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Religious situation. Lebanon remains the only country in the Middle East where Christians continue to play a major cultural, political and social role. Even the Taif Agreement preserved the Christians’ prominent political position. The president of the republic may only be elected from the Maronite Catholic community. In addition, the chief of the army must be drawn from the Maronite community and half of the members of parliament and cabinet must be Christian — this despite the fact that Christians no longer command the majority of the country’s population.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to practice all religious rites, provided public order is not disturbed. In practice, the government respects these rights. Despite years of civil strife, the relationships that developed as a result of interreligious communication have also contributed to a sense of tolerance and the free exercise of faith. Consequently, thousands of persons fleeing religious mistreatment and discrimination in neighboring states have immigrated to the country, including Sunni Kurds, Shiite Arabs and Chaldean Iraqis, as well as Coptic Orthodox Egyptians and Christian Sudanese.

These Christians, and their general conditions throughout the Middle East, were at the heart of a meeting held last 20 February between Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Vatican. The pope stressed the importance of Lebanon, which for decades has been a model of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims and will “remain a ‘message’ for the Middle East region and the entire world.”

Burdens on the churches. Despite internal displacement and emigration, Lebanese Christians continue to represent more than a third of the total population. Most view their particular church as their point of reference and expect their respective hierarchs to take leading roles in the economic, political and social spheres.

As poverty increases, those in need — Christians and Muslims — are turning to Lebanon’s many Christian institutions for help. In his meeting with the prime minister, the pope recalled “the importance of the work of Christians in the country” on behalf of “the entire society, especially through its educational, health and welfare institutions.”

Ironically, as more Lebanese look to the churches for food, medical and tuition assistance, Christian institutions — strapped for funds — are increasingly unable to respond to the growing needs. Christian child care facilities and schools are full; programs for the elderly poor and the handicapped operate at capacity; health care and treatment centers for alcohol and drug abuse remain too few and too small to accommodate all requests.

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Tags: Lebanon Middle East Christians Emigration Maronite Church Socioreligious programs