A Washington church brings Lebanese Christians together through prayer, good works

Strengthening distant bonds through faith

September 08, 2006|By Liz F. Kay .. | Liz F. Kay ..,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- For 34 days, the clash between Hezbollah and Israel tore up villages of Lebanon, and much of the world's attention focused on the suffering of Muslims and Jews.

But caught in the crossfire were Lebanon's Christians - nearly 40 percent of the country's population - like the families of those who regularly attend Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church.

Here at this Eastern Rite Catholic Church in northwest Washington, as children prepare to start religious education classes and parents plan for the fall Middle Eastern bazaar, everyone is dedicating prayers and money to rebuilding communities overseas.

"We will continue to do it, and we will not stop until everything is good," said Our Lady of Lebanon's pastor, Mon- signor Dominic Ashkar.

Israeli officials have lifted their air blockade on Lebanon, potentially allowing more aid to reach the affected communities, but a sea blockade is still in place for now.

Our Lady of Lebanon's parishioners, like other U.S. Maronites, have donated to groups such as the Catholic Schools of Lebanon and Caritas Lebanon, the main local partner of Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based international aid organization that just expanded its efforts there.

The groups are helping Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics such as the Maronites who are struggling to reconstruct their villages after a cease-fire agreement ended major fighting a few weeks ago.

"The war was not only against Hezbollah," said Michel Kassas, who has been studying at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary for nearly two years. "We were the people attacked."

There are about 300,000 Maronites worldwide, according to the online Catholic Encyclopedia. About 71,000 live in the United States, according to the 2006 Official Catholic Directory.

Though they are a part of the Catholic Church based in Rome and believe the same doctrine, Maronite and other Eastern Rite Catholic Churches practice some different rituals, including dipping Eucharist bread into Communion wine and not kneeling during the liturgy.

Our Lady of Lebanon, across the street from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has offered Sunday Mass and daily vigils to lasting peace in the Middle East, especially Lebanon.

News of the cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel brought relief to some.

"The whole community was extremely distraught over the whole situation," said David Epperly of Annandale, Va., whose wife's family lives in the south.

Others are still uneasy. "It's not very comforting," said Simona El-Hallal of Gaithersburg, whose two sons are altar boys. She had planned to travel to Lebanon with her three children last month, but did not want to put them in danger.

Mounir Abousaleh of Columbia said his wife and 11-year-old son usually stay in Lebanon for a month during the summer. This year, they evacuated through Turkey. Things have still not returned to normal, he said - no direct flights to Beirut, for example.

"Back home, the people there are still worried," said his cousin, Marwan Abisaleh of Columbia.

Fadi Mitri, a dental technician, came from Lebanon to stay with his brother in Potomac about a month ago. He is trying to decide whether to move his family back to the United States if fighting persists.

Mitri had lived in the United States for 10 years on his own and returned after the civil war there ended in 1991. He returned with his children to the U.S. in 2001, but they preferred living closer to their extended family in Lebanon.

"In case they have a sustainable cease-fire, I'll head home," he said. "This killing doesn't make any sense."

The parishioners were also worried about the lasting effects on their homeland. Epperly and his wife, Sawsan, said they heard about the destruction of olive trees, which take years to mature.

"You can rebuild a building, but 2,000 years ... " Epperly said. "You can't rebuild an olive tree," Sawsan Epperly added.

Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary opened in 1961, and the parish was formed a year later. The church opened its modern white building in May.

The parish offers two Sunday Masses - one in Arabic and another in English, although the celebrant gives his homily in both languages at each service. Syriac, a version of the Aramaic spoken during biblical times, is also used at some points.

Parishioners, who live within a 60-mile radius of the church, including Virginia and Maryland, recited the rosary in Arabic before the Arabic service began. About two-thirds of the 400 or so families registered with the church are recent immigrants from Lebanon, said Monsignor Seely Beggiani, the seminary's rector.

"Half of my parishioners send their children and wives to Lebanon for the summer," Ashkar said. "This year, it was very hard. As soon as they went, there was war."

The pastor had gathered church members for Mass every evening until last week to pray for peace "because prayers are more powerful than rockets," he said.

The Maronites' two eparchies, or dioceses, within the United States have also appealed for money to rebuild, Beggiani said.

This year, the seminary has five candidates. Seminarians enroll at other institutions such as Catholic University or the Washington Theological Union, but study Maronite history and theology as well as Arabic and Syriac at the Maronite seminary.

Tony Massad, a seminarian originally from Flint, Mich., said the conflict has made the importance of religious vocations clear to him. "You see how difficult it is to deal with people," he said.

The church - and the need for religious vocations - grows in strength during difficult times, Kassas said.

"The golden age for the church is when she is suffering," he said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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