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The Importance of Religious Identity in the Holy Land
by Chorbishop John D. Faris

28 Mar 2006 – Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre
Diocese of Brooklyn Communion Breakfast
26 March 2006

On Tuesday, I had just returned from two countries that are rightly considered as part of the Holy Land: Lebanon and Syria. Our Lord himself visited Lebanon and the story of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is familiar to all of us. I would like to recount for you an incident that occurred just upon my arrival in Lebanon.

After presenting my passport to the young man at the desk, he returned it to me with the question: “Are you a Catholic priest?” I replied that I was and he then, quietly, told me: “I am a Maronite,” gave me a “thumbs up” and bade me farewell with a “ciao.” (The gesture and the salutation revealed his familiarity and comfort with Western culture.) I don’t think that this would have happened in the United States. It is not unthinkable that I would be asked if I was a Catholic priest, but for the person then to identify himself in a quiet, furtive manner is a phenomenon unique to where Christians are the minority, where they must maintain a low profile.

Christians in the Middle East are really an enigma to most of us in the West. Some of us are vaguely aware of their existence and a few of us have heard that their numbers are diminishing and they are the minorities. For the most part, however, we usually forget that they are there. For us in the West, Arab equals Muslim. We forget that Iraq or Syria or Egypt has a Christian population. (Indeed Iraq, Syria and Egypt were, before the Islamic invasions, Christian countries.)

In the United States, as is the case in most secular societies, we are not comfortable mixing religion with politics: A person’s religious beliefs are not to be judged before the law. This separation of church and state has occasionally resulted in difficulties and aberrations but, for the most part, it works. This is not the case in the Middle East – where one’s religious affiliation is everything. In Lebanon, the president of the Republic is always a Maronite; the prime minister is always a Sunnite and so forth. All the religious sects are represented. One’s religious affiliation is clearly identified on civil documents because a citizen’s rights are in part articulated by the law of the religious community. For example, a Catholic must follow the laws of the Catholic Church with regard to marriage, divorce and inheritance. A Druze must follow the laws of his community.

This is the system of governance wherever Islam is the prevailing religion. According to Islam, there can be no distinction between religion and the state. At first glance, this is regarded as offensive and old-fashioned to Westerners. Indeed, just as an absolute separation of church and state has resulted in aberrations, a complete coalescing of the religious and political spheres has on occasion resulted in fanaticism and oppression. But, let us look at it a little more closely: If a person holds certain religious beliefs as being absolutely true, how may one act otherwise in civil society in any other way? To assert that my religious beliefs are one thing and that my political positions are distinct – and perhaps contradictory – is schizophrenic.

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