the faithful only in times of difficulty.

In his report to Pope Gregory XIII, Papal envoy and Jesuit John Eliano wrote the following in 1578 (Kuri 1989: 180-187; Anaissi 1921: 56-61).

"The Maronite people are governed by a spiritual leader whom they call the Patriarch. The Patriarch has under his authority six bishops and six archbishops who do not have assigned seats [bishoprics]¼ Today, they [the Maronites] are under the rule of the Turkish Sultan Murad III (1547-1595). However, they have in their mountains a governor by the name of Mansour al ‘Assafi to whom the Turkish government has assigned the collection of Sultanic taxes from the Maronite villages plus all that he keeps for himself. Prince Mansour has a deputy from among the prominent Maronites whose name is Youssef.  [Hobaïch] Like his master and governor, he collects the money from his people and adds to it what is necessary for his living. All the people without exception, including His Beatitude the Patriarch and the Clergy, inevitably pay heavy taxes. I personally witnessed that His Beatitude¼ visited the said Youssef and presented him with the money due. Part of this money was a gift sent to the Patriarch from His Holiness the Pope¼ And if the Maronites go down from their villages to the coastal areas, they are subjugated by the Muslims and are obligated to transport their loads, or are sentenced to hard labor in the government or in private homes."

From the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, the Maronites lived in relative isolation, driven by the necessity for self-protection. During this long period, the Maronites lived as villagers in utmost simplicity. They concentrated their efforts on work, prayer, defending their freedom, and on gathering in Church at least twice a day. There were numerous Churches in the Maronite villages and towns. In some of these villages, such as ‘Aqoura, Tannourine, Bsharry, Ehden, Zghorta, and Baskinta, there were as many as forty Churches and shrines at times. These Churches were filled with people who lived for the Kingdom of God while fleeing tyranny and persecution. The Maronite people were devoted to their religious and cultural traditions and avoided power politics. 

Maronite-Sunni Cooperation

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Maronites opened themselves to the outside world, to neighbors and friends who might help them break free. They believed in political freedom, which in their views and long experience, is the mother of all freedoms and without which other freedoms -- religious or otherwise -- cannot exist. In fact and with the help of the Maronite Hobaïch feudal family, they began by contacting their neighbors, starting with the ‘Assaf princes. The ‘Assafs, who were Turkoman, had been placed in Ghazir in 1506 by the Ottoman authorities to protect the coastal areas after the departure of the Crusaders and to prevent the Maronites from contacting the Crusaders in Cyprus. They were Sunni Muslims who governed according to the prevailing non-religious feudal system and not by Islamic law, known as the Sharia. The 'Assafs were content to collect taxes and did not intervene in the affairs of the community.

This situation suited the Maronites and in 1516 resulted in the first known Lebanese Christian-Muslim cooperation. This cooperation was based on mutual interests, -- freedom for the Christians in exchange for lucrative revenue for the 'Assafs.  It could not have been accomplished if the Islamic Sharia had been applied.

The Maronites benefited greatly from this state of affairs and began expanding southward to Kisirwan and the Maten districts. They were serious in their work, peaceful in their conduct, and loyal in their service. During that period, the Maronites established contact with Europe through the Franciscan missionaries and other Christian missionary orders based in the Holy Land.

Relations deteriorated between the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Assaf princes and their aides, the Maronite Hobaïch family. The Ottomans worked gradually to replace them with the Turkoman Sifa princes. The latter and their tribesmen were fanatic Muslims brought into Lebanon by the Ottoman government to protect the coastal areas after the departure of the Crusaders. Unlike their predecessors, the ‘Assaf princes, the Sifa governed by the Sharia and not by civil conventions. This, of course, was contrary to Maronite interests. 

Maronite-Maani Partnership

During this period, the Maronites continued to expand southward toward the Shouf, the Gharb and the Shehhar areas and hence came into direct contact with the Druze. In 1584 they concluded a pact with the Druze Maan family, specifically with Prince Fakhreddin al-Maani, governor of the Shouf under the Ottoman authority and counterpart of the Sifa princes. Fakhreddin was seeking autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. In addition, he wanted to open his domain to the West. Because the Maronites were a local power, had produced prosperity everywhere they settled, and had established contact with the West, they were able to strengthen relations between Prince Fakhreddin and Rome, Tuscany, and France. 

When this partnership between the Maronites and the Druze became stronger, it began to include the Sunni and the Shi’a communities of Lebanon. It was then that the idea began to crystallize of a pluralistic Lebanon founded on mutual interests and the acceptance and tolerance of others. This coexistence continued and flourished throughout the Maan Emirates [princedoms] (1584 to 1633) and those of the Shihabs (1633-1842).

During these Emirates, the influence of the Maronites grew stronger. Under the political leadership of the el Khazen family, which worked closely with Fakhreddin, the Maronites expanded in Lebanon and at the same time established contacts in Europe. This helped the Maronites to break the stranglehold of ignorance, spread knowledge and dispel illiteracy. The establishment of the Maronite College of Rome  in 1584 to educate the clergy was the first cultural and educational project that they undertook. This took place with the assistance of Rome and during the first year of Maronite cooperation with Fakhreddin.

Many of those who graduated from this College returned to Lebanon and devoted themselves to opening schools and educating the people. Some remained in Europe writing books, teaching oriental literature and languages -- especially Syriac and Arabic -- and collecting manuscripts for leading universities in Rome, Paris, Madrid, and Vienna. Thus, they pioneered a fruitful cultural exchange between Oriental and Western cultures. 

Simultaneously, the missionaries sent by the Popes to visit the Maronites in the late sixteenth century brought the first printing press to Lebanon, to the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya (Kozhaya) in the Holy Qadisha Valley. The printing press was fully operational by 1610, nearly two hundred years before Napoleon brought a printing press to Egypt. The press at the Monastery of Qozhaya was the source of the literary and intellectual renaissance in Lebanon. 

These achievements enabled the Maronites to enter the modern age, extend knowledge and science throughout their environment, and later to actively participate in the Arab Renaissance and the revival of the Arabic language. The Maronites, in fact, were essential in abolishing illiteracy and propagating knowledge, and the Church was the main vehicle in this cultural and social development. 

The Concept of a Pluralistic Society

Lebanon's current pluralistic political system is not the product of foreign power influence, but rather the result of a long struggle of the Maronite Church and people. As early as the seventeenth century, the Maronites were contemplating and working toward the establishment of an independent plural entity in which basic freedoms are guaranteed. Everything possible was done to oppose the imposition of the "dhimma" (lower socio-political status imposed on non-Muslims) system so that the Maronites could continue to practice their religion freely and break the bonds of isolation and ignorance. To serve this end, they cooperated with other communities, both locally and abroad. This dealt a serious blow to the concept of a religious nation and did much to enshrine the Maronite vision of a secular and pluralistic government. 

In his acclaimed book La Formation Historique du Liban Politique et Constitutionnel, Professor Edmond Rabbat analyzes the Lebanese pluralistic state and attributes it to primary factors in Lebanon's formation. He states that Lebanon is indebted to confessionalism for its existence and further asserts that if it were not for confessionalism, Lebanon would not have existed. Contrary to a prevailing belief that the establishment of the Lebanese Republic was the product of the French Mandate, Dr. Rabbat states that "confessionalism as a sociological system is a product of the Muslim empire and of the Islamic Sharia, or rather the product of a rigid implementation of them both ever since the establishment of the Abbasid empire (750-1259 AD) and until the 'Tanzimat' (reforms) of the Ottoman Empire of 1839." 

Accordingly, the Lebanese confessional system did not emerge from the Tanzimat implemented in 1861-1864, although it gained international recognition afterward. Nor it is the result of the French Mandate. The seeds of the Lebanese system, or the current Lebanese entity as a social system, surfaced in the sixteenth century. Two fundamental elements were involved: the Maronite Church and the Druze community represented by Fakhreddin. Joining them during that period were other religious communities that found refuge in Lebanon. Gradually in this manner, the multi-religious, or multi-confessional, system became a de facto phenomenon. 

Confessionalism in Lebanon differs from systems in other Arab countries. In Islamic countries, Muslims are considered to be the entire nation or the "Umma", i.e. "sha'b al-dawlah" (people of the nation); while the non-Muslims, i.e. the Jews, the Christians, and those of other religions, are considered to be people of the "dhimma" living under the arbitrary "protection" of the Muslims. In Lebanon, in contrast, all its diverse religious communities form the nation. This Lebanese concept of confessionalism encompasses coexistence and equality among all religious communities, with no one superior to the other; while in Muslim countries, non-Muslims are regarded as second-class subjects, never full citizens. 

The Concept Becomes a State

The formation of an independent Lebanese state became a possibility at the end of World War I, when the Allies gathered in Paris at the Peace Conference in 1919 to divide the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. A Lebanese delegation led by the Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoyek went to Paris with a proposal for an interim solution for governing Lebanon. The proposal included a triad of concerns -- autonomy, restoration of Lebanon's natural and historical borders, and the mandate of France.  In Beirut in September 1, 1920, General Gouraud officially proclaimed Greater Lebanon as proposed by the Lebanese delegation.

With the establishment of the Republic of Greater Lebanon and the adoption of the first Constitution in 1926, the dream of the Maronite Church came true. This is considered as the greatest accomplishment of the Maronite Church.

After a period of conflict, especially the Maronites and the French Mandate interests, which lasted from 1939 to 1943, the aspirations of the Lebanese people were realized and Lebanon's full independence was proclaimed (November 22, 1943), and by 1946 all foreign troops had withdrawn from the country. 

The establishment of the National Pact, which followed the declaration of independence, provided for a shared system of governing in which all various religious groups were represented. 

Dr. Kamal Salibi writes that upon independence, the Lebanese Republic began to embody the  concept envisioned by the Maronites and to replace the Maronite Church in the national leadership. Therefore, it was natural for the Maronite Church to continue its concern over Lebanese public affairs and to protect the Lebanese entity, which it strove through the centuries to realize. And while the Maronites were the original proponents of the Lebanese concept, this concept from the start presumed that Lebanon should not be for the Maronites alone, but for all Lebanese equally.

Dr. Salibi comments that the Maronites were destined by their mission to carry and propagate the concept of a pluralistic state, especially throughout the long and dark centuries of oppression in the East, and to share it with other Lebanese when circumstances permitted.

Dr. Salibi further notes that through the centuries and despite their small number, the Maronites preserved their historic identity through their determined struggle against tyranny, by learning from mistakes, by choosing friends and alliances wisely, by readily engaging in dialogue with others, and by remaining faithful to all who extended help or showed them understanding and compassion. At the same time, without premeditated planning, they succeeded in preserving the rights of people to freedom and a dignified life and in founding a country that guarantees these rights for its children. The Lebanese Republic, which unites the diverse religions of its people, persists in this longtime mission of the Maronites. According to Dr. Salibi, perhaps circumstances will allow the Lebanese concept of a free and pluralistic society among other communities.

Shi'a writer ‘Abbas Baydoun states that the Christians gave Lebanon its system and that they are the focal point of the State, economy, politics, culture and way of life. All of this is reflected in their surroundings and interaction with their environment and the world. They (the Christians) did not exploit the state for the purpose of domination, and as a result, it was possible to attract others to actively participate in it. More importantly, Baydoun says, because the Christians identified with Lebanon, they were uniquely qualified to bequeath upon it a history and culture of their own: "For we find nothing which bears the name of Lebanon for which they are not its source… and although the Lebanese State and the Lebanese culture are a Christian or Maronite legacy, this State did not become a Maronite sheikdom…" (al-Nahar 1997: 22 February). 

The Invariables of the Maronite Church in Politics and Life

The following historical constants may help explain why the Maronite beliefs are unchangeable and thnus facilitate our understanding of Maronite thinking.

The Maronite Church did not practice politics directly. Nor is the Maronite Church a national Church in the strict historic meaning of the word. It also did not attach itself to any political system, nor did it work for any specific country. However, its search for freedom attached it to Lebanon, thus Lebanon became the spiritual land of the Maronites and nothing is more precious than protecting it. The only continued concern of the Maronite Church throughout its history was and still is the freedom of its people to live and worship in dignity.

The Maronite Church believes that a country must provide the fitting framework or domain wherein equality and human rights are guaranteed and where people can strive to perfect their humanity. This universal yearning for perfection brings man closer to Christ, the Perfect Man.

Since its inception, the Maronite Church has regarded politics and morality as correlated. Those who wish to discuss politics and morality separately and exclusive of one another will neither recognize nor comprehend the dimensions of either.

Belief in the Incarnation of God and the focus on the perfection of Christ’s human nature requires the effective presence of the Maronite Church in society and calls for its fatherly concern for society’s problems. Although Christ’s Church is beyond time and space, He called it to "go out into the world" and, like Him, be an active participant in the history of man. The Church is a dynamic power. It has neither a neutral nor a negative attitude toward the world. Rather, it is most forthright about bringing the world to Christ and to His Kingdom. The Church asks for no more than to labor and strive, because redemption and salvation are the work of Christ, who produces the harvest. The Church’s mission is not confined to man’s relationship with God, but extends to man’s relationship with his brothers in society. Therefore, the Church’s mission is both spiritual and moral and encompasses all human activity. 

The Maronite Church's concern for the spiritual and temporal condition of its children does not constitute a denial of its ecumenism or its evangelistic mission. The Maronite Church is Christian first and foremost and was so ever before becoming Maronite. 

Protecting one’s self can not be the true measure of a Christian. Being ready to sacrifice for others, as Christ did, is the real measure. If our sacrifice brings salvation to others, then the ultimate in Christianity is attained.

The Maronite Church adopts the teaching of Oroz the Priest (ca. 417 AD). When the Barbarians shook the very foundations of the Western Roman Empire with forces that ravaged the European Church, they left destruction, terror, and despair of such magnitude that it was thought to be the end of the world. Oroz, writing from his exile, said: "Who knows? It was probably that the Barbarians invaded the Empire only to fill Christ’s Churches everywhere, in the East and the West, with these countless tribes. Shouldn’t we praise the Lord for his mercy and sing His glory for by our downfall and subjugation innumerable nations and people came to know the truth of Jesus Christ¼ ."

Maronite Ethical and Spiritual Codes

Through centuries of suffering, the Maronites have formulated principles by which they have directed their lives and their relationships with others. These codes can be summarized as follows:

Spiritual perspective on the universe: True Maronites believe that prayer is effective and they pray in emulation of the spirituality of Saint Maron and his disciples. The Maronites did not discover Christ through philosophy, but rather through the patrimonial faith of their ancestors, from Abraham to Maron to Sharbel. 

Simplicity and spontaneity in life: The Maronite tradition of austerity and frugality inspired their daily life..

Spiritual and cultural anchoring: True Maronite strives diligently toward spiritual and cultural authenticity and intellectual openness.

Values of humanity: The true Maronite has great respect for man, freedom, and the dignity of life. This stems from his faith in Christ’s humanity which inspired the Maronites throughout their history.

Firmly established communion with the Universal Catholic Church.


In working to preserve and strengthen the multi-religious society of Lebanon, the Maronites today must follow in the footsteps of all those who came before and worked for centuries to accomplish this mission. 

They must always keep in mind its basic goals: to achieve a society in which all members equally work to build a better future for the country and its people; a society in which freedom of expression and worship is enjoyed and all religious are respected; a society in which equal political participation is the right of every citizen; a society in which diversity serves as an asset and not as a liability; and a society that is truly democratic in fact and in spirit.

The Maronites should always recall that they are the descendants of those who built this country for the well-being of man and the fulfillment of his humanity in freedom and dignity. Finally, they must remember that in laying the foundation of the city of man they are laying the foundation of the city of God. Building the Kingdom of God began with Christ on earth, and the Maronites like all other Christians are asked to complete the work of Christ on this planet.


Baydoun, 'Abbas. 'Who calls for the Maronites to Relinquish Lebanon?' al-Nahar 22 February (1997)

Eliano, J. See: KURI, S. Monumenta Proximi-Orientis, I, Plestine, Liban, Syrie, Mésopotamie (1523-1583), col. Monumenta Historica Societatis Jesu, Vol. 136 Instituttum Historieum Societatis Jesu, (Roma, 1989); and ANAISSI, T. Collectio Documentarum, Livorne (1921)

Manning, K. Bishop, 'Church and Politics', Church Listing Media Release, Australia (1996)

Rabbat, E. La Formation Historique du Liban Politique et Constitutionnel: Essai de Synthèse, Beyrouth (1973)

Salibi, K. 'Al Mawarinat: Soura Tarikhiyat' al-Nahar Report, No: 40, (December 1970)

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