The Maronites are the largest Uniate or Eastern church in Lebanon and represent an indigenous church. Maronite communion with the Roman Catholic Church was established in 1182, broken thereafter, and formally reestablished in the sixteenth century. In accordance with the terms of union, they retain their own rites and canon law and use Arabic and Aramaic in their liturgy as well the Karshuni script with old Syriac letters. Their origins are uncertain. One version traces them to John Maron of Antioch in the seventh century A.D.; another points to John Maron, a monk of Homs in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The words maron or marun in Syriac mean "small lord."
In the late seventh century, as a result of persecutions from other Christians for the heterodox views they had adopted, the Maronites withdrew from the coastal regions into the mountainous areas of Lebanon and Syria. During the Ottoman era (1516-1914) they remained isolated and relatively independent in these areas. In 1857 and 1858 the Maronite peasants revolted against the large landowning families. The revolt was followed by a further struggle between the Druzes and Maronites over land ownership, political power, and safe passage of community members in the territory of the other. The conflict led France to send a military expedition to the area in 1860. The disagreements diminished in intensity only after the establishment of the Mandate and a political formula whereby all sects achieved a degree of political representation.
The Maronite sect has been directed and administered by the Patriarch of Antioch and the East. Bishops are generally nominated by a church synod from among the graduates of the Maronite College in Rome. In 1987, Mar Nasrallah Butrus Sufayr (also spelled Sfeir) was the Maronite Patriarch.
Besides the Beirut archdiocese, nine other archdioceses and dioceses are located in the Middle East: Aleppo, Damascus, Jubayl-Al Batrun, Cyprus, Baalbek, Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, and Cairo. Parishes and independent dioceses are situated in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Côte d'Ivoire, and Senegal. There are four minor seminaries in Lebanon (Al Batrun, Ghazir, Ayn Saadah, and Tripoli) and a faculty of theology at the University of the Holy Spirit at Al Kaslik, which is run by the Maronite Monastic Order. The patriarch is elected in a secret ceremony by a synod of bishops and confirmed by the Pope.
In 1986 it was estimated that there were 356,000 Maronites in Lebanon, or 16 per cent of the population. Most Maronites have historically been rural people, like the Druzes; however, unlike the Druzes, they are scattered around the country, with a heavy concentration in Mount Lebanon. The urbanized Maronites reside in East Beirut and its suburbs. The Maronite sect has traditionally occupied the highest stratum of the social pyramid in Lebanon. Leaders of the sect have considered Maronite Christianity as the "foundation of the Lebanese nation." The Maronites have been closely associated with the political system of independent Lebanon; it was estimated that in pre-Civil War Lebanon members of this sect held 20 percent of the leading posts.
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