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Blooming Where They Are Planted

A tiny Christian community has withstood war and political uncertainty.

by Marilyn Raschka

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Christian tourists visit Baalbek, Lebanon, for reasons that are, quite frankly, purely pagan. These visitors come to view the extensive Roman ruins that have dominated Baalbek’s skyline for centuries.

Baalbek’s pièce de résistance, the Temple of Jupiter, holds no parallel anywhere in the Roman world. Completed in 60 A.D., 19 years before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, the temple’s six surviving columns stand proud, a tribute to Roman engineering, ingenuity and the desire to pay homage to divinity.

Christianity in Baalbek also has a long history, dating to the end of the first century. The city’s first bishop, Theodotos, came to Baalbek during the reign of the benign Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 to 117. But the fate of the area’s Christians seesawed back and forth until the rule of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great (306-337).

Those emperors who embraced the Christian faith aggressively “persecuted” symbols of their pagan Roman past, structures we view today as priceless monuments. With battering rams and chisels, temples were transformed into churches. Statues and sculptures were destroyed.

Hardly any Christian tourists who visit Baalbek today visit its Christian community. Were they to do so, one of the most welcoming persons in the city would be Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Cyril Bustros.

The archbishop provides to anyone who asks a neatly typed historical profile of Christianity in Baalbek. The story starts out with great promise, but eventually one can read both the lines and the message between them. It is a story of struggle.

After three centuries of Christianity, Islam became the dominant faith in the region. Christians remained and prospered, however, and continued their makeovers of Roman temples. In fact, today’s Greek Catholic bishopric is located across the street from an archeological site found after an earthquake in 1759. On this site, what was once the Temple of Venus had served as the Church of St. Barbara for centuries.

In 1830 Athanasius Obeid, Baalbek’s Melkite Greek Catholic bishop, built a small church that served as the cathedral until the current structure was finished in 1897. In 1997, a great celebration was held to observe its 100th anniversary.

The number of Christians in Baalbek has always reflected one political situation or another. After World War I, during the French Mandate of Lebanon, Christians numbered 7,000 strong. This number diminished after the departure of French troops in 1946, on the eve of Lebanon’s independence. Today, Baalbek’s Christian community has dwindled to just over 300, but the city is home to two Eastern Catholic jurisdictions, a Melkite Greek Catholic archeparchy and a Maronite eparchy.

Archbishop Bustros is able to converse in Arabic, English, French or German, making it clear in all languages that Baalbek’s Christian community struggles to stay alive. His bottom line is: “Here we are planted, here we will bloom.”

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