Lebanon, which borders Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east, is a relatively small Middle Eastern country. It is not even as large as Connecticut. Nonetheless, Lebanon is home to a diverse array of religious groups. Per the CIA’s World Fact Book, the Lebanese population is split among 17 officially recognized sects.
While exact figures are not available, researchers estimate that 53-56 percent of Lebanese are Muslim. Christians make up about 39 percent of the population. Most of the remaining Lebanese are members of the Druze faith.
This article provides information on some of the more important Lebanese religious sects.
Eastern Rite Catholics
Eastern Rite sects are full members of the Catholic Church. They recognize the supreme authority of Pope Francis I. At the same time, Eastern Rite Catholics adhere to traditions and practices which differentiate them from their Roman Catholic (or Latin Rite) brethren. At least five Eastern Rite sects, Armenian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Melkite Catholics, and Maronite Catholics, have churches in Lebanon. Of these groups, the Maronites have the largest number of adherents.
Maronite Catholics: They are the largest Christian group in Lebanon. Approximately 20 percent of Lebanese belong to this Catholic sect. The Maronite liturgy differs from its Latin Rite counterpart in several respects. For instance, a portion of the Maronite liturgical service is in Aramaic or in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic)-the language that Jesus Christ spoke. In another contrast with Roman Catholicism, the Maronite Church, with some preconditions, allows married men to become priests.
Greek Orthodox Christians
The Greek Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian sect in Lebanon. According to a U.S. State Department report, about 8 percent of Lebanese belong to this religious group. Greek Orthodox are members of the Eastern Orthodox faith, which officially broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. Eastern Orthodoxy shares more in common with Catholicism than it does with most Protestant faiths. However, Eastern Orthodox Christians differ with Catholics on several key doctrinal issues involving, among other things, cannon law, human nature, the role of reason in supporting belief, and the afterlife. Additionally, Eastern Orthodox Christians do not acknowledge any one individual as head of their faith.
Oriental Orthodox Christians
The Oriental Orthodox sects share much in common with their Eastern Orthodox brethren. Oriental Orthodox churches broke away from Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in 451 A.D., at the Council of Chalcedon. At that time, the Oriental sects refused to accept the Council’s definition of Christ as being both fully human and fully divine. However, it is unclear to what extent contemporary (or even past) Oriental Orthodox views on Christ’s nature differ from the ones espoused by Eastern Orthodox groups and by Catholics. At least three Oriental Orthodox sects, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox, have parishes in Lebanon.
Like all Muslims, Sunnis are monotheists who believe that God, or Allah, used prophets to reveal the faith to the people. They consider Mohammed to be the last, and most important, of these prophets. They also believe that the Qur’an (or Koran) contains Allah’s actual thoughts and commands. Sunnis and Shi’ites split from each other shortly after Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D., because they could not agree on who should succeed him. Around 27 percent of Lebanese are Sunni Muslims.
Approximately 27 percent of Lebanese consider themselves to be Shi’ite Muslims. The followers of this Muslim sect primarily live in the southern and northeastern portions of the country. The Lebanese based militant group, Hezbollah, is run by Shi’ites.
Some researchers consider Druzes to be Muslims; however, others experts feel that the Druze faith is a separate monotheistic religion. The Druzes branched off from Shi’ite Islam in the early part of the 11th century A.D. Druzes disagree with Muslims on a number of key issues. For instance, the Druzes do not hold Mohammed in as high of regard as Muslims, and they do not follow many of the prescribed Muslim customs, such as the requirement to pray towards Mecca five times per day. Unlike Muslims, Christians, and Jews, followers of the Druze faith believe in reincarnation. Druze society is divided into the uninitiated, who are not able to participate in most of the sect’s religious ceremonies, and the initiated, who are able to take part in these rituals.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The World Fact Book.
Lebanon’s U.S. Embassy
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. International Religious Freedom Report for 2011.
The author is a freelance writer and a Maronite Catholic. He is also a third generation Lebanese American by way of his mother.