Greek- Melkite-Catholic Archbishopric
Of the Diocese of Saida and Deir -El-Kamar
Report on the Melkite diocese of Saida and Deir El Kamar submitted to the Holy Synod on
October 9, 2006 on the occasion of the election of a new pastor as a successor of Archbishop Georges KUWEITER
The diocese in 1987
The diocese of Saida and Deir El Kamar consists of 56 parishes extending from East Saida and the Chouf region to Nabatieh in the south. Fifty one parishes already have flourishing churches providing them with regular pastoral service. In the other parishes, the Catholics exercise their religious obligations in the Maronite churches (annex 1). Furthermore, our churches receive our Christian Maronite brothers in the areas where they do not have churches.
The diocese of Saida and Deir El Kamar is, by virtue of the official registers, our largest Melkite diocese in Lebanon seen the number of deputies representing it in the Parliament. It is known that each deputy is elected on the basis of 25000 votes; actually our diocese is represented by three deputies since the independence. However, the exodus to the capital as of the fifties, then to foreign countries as well as the displacement resulting from the Lebanese war 1975 – 1990 reduced their number, that’s why during our term of office we were unable to undertake an accurate census of the residents.
I took the diocese over in 1987 while the war in Lebanon was still raging which led to the displacement of fifty among the parishes of our diocese, the destruction of eighteen churches and the distortion of the rest except for six parishes in Jezzine that were under the authority of the Israeli army and the army of south Lebanon until the year 2000.
Fifty displaced parishes out of 56! Seen this reality, I found myself somehow a pastor without a parish and I realized that I had to work in order to build up my diocese, reconstruct the destroyed churches, fix the distorted ones and set the necessary pastoral foundations.
I started first of all to visit the political and religious entities of Saida asking them their opinion about the return of our parishioners to their villages in Saida, they answered: “We have lived together and we want to stay together”. I visited as well Mr. Walid JOUMBLAT with my brother and colleague father Salim GHAZAL, who answered: “come back quickly and let bygones be bygones! We are destined to live together and to cooperate”. Furthermore, I visited other political and social entities in Beirut as well as some of our eminent parishioners; their answer was positive and encouraging the same.
After these contacts, I established an office in Badaro, Beirut, that Archbishop Gregoire HADDAD granted me and I thank him for that, allowing me to visit the parishioners in their place of residence and to organize masses in some churches of Beirut encouraging them to return to their villages.
The first signs of the return
Indeed, the effective return started in 1990 when the Lebanese army deployed its forces on the entire Lebanese territory together with the withdrawal of the militias that were occupying our villages. When we started checking our parishes, they were in a miserable condition: the water facilities were stolen; the electric posts were plucked out and used as dams or bridges over the trenches designed to shelter the militias together with the majority of the houses that were stolen and destroyed and the agricultural properties that were burnt or pulled out, like olive and orange trees. Therefore, we had to contact the local and international institutions to help us rebuild the churches and the pastoral halls (annex No 2) and restore the necessary infrastructures. Besides, we formed a committee composed of the wealthy believers of our diocese called "committee of the reconstruction of the diocese of Saida". Thus, life started flowing in the diocese of East of Saida seen the absence of all bloody confrontations with the Saida’s Muslim entities. However, in the superior region of Chouf, the return was delayed because of the numerous victims who fell in some of our parishes with no good reasons.
The priests of the diocese
When I took in charge the diocese in 1987, the number of the parishioner priests was 4 in Jezzine and 2 in Deir El Kamar in addition to the priests of Dar Al Inaya. The others accompanied their parishioners to their exodus area either in Beirut or Marjeyoun, specially that some of their houses were also destroyed. Therefore, we started taking good care of the ecclesiastical vocations. The diocese has today twenty-four priests (annex 3) six among them chose chastity whereas the others got married and are working with devotion and fervor in order to serve their parish. Two priests are currently serving French parishes. A third priest went to Rome this year to specialize in the parochial field thanks to a scholarship he was granted by the Roman synod of the oriental churches. The average age of the priests of the diocese is 48 years. It is worth mentioning that the monastery of the Holy Savior sends to the diocese more priests mainly in the two centers in Saida and Deir El Kamar if need be.
The ecclesiastical vocations in the diocese are numerous in general. The families are pious and conservative even though this belief remains traditional in many cases. The apostolic movements of the youth, children and confraternities are satisfactory and active. They constitute the capital of the diocese for a spiritual and social rebirth thanks to the efforts of his eminence archbishop Sélim GHAZAL who accompanied them since the beginning of his ecclesiastical life in the years 60.
Problem of selling territories
The major problem we faced since the return of our children in the years 90 was selling territories. A great number of our parishioners having experienced the living standard in Beirut, Metn and Kesrwan and since they were loaded with ideas driving them to hate their region such as: " the South is not ours anymore, the South is for the Palestinians", they started selling the properties they inherited from their fathers and grandfathers with no effort nor pain. The diocese was forced to undertake an awareness campaign as much as possible, but it had to buy a large number of these real-estates in order to reassure the apprehensive among them. It used to have then some savings from the foreign donations offered to the diocese. The purchase cost of these real-estates rose to 3.002.938 American dollars (annex No 4).
Owning these real-estates reassured some people who have said: "if the archbishop was not convinced that we will remain in our territories, he would not have bought these real-estates."
We can say today that the return was real even if it is not at the same level of the pre-war. The complete return is totally conditional upon the economic and mainly political situation concerning the implantation of the Palestinian that constitutes the main worry of our children.
Resources of the diocese
The financial resources of the diocese are based on a number of commercial malls in the suburbs of the archdiocese of Saida and are especially due to the efforts of archbishop Basillius HAJJAR who founded the present cathedral in 1895 in addition to the buildings in a newly street conceived at that time known as “the archbishop's street”.
These commercial stores belong either to a philanthropic association known as" Wakf of the poor of Saida" that takes care of the poor and of some social projects and to the diocese itself under the direct supervision of the superior. This cooperation will be easier in the future since the development projects like the construction of churches and other buildings are almost done. On the other hand, we are trying to pay the priests’ salaries from the wealthy parishes and the fund of the diocese which lessens even more this burden.
Our Lady of Mantara sanctuary
The sanctuary of Our Lady of Mantara is among the most eminent religious locations in the diocese, at the gate of Maghdouché. It is a natural cave where the Virgin Mary used to wait for her son Jesus when he was preaching in the area of Saïda. The former Christians turned it into a sanctuary to venerate the Virgin and to pray her to grant them protection. Our Lady of Mantara is especially known for her miracles concerning babies and the exhaustion of the prayers of the sterile women who pray her to grant them a child that shall make their life happy. The cave registers witness the gratitude of Im-Hassan (mother of Hassan) and Im-Mohammad (mother of Mohammad) as well as many others who thanked Virgin Mary to have granted them their wishes.
In 1963, our eminent predecessor Bacilius KHOURY erected a superb tour of a 34 meters height carrying the statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the coast of Saida from all sides with majesty and elegance.
The sanctuary was destroyed and stolen during the events of 1986, so we repaired and embellished it. Seen the huge number of local and foreign visitors to the sanctuary, we built up in 2003 a great basilica wide enough for 1300 people, known for its magnificent Byzantine architecture where the visitors can celebrate mass away from sun and rain. Concrete works of the Basilica ended up and it is therefore ready to be decorated with religious canvases representing the life of Virgin Mary starting with the Annunciation to Ascension. The expenses dedicated to the construction of the basilica rose to 2.350.000 dollars and were gathered from local and foreign donations without having resort to the resources of the diocese. It is worth mentioning that this amount covers the whole basilica as it is today in addition to three basements because of an obvious inclination of the soil nature. It is supposed to be used in the future for various parochial and social activities.
Since the South of Lebanon is the expansion of the holy territories in Palestine where 10 events mentioned in the Bible took place such as the visit of the prophet Eli to Saraft of Saida (Sarafand currently) and the Christ's Transfiguration on mount Hermon, we materialized these events on rock tableaus in the open air around the sanctuary, spread on a 300 meters distance and we called them " the path of the sanctuary " that the visitor undertakes while contemplating its deep meanings (annex No 5).
Social and religious adherence in the diocese
Our diocese is known to be the most diversified at the demographic level among all other dioceses. The Sunnite in Saida and the province, the Shiites in the south of Saida and Nabatieh, the Druzes in the Chouf, the Palestinian in the camp of Ain El Helwe, the largest Palestinian camp among the thirteen camps in Lebanon. The diocese cooperates with them honestly and transparently. Here is an example of the intimate historic relation joining us to our brothers the Druzes. Archbishop Aftimos SAIFI who took the diocese in charge since 1683, started the construction of Deir El Mokhalles (convent of the Savior) in 1711 on a real-estate he has bought for a symbolic price from our brothers the Druzes. The Druze chief used to have a private room in one of the convent’s pavilions he used to go to whenever he liked. When Carlos Tanas the sixth was elected in 1724 as the first patriarch of the confession, he looked for shelter at the convent for a certain time in order to flee the orthodox patriarch Silvestros KOBROSI. At that time, the leader Ali JOUMBLAT wrote to him: "it is our convent and these are our monks, you won't be spared if you enter the Mount of the Druze". Archbishop Bassilius HAJJAR, who was in charge of the diocese since 1886 until 1916, visited the Sultan Abdul Hamid in Istambul who made him a generous donation to help our Sunnite brothers in order to repair the Big Mosque damaged by a maritime storm that greatly destroyed it. The Sultan gave him as well medals for the chiefs of Saida’s families which strengthened the brotherly relationship we are taking benefit of in our daily life and on other occasions. I am talking about the importance of an open, cooperative, sincere and ready to dialog character in order to go on and preserve the tradition inherited since centuries.
As for Christians, Saida is further to that the see of the Maronite confession made up of eighty parishes. It is also the see of the orthodox confession that the archbishop barely visits although the number of orthodox families in the diocese is quite small and most of them are employees coming from abroad to work in the region’s enterprises. This small number is due to archbishop Aftimos SAIFI who established the monastic order of MOUKAHLLES and worked together in order to convince the orthodox to become Catholics; his dream came true indeed.
Our Melkite church is therefore present in the diocese through the main convent of the Savior’s order next to Joun that underwent several calumnies but resisted in order to save the Christian existence in the region. This order also owns three small convents in the diocese receiving groups of prayer and retreats and taking care of the adjacent parishes: Our Lady’s convent next to the Moukhalles convent, the convent of Mzayraa next to Jezzine and the convent of Ammik in the Chouf area. The church also owns Dar El Inaya next to Saida which is a social project and a technical school at the service of the orphans belonging to all confessions. The orphanage hosts 80 orphans compared to four hundred fifty pupils at the technical school proceeding in their professional specialization in one of the fifteen branches under the theme of "development is the roadway of peace". Moreover, the order has a center close to Saida called "Development and Dialogue centre" made of a group of educated Christian and Muslim youngsters under the direction of his eminence archbishop Selim GHAZAL that works to reinforce a sincere dialogue through meetings, conferences and development projects sustained by local and foreign institutions.
The Savior’s sisters have the main convent and the novitiate convent in the neighborhood of Moukhalles convent as well as the administration of several schools including the see of patriarch Maximus the fifth Hakim in Abra.
In the diocese, the Maronite confession has, along with the priests of the parishes, several established educational and parochial centers managed by monks and sisters, starting with the Lebanese and Antonine order in Jezzine and Nabatieh and the Mariamite university in Deir El Kamar. In addition to sisters’ associations: the Holy Hearts, Saint Joseph of the apparition, Apostles, Antonine and Franciscan sisters, Cross and Lebanese holy family sisters, Charity and Besançon sisters.
Finally, concerning the orthodox confession, my dear eminent colleagues shall know this reality: when the children of the diocese became Catholics at the time of his eminence Aftimos SAIFI, Saint Nicolas cathedral was at the service of our Catholic community but at the end of the XVIIIe century, the tyrant Wali Akka ordered to let the orthodox pray in the church. In 1850, the first orthodox archbishop was elected in Saida to succeed his eminence SAIFI. A concrete wall divided the church into two wings, one for Catholics, one for orthodox, with a private entry to each of the churches which is always the case.
In 1985 archbishop Ignatios RAAD tried to waive the ancient church to the orthodox but the Synod refused this request at that time. When I became pastor of this diocese in 1987, I reiterated this demand to the Synod 88 and the answer was always negative as of the following principle:" history doesn't alienate itself", which means that this church is the cradle of the Moukhalles order where the monks of the convent lived the first twenty years of their ecclesiastical life until their transfer to the present Moukhalles convent in 1711.
Here is an overview of the diocese of Saida and Deir El Kamar. I pray God to grant success to the Synod of our confession in the election of the good pastor so that he carries on its mission and fills the gaps in order to serve the church and worship God.
Saida, September 30, 2006
Archbishop Georges KUWEITER +
Metropolitan of Saida and Deir El Kamar
For the Greek Catholic
P.B. 247- Saida - Lebanon
Tel: 961 7 720100 - Fax: 961 7 722055