Middle East connection

Sept. 7-13, 2006
Middle East connection
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Maronite Church supports Lebanese people during crisis

If you’ve attended many of the regional events in the Mohawk Valley, you’ve seen him. His ceremonial vestments are a little different and, if you’ve spoken with him, he has an accent you can’t quite place. A Maronite priest, Father Bassam Saade has been in the U.S. so long that he has become a fixture in the clerical community of the Eastern Region of the Syracuse Diocese.

Father Saade is the pastor at St. Louis Gonzaga, a Maronite church in Utica, which serves as the home parish for roughly 250 families throughout Upstate New York. Because St Louis Gonzaga is the only parish of its kind in the Syracuse Diocese, Father Saade’s flock is diffused throughout the diocese. Most of them attend Latin Rite (churches directly connected to the Roman Catholic tradition) churches closer to their homes. Churches under the umbrella of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn are spread throughout the eastern U.S. and Father Saade is rarely in contact with clerics who share his direct lineage. Like his parishioners, Father Saade has found a strong connection to the Latin Rite churches, particularly in the Utica area. While he meets with his colleagues in the Maronite Eparchy just twice per year, he meets with Roman Catholic clerics from the Utica area as often as several times per week.

“I’m more involved in the Roman Catholic Diocese than I am in my own,” Father Saade said. “This is basically my family.”
Maronites trace their history as an Eastern Rite Catholic Church to the early Christian community in Antioch. Despite the geographical discrepancy, Maronites have never been separate from the Roman Catholic Church and call the pope Holy Father. Father Saade can celebrate Mass in a Roman Catholic Church and the papacy is open to those of Eastern Catholic origins. It is worth noting that of the 22 churches under the auspices of Rome, the Latin Rite is but one of them, though by far the largest.

The church is predominately Lebanese. Of the estimated 15 million Maronites, between 800,000 to 900,000 live in Lebanon, accounting for 25 percent of the population there. The spotlight shining once again on the Middle East and on the Israeli assault on Hezbollah and Lebanon in particular caught the Christian population there in its periphery. The Christian population in Lebanon has long been an opponent of Hezbollah.

Though hardly a supporter of Hezbollah, Father Saade was disturbed by the manner in which Israel executed its war in Lebanon. Though officially each assault was aimed at breaking the back of Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, many Lebanese were caught in the crossfire. “Israel was not fair with the war because they were going after everybody…not just Hezbollah,” Father Saade said. “This is an unjustified war.”

Father Saade noted that Israel and the international community had failed to adequately equip the legitimate government of Lebanon to deal with Hezbollah, which was receiving military aid from both Syria and Iran. “I blame Hezbollah but the government doesn’t have any weapons at all,” Father Saade said. “We would like to see the U.S. help the Lebanese government to stand on their own two feet to oppose Hezbollah. Our government helps everybody but especially Israel. A militia [Hezbolla] should not be stronger than the government.” Both the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn and the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon in Los Angeles have launched a campaign to provide financing for Lebanese citizens trying once more to rebuild. The ultimate goal of the campaign, according to Father Saade, is to raise “a few hundred thousand dollars.” St. Louis Gonzaga has contributed roughly $3,000.

Lebanon has been caught in the crossfire between Israel and its numerous enemies among the Arab states for over two decades and Father Saade said that his homeland is weary of war. “They’ve had enough,” he said. “How many times can they rebuild and then lose everything again?” Father Saade noted that the vast majority of monotheistic faiths still in practice share a common lineage. Because of intermarriage and immigration to the U.S., the Maronite church in Utica is itself a melting pot. Although the majority are Lebanese, parishioners of Syrian and Armenian origin also attend the church as do many of Western European descent.
“We’re all children of Abraham whether we’re children of Isaac or children of Ishmael,” he said.

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