TYRE, Lebanon — He is the youngest bishop in Lebanon, in one of the most difficult spots in the country.
Born in 1962, Archbishop George Bakouni is also shepherding one of the smallest flocks in Lebanon. A few thousand Greek Melkite Catholic families are spread out in Tyre and about 10 nearby villages — a remnant that still lives in southern Lebanon along with a few thousand Maronites, Greek Orthodox and Protestant believers.
Archbishop Bakouni is active in evangelizing and persuading people to cling to their homes and lands. South Lebanon, and Tyre in particular, is a very real part of the Holy Land, which has steadily been losing Christians over the last few years. In the wake of last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, many people are tempted to leave. Economic difficulties provoked by the war have led thousands of people to leave Lebanon.
“It’s not the priests that are lacking, but motivation and living faith,” said Archbishop Bakouni, an engineer who discovered his vocation within a charismatic community.
Part of his flock are simple fishermen, leading him to comment, “I still don’t understand why there are so many fishermen among the apostles the Lord chose.”
It may be the small number of Christians or the peaceful coexistence among Lebanese from different religious backgrounds, but as far as Archbishop Bakouni is concerned, living among a vast majority of Shiite Muslims causes no major problems for Christians of South Lebanon.
In a country with an ongoing political crisis, that’s a sign of hope. In a message Feb. 14, Pope Benedict XVI called upon the Lebanese people to reject violence and make a commitment to national unity. The Pope made the comments in the wake of two bomb blasts Feb. 13 in the strongly Christian mountain area outside Beirut that took the lives of three people and injured about 20.
“Profoundly grieved by the terrible attack that struck Lebanon this morning, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI asks Your Beatitude to express his spiritual closeness to the injured and to the relatives of the victims, and give them assurances of his prayers,” Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said in a telegram of condolence to Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites. “Entrusting to divine providence those who died so tragically, the Holy Father invokes the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary upon the entire Lebanese nation.”
Though Archbishop Bakouni sees fighting among Christians, mostly for political reasons, he sees a surprisingly good amount of cooperation between Christians and Muslims. In the village of Cana, for example, about six miles from Tyre, which many historians claim to be the true location of Jesus’ first miracle, the mayor, Salah Salamah, is a Shiite Muslim who was baptized at an early age, at the advice of a Christian who was his father’s best friend. In the small Shiite town of Naffakhiyé, the only Christian is the mayor.
In many mixed families, a Christian mother who marries a Shiite, after giving birth to a few boys, will claim the last one for herself and will have him baptized, with no objection from her husband.
In spite of last summer’s war, a Christian presence and cultural influence is still maintained through schools run by nuns, with around 10% to 20% of the students Christians.
Fear is definitely a factor in driving Christians and others away, said Naji Farah, 45, an engineer born to a wealthy family of Tyre, now living in Beirut. Hezbollah, with its reputation for rigidity, intimidates Christians and keeps them far from their birthplace.
Then again, Farah thinks that Christians have a special vocation to be good mediators between Muslims of different sects.
Farah is especially aware of the need for communication between Christians who stayed in Lebanon and those who have chosen to emigrate. With encouragement from Archbishop Bakouni, he has set up a website for this purpose. This site, Melkite-Tyre.com, is already available in four languages, including English, Spanish and Portuguese.
A different approach is taken by Melhem Khalaf, a lawyer who will soon turn 50. With a group called Offre-Joie (The Joy of Giving), Khalaf, who is a Maronite Christian, took it upon himself to repair damaged houses bombarded during the war.
“We followed the people that fled the bombarded parts of south Lebanon,” he said. “What we saw was intolerable. Either we had to look passively at their pain, or else we had to make it ours.”
Fady Noun is based in