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Discovering the Legacy of Patriarch Elias Howayek during political crisis

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Patriarch Elias Howayek - The Catholic Weekly
Patriarch Elias Howayek. Photo: Wikipedia commons

As Lebanon is considered the hub of the Maronites, what happens in the Middle East affects Maronites worldwide.

With current instability in the Middle East, involving the ongoing tension between Israel and Palestine, Hezbollah and Iran interference, as well as a flood of Syrians pouring into Lebanon, circumstances are very difficult for Maronites.

However, around 100 years ago the Maronites found themselves in a similar position. So it is worthwhile looking at Patriarch Elias Howayek, the 72nd Maronite Patriarch, and how he managed the political troubles of his time.

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Patriarch Elias Howayek played a key role during World War I. Turkey had entered the First World War on the side of Germany. On 28 November 1914, the Turkish army entered Mount Lebanon.

In 1915, the Governor General of Lebanon, was replaced by Ali Munif, the second Turk ever to rule Lebanon. Lebanon was put directly under Ottoman military rule, resulting in the violation of rights of the Lebanese people, with Turkish soldiers occupying their homes and exposing them to severe winter conditions, and monasteries converted to military use.

This set the course for Patriarch Elias Howayek’s pursuit for Lebanon’s independence as we read in his book published in 1930, Love of the Nation:

“We do not close our eyes if our country is in peril but desire with God’s help, to restore security, success and independence and increase its prosperity and remove the enemy from its midst.” (Page 9, paragraph 4)

Jamal Pasha, also known as Al Jazzar or “the Butcher”, commander of the Fourth Turkish Army, imposed military conscription on Lebanese citizens, requisitioned beasts of burden, and demanded the Lebanese provide food supply for his troops. A reign of terror commenced in Lebanon.

Patriarch Elias Howayek - The Catholic weekly
Patriarch Hoayek distributing bread to the hungry during the Kafno. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

Faced with what he conceived was the Patriarch’s defiant stance during this time, Jamal demanded a meeting on 21 July 1915. The Patriarch complied, in order to avoid any vindictive measures against the people.

The Turkish leader criticised the Patriarch’s friendship with France. The Patriarch replied that France was a benefactor to the Maronite community and that it was fitting they should maintain relations, reminding him that France had also been the friend of Turkey. The Patriarch was careful not to excite Turkish suspicion, jealousy or anger, while maintaining relations with France.

Jamal Pasha initiated a blockade of the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. This resulted in food shortage, which was followed by swarms of locusts and a famine. By 1916, with famine and starvation, and deteriorating living conditions leading to epidemics of typhoid and bubonic plague, it was estimated that 100,000 to 150,000 Lebanese lost their lives.

With the Ottoman Empire collapsing, the Turks introduced worthless Turkish money into Lebanon which worsened the economic hardship.

Patriarch Elias Howayek spent his own money and that of the Patriarchal treasury, feeding and aiding the poor. The Patriarchal residence was thronged with crowds in need of provisions. The Patriarch also sent priests to distribute food and money throughout the regions of Lebanon.

Patriarch Howayek viewed the political manoeuvres in Lebanon with a cautious eye. He displayed delicacy, forethought, risk-taking, lobbying, convincing argument, for the sake of the freedom of the people.

The Patriarch maintained an alliance with Western countries and his efforts were consistent. In 1918, the British army entered Damascus and the Turkish and German forces fled from Lebanon. The Patriarch had achieved security for the people.

As Lebanon endures multiple crises today, all of which endanger citizens’ basic rights, Patriarch Elias Howayek’s words in his book, Love of the Nation, in 1930 are relevant more so than ever:

To whom it may concern

You rulers, you guardians, you judges of the earth, you representatives of the people who live at the expense of others who provide your expenses and salaries, and you honourable persons who enjoy special privileges and titles of honour, you are committed, in your official capacity, to the interest of the public, which is your mission.

Your time is not for you, your job is not for you, but for the nation and the country that you represent. You were elected to ensure the happiness of the nation, so you cannot sacrifice its interests without contravening its rights, and grossly violating what the duty of trust requires of you . . . The integrity of the nation is through serving the public interest, and independence is not based on the flattery of words and the scratching of pens.

Dr Margaret Ghosn mshf is the executive principal at St Maroun’s College, Marrickville, and Maronite College of the Holy Family, Harris Park.

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