The Maronites (Arabic: موارنة mwārneh) (Syriac: ܡܪ̈ܘܢܝܐ maronāyé) are an ethnoreligious group in the Levant. They derive their name from the Syriac saint Maron whose followers moved to Mount Lebanon from northern Syria establishing the nucleus of the Maronite Church.
Maronites were able to maintain an independent status in Mount Lebanon and its coastline after the Arab Islamic conquest, maintaining their religion and language there until the 13th century. Remnants of their language exist in Cyprus and formerly in some secluded mountain villages, which have since adopted Arabic due to government standardization. The Maronite Church is in communion with the Church of Rome.
The Ottoman Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate and later the Republic of Lebanon were created under the auspice of European powers with the Maronites as their main ethnic component. Mass emigration to the Americas at the outset of the 20th century and the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 1990 decreased their numbers greatly in the Levant. Maronites today form more than one quarter of the total population in the country of Lebanon. With only two exceptions, all Lebanese and Greater Lebanese presidents have been Maronites. The tradition persists as part of the Lebanese Confessionalist system, also meaning that the Prime Minister has historically been a Sunni Muslim.
A number of Maronite historians claim that their people were the descendants of the Canaanites or Phoenicians, or also the Mardaites, residents in parts of Caliphate province of Bilad al-Sham, who kept their identity under both Byzantine and Arab authorities. The reason for their adoption of the name is disputed and historians disagree whether it refers to Mar Maron, a 4th-century Syriac Christian saint, or to John Maron, the first bishop of Lebanon.
The followers of the Maronite Church form a part of the Syriac Christians and belong to the West Syriac Rite. The Maronite Syriac Church of Antioch traces its foundation to Maron, an early 5th-century Syriac monk venerated as a saint. Before the conquest by Arabian Muslims reached Lebanon, the Lebanese people, including those who would become Muslim and the majority who would remain Christian, spoke a dialect of Aramaic called Syriac. Syriac remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Church.
Phoenicianism as an alternative to acceptance of an Arab identity on the part of Lebanese Christians has developed into an integrated ideology led by key thinkers, but there are a few who have stood out more than others: Charles Corm, Michel Chiha, and Said Aql in their promotion of Phoenicianism. In post civil-war Lebanon since the Taif agreement, politically Phoenicianism is restricted to a small group.
Among leaders of the movement Etienne Saqr, Said Akl, Charles Malik, Camille Chamoun, and Bachir Gemayel have been notable names, some going as far as voicing anti-Arab views. In his book the Israeli writer Mordechai Nisan, who at times met with some of them during the war, quoted Said Akl, a famous Lebanese poet and philosopher, as saying;
|“||"I would cut off my right hand just not to be an Arab.||”|
Akl believes in emphasizing the Phoenician legacy of the Lebanese people and has promoted the use of the Lebanese dialect written in a modified Latin alphabet, that had been influenced by the Phoenician alphabet, rather than the Arabic one.
In opposition to such views, Arabism was affirmed at the March 1936 Congress of the Coast and Four Districts, when the Muslim leadership at the conference made the declaration that Lebanon was an Arab country, indistinguishable from its Arab neighbors. In the April 1936 Beirut municipal elections, Christian and Muslim politicians were divided along Phoenician and Arab lines in the matter of whether the Lebanese coast should be claimed by Syria or given to Lebanon, increasing the already mounting tensions between the two communities. Phoenicianism is still disputed by many Arabist scholars who have on occasion tried to convince its adherents to abandon their claims as false and to embrace and accept the Arab identity instead. This conflict of ideas of identity is believed to be one of the pivotal disputes between the Muslim and Christian populations of Lebanon and what mainly divides the country to the detriment of national unity. In general it appears that Muslims focus more on the Arab identity of Lebanese history and culture whereas the older Christian communities focus on the pre-Arabization, pre-Islamic and non-Arab elements of the Lebanese identity and rather refrain from the Arab characterization.
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