Religious Leaders
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Anglicans of Beirut
The Curtain Closes

The Leviathan of Lebanon

February 19th, 2006 - Post No. 19
I’ve been wanting to provide some commentary on the February 14th demonstrations at Freedom or Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut; but doing so has been more than a bit of a challenge. Politics here is anything but easy to understand; and feeling much the fool rushing in where angels fear to tred, I include in the following observations links to articles in Wikipedia with more indepth and reliable explanations. Here’s one (just click the name) for information on the assasinated former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri.

Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son, arrived home last weekend following a whirlwind tour of major capitals meeting with the movers and shakers of international politics. It can certainly be said that he primed the pump for a massive turn out at the rally on Tuesday offering to pay the many bus drivers of Greater Beirut $200 each, plus two free tanks of gas, to spend the day ferrying demonstrators to and from the mass rally downtown. Not everyone relied on public and private mass transport, however, and the highway beside the Catholicosate was alive with vehicles crowded with young people, like this one returning from the rally at day’s end (barrelling along at 80+km/hr!)

Impressive, to say the least, this gathering of nearly a quarter of the Lebanese population, a mixed group both Christian and Moslem, to honour the memory of assasinated former Prime Minister Hariri, and to demand the ousting of President Emile Lahoud. Hariri Sr. resigned as Prime Minister in 2004 when the Lebanese parliament, bowing to pressure from Syria, approved a three year extension to President Lahoud’s term of office (until 2007), in violation of the country’s constitution (Presidents are elected to a single 6 year term, and this was the second time Syria intervened to force such an extension.)

I asked Fr Krikor what he made of all of this, and he explained that things are not always what they seem in Lebanese politics. He expressed misgivings, shared by many Christians here, about what direction the March 14 group — the leaders of the mass rally– would take the country. “Some think they want a Moslem President.” (The Lebanese constitution seeks a balance of power by requiring that the President be Christian and the Prime Minister, Moslem.) It seems that the multi-billionaire Hariri family, first Rafik and now his son Saad, have been busy buying up the country, and seem particularly interested in real estate in the Christian sectors. Fr. Krikor concludes, joining the ranks of probably the majority around the world when he says, “I just don’t have very much confidence in politicians. I wonder what they are really after!”

Perhaps this is what Hobbes intended when he wrote, “For by art is created that great Leviathan called a commonwealth, or state (in Latin, civitas).” Speaking of great sea monsters (Leviathan), did this photo make it into your local paper? A giant shark caught off the shores of Tyre, Lebanon — “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah!”

The conversation about Lebanese politics with Fr. Krikor took place on our way up the long hill to Bickfaya were I went to spend part of the weekend. This looks like a winning arrangement for the time being: weekdays in Antelias, weekends in Bickfaya. The seminary is a wonderful place to visit and I certainly can say that I was given “a room with a view”! (That’s Beirut in the distance.)

The students spend much of the weekend preparing for the remaining three days of mid-term exams. Leaving my laptop behind is a good idea, and I fill the quiet time with a very compelling Armenian historical novel, The Antiochians, by Dr. Albert Apélian (New York: Vantage Press, 1960). The story is centred in the village of Kessab along the north Mediterranean coast of modern Syria, very near the Turkish border. Two of the monks in Antelias, and at least one of the seminarians, are natives of Kessab. It is one of two entirely Armenian communities in the Middle East — the other is Aanjar, Lebanon, to the east of Beirut near the Syrian border.

A neighbour of Antioch, Kessab was under Ottoman control for centuries, and the story in The Antiochians is very much concerned with the Turkish persecution of Armenians, particularly during the decline of the Ottoman empire — abuse that reached its dismal apogee with the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

The impact of the genocide is still very much a part of Armenian life in the Middle East — there are echoes no doubt of this to be heard in Fr. Krikor’s scepticism around Lebanese politics. My choice of reading seems particularly appropriate for the seminary in Bickfaya: a powerful monument towers over us on the hillside beside the seminary, erected in 1965 to mark the 50th anniversary of the genocide. Fr. Krikor explains that the woman of the monument, her hands raised in prayer, gives expression to both the cry of an oppressed people and, yet, the promise of new birth.

I join the seminarians for the ride down the hill to Antelias this morning for the Sunday offices and the Divine Liturgy. It is a special Sunday for two reasons. First, it is the last Sunday before the beginning of the Great Lent, during which the sanctuary curtain is closed and the priestly celebrant, completely hidden from view throughout the Divine Liturgy. This photo of Fr. Moses, our celebrant today, provides a last view of the priest and the sanctuary on Sunday morning for the long period of Lent.

The second thing that made today special was the annual requiem for the departed catholicoi (plural of catholicos) and and all of the members of the Brotherhood of the Great House of Cilicia. At the end of Mass, we line up and process out of the Cathedral carrying hand candles to the Tomb of the Catholicoi, an outdoor mausoleum next to the Cathedral just behind the Genocide Memorial Chapel. At the requiem there is also the usual Sunday memorial prayers for the recently departed or for those whose year’s mind (anniversary of death) comes close to this particular Sunday. It all concludes with the singing of the Lord’s prayer, a rendition not unlike this one, recorded last night at vespers in the seminary chapel.