Phoenician Christians, The First Converts Outside the Jews
Phoenician Encyclopedia
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The Phoenicians were the first converts to Christianity after the Jews; and the bishops of major Phoenician (Lebanese) cities today still carry the honorary title, Metropolitan of Phoenicia Maritima
Introduction

The Phoenician Church is one of the most ancient or the original churches which came into being during the Apostolic Age. Early Church Fathers and scholars left written accounts of the valiant spirit which early Phoenician Christians maintained in their new faith. At the beginning of Christ's ministry, and later during the beginning of Apostolic evangelization, the new faith was reserved for the Jews. Nevertheless, Phoenicians of all walks of life accepted the new faith and the Church recognized them as valid Christians particular after the first council of Jerusalem.

At least during the first three or four centuries A.D., Phoenician Christians co-existed with Phoenician Pagans. Further, after the conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine the Great many more Phoenicians accepted the new faith along with the Romans. Phoenicians of the coastal areas, being exposed to the outer world and evangelization, readily accepted the faith more so than in the mountainous areas. The latter became a prime target for evangelization by a zealot group of persecuted Christians, the followers of St. Maron who came from northern Syria. These assimilated and were assimilated by the Phoenicians of the mountains and formed what is now known as the Maronite Church.

Phoenicians of the coastal regions were also exposed to foreign influences and became mixed with the Roman (or Byzantine) society and other cultures from which culturally different churches came into being. Further, during the first six centuries A.D. there were many splintering of the Church into various groups on doctrinal levels. Hence, a mosaic of churches was the product which preserved the cultures of many ancient peoples.

Please see in this site history of the early church entitled: Church in Phoenicia & Antioch

For example, the Assyrian Church and Chaldean Church (or see "Who are the Chaldeans") in Iraq, Georgia, Persia, and Turkey preserved the cultures of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians; the Coptic Church in Egypt preserved the culture of Pharaonic Egypt; the Syriac Orthodox Church, (whose Patriach Ignatius Khalaf 1455-1483 may have been my ancestor; see also Suryoyo) -- relative to Syriac language, dialect of Aramaic -- in Syria, Lebanon, Persia and Iraq preserved the culture of the Syrian Jacobites/Phoenicians; the Greco-Phoenician of the Byzantine Church (or see The History of Melkites in this site and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East and Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and All the East in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Israel/Palestine preserved the Greek Byzantine culture; and the Maronite Church in Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and Cyprus preserved the culture of the Phoenicians. Several of the aforesaid churches are or have sister easter Catholic rites churches which did separate from their original churches and came in communion with the Papacy (see Opus Libani) while the others remained in their Eastern Orthodox tradition. Further, all of these churches and their cultures have immigrant branches all over the world. For a detailed list of links about the various peoples and churches mentioned herewith, please refer to "Related resources and links about Phoenicia and the Forgotten Christians of the East" (Related Links About Phoenicia) on this website.

Branches of the original ethnic branches of the Apostolic Churches. Click to view a large version.

It must be noted, in this brief summary, that a predominent majority of the Phoenician Christian community which resided in cities of Phoenicia Maritima became Byzantinized or took on "western" Byzantine customes, dress, rites and liturgy. Meanwhile, Phoenician communities of the mountains, which were cut off from contact with the outside world, maintained a more authentic Phoenician Maronite and Syriac traditions, customes, rites, language and culture.

Byzantine Psaltica Chants

During ceremonial Holy Liturgy, chants honoring Lebanese Greek Orthodox bishops and archbishops continue to be recited to this day proclaiming them "Metropolitan Archbishops of Phoenicia Maritima."

Following are translations of the text of two of these Byzantine chants, as well as link to their MP3 audio files.

Archbishop of Beirut, specifically composed and written to the late Metropolitan Archbishop Eliya Saleebi:

"Father of fathers and shepherd of shepherds, Eliya, most virtuously righteous and most honorable, who is appointed by God as bishop of Beirut and its suburbs. He who is most revered in graciousness and who is most preeminent in leadership, Metropolitan of Phoenicia Maritima. Our father and archbishop, may his years be many." (performed with difficulty by the author* of this site) (MP3 file Beirut)

* I used to hear this chant when I went to Holy Liturgy at the Orthodox Monastery in my hometown when archbishop Eliya Saleebi was the celebrant. I am not absolutely sure of the right words but I believe I got the hymnology as close to the original as I can remember.

Archbishop of Tripoli, specifically composed and written to the Metropolitan Archbishop Elias:

"May God the Lord Almighty keep for many years, his beatitude and most revered graciousness, Metropolitan of Tripoli and all of Phoenicia Maritima, our father and our master, Kyrios Elias. God keep for many years." (performer unknown) (MP3 file, Tripoli)

Phoenicians First Converts to Christianity

Jesus Christ started his ministry among Jews and they were the first to accept his message. However, the Phoenicians where among the first gentiles to accept the Christian faith. Among the earliest record of this conversion appears in Matthew 15:21.

Mattew 15:21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly." 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." 25 The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. 26 He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." 27 "Yes it is, Lord," she said. "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." 28 Then Jesus said to her, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Originally, the disciples started their evangelism by proclaiming the gospel to Jews as this New Testament record indicates:

"Acts 11:19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only."

However, this initial drive was changes and the whole world became target for the gospel. The New Testament record details how the change came about:

And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. 22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia."

Saint Paul Visits Tyre

The Phoenician Christian community of Phoenician cities was a way station for the Apostles as they went on their journeys of evangelism by land and sea to the North.

Saint Paul when traveling from Rome to Jerusalem, after his third trip of evangelism, stopped at Rhodes. After that he took a boat to Tyre where he found a considerable Christian community: (Acts 21:1-7). The meeting of St. Paul with the Christian community of Tyre took place in the year 58 A.D. This goes to prove that Christianity had established its roots in this Phoenican metropolis at the beginnings of the Apostolic age.

The same can be said about other Phoenician cities like Sidon, Berytus (Beirut), Byblos, Botrys (Batroun) and Tripoli.

Saint Peter Appoints Bishops of Phoenicia

Among the earliest records which indicate that Bishops of Phoenicia where consecrated very early in the Christian era is the following by Pope St. Clement I (88-89 A.D.) disciple of St Peter. He wrote that after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, St. Peter appointed St. John Mark the Evangelist, one of the Seventy and disciple of St. Peter, Bishop of Byblos and also designated a Bishop for Berytus (Beirut). Also, St. Peter appointed the first bishop on the archbishopric of Botris, Saint Silas (Silouan). Saint Peter set these bishops during his journey, together with the apostles, from Jerusalem to Antioch.

Although the Christian communities in Phoenician cities, during the first 3 centuries of the Christian Era, paganism remained preponderant until Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.). During these 3 centuries, the Christian Church became radiant with many saints and martyrs. For example, Perpetua and Felicity (203 A.D.), Christina of Tyre (martyred in 300 A.D.), Theodosia of Tyre, Aquilina of Byblos (martyred in 293 A.D.), Barbara of Baalbeck Heliopolis (martyred in 237 A.D.)

Starting from the time of Constantine the Great, Christianity became predominant in Phoenician cities of coast, paganism did not completely disappear until the 5th century.

Paganism was deeply rooted in the mountainous region of Lebanon during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. This situation became the burden of the disciples of St. Maron, founder of the Maronite (Eastern Catholic Church) to convert these inhabitants.

From the 7th century onward another group entered the country, the Maronites, a Christian community adhering to the Monothelite doctrine. Forced by persecution to leave their homes in northern Syria, they settled in the northern part of the mountain and absorbed the Phoenician population to form the present Maronite Church. Originally Syriac-speaking, they gradually adopted the Arabic language although keeping Syriac for liturgical purposes.

Phoenician Christians Suffer During the Roman Persecutions

In the early days of the new faith, the Romans did not look at Christianity as a separate religion but considered it another Jewish sect. Therefore, persecution of Christians was equally applied to Jews and Christians when Jerusalem was occupied in 70 A.D. and for a long time thereafter. Further, Christians were singled out as enemies of Rome and a series of systematic persecutions was carried out against Christians until 313 A.D. when Emps. Constantine the Great and Licinius met at Milan and agreed to recognize the legal personality of the Christian Churches and to tolerate all religions equally. The agreement is sometimes referred to as the Edict of Milan though reference is to be found in divergent forms in Lactantius (De Mortibus Persecutorem, xlviii) and Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., x. 5).

Written accounts of these persecutions in Phoenicia survive in the writings of Eusibius. Here are some examples of these accounts:

The Bishops of the Church that evinced by their Blood the Genuineness of the Religion which they preached

"As for the rulers of the Church that suffered martyrdom in the principal cities, the first martyr of the kingdom of Christ whom we shall mention among the monuments of the pious is Anthimus, bishop of the city of Nicomedia, who was beheaded. Among the martyrs at Antioch was Lucian, a presbyter of that parish, whose entire life was most excellent. At Nicomedia, in the presence of the emperor, he proclaimed the heavenly kingdom of Christ, first in an oral defense, and afterwards by deeds as well. Of the martyrs in Phoenicia the most distinguished were those devoted pastors of the spiritual flocks of Christ: Tyrannion, bishop of the church of Tyre; Zenobius, a presbyter of the church at Sidon; and Silvanus, bishop of the churches about Emesa.

"Those of them that were conspicuous in Palestine we know, as also those that were at Tyre in Phoenicia. Who that saw them was not astonished at the numberless stripes, and at the firmness which these truly wonderful athletes of religion exhibited under them? and at their contest, immediately after the scourging, with bloodthirsty wild beasts, as they were cast before leopards and different kinds of bears and wild boars and bulls goaded with fire and red-hot iron? and at the marvelous endurance of these noble men in the face of all sorts of wild beasts?

"Again, in Caesarea, when the persecution had continued to the fifth year, on the second day of the month Xanthicus, which is the fourth before the Nones of April, on the very Lord's day of our Saviour's resurrection, Theodosia, a virgin from Tyre, a faithful and sedate maiden, not yet eighteen years of age, went up to certain prisoners who were confessing the kingdom of Christ and sitting before the judgment seat, and saluted them, and, as is probable, besought them to remember her when they came before the Lord. Thereupon, as if she had committed a profane and impious act, the soldiers seized her and led her to the governor. And he immediately, like a madman and a wild beast in his anger, tortured her with dreadful and most terrible torments in her sides and breasts, even to the very bones. And as she still breathed, and withal stood with a joyful and beaming countenance, he ordered her thrown into the waves of the sea. Then passing from her to the other confessors, he condemned all of them to the copper mines in Phaeno in Palestine.

"In the city of Tyre, a youth named Ulpianus, after dreadful tortures and most severe scourgings, was enclosed in a raw oxhide, with a dog and with one of those poisonous reptiles, an asp, and cast into the sea. Wherefore I think that we may properly mention him in connection with the martyrdom of Apphianus."

For additional materials on the status of persecution of Eastern Christians, please read accounts in this site "Shattered Christian Minorities in the Middle East", "Persecutions of the Syriacs", "Persecution of Maronites and other Eastern Christians" or in the Assyrian site: Genocides Against the Assyrian Nation.1

Phoenician Christians Celebrate the End of Persecution

The Peace following the Persecution

"BUT know now, my brethren, that all the churches throughout the East and beyond, which formerly were divided, have become united. And all the bishops everywhere are of one mind, and rejoice greatly in the peace which has come beyond expectation. Thus Demetrianus in Antioch, Theoctistus in Caesarea, Mazabanes in Aelia, Marinus in Tyre, Heliodorus in Laodicea , Helenus in Tarsus, and all the churches of Cilicia, Firmilianus, and all Cappadocia. I have named only the more illustrious bishops, that I may not make my epistle too long and my words too burdensome.

At the end of the 11th century Lebanon became a part of the crusaders' states, the north being incorporated in the county of Tripolis, the south in the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Maronite Church began to accept papal supremacy, while keeping its own patriarch and liturgy.

Constantine's Letter to the Council at Tyre

"VICTOR CONSTANTINUS, MAXIMUS AUGUSTUS, to the holy Council at Tyre. "Surely it would best consist with and best become the prosperity of these our times, that the Catholic Church should be undivided, and the servants of Christ be at this present moment clear from all reproach. Since, however, there are those who, carried away by a baleful and furious spirit of contention (for I will not charge them with intentionally leading a life unworthy of their profession), are endeavoring to create that general confusion which, in my judgment, is the most pernicious of all evils; I exhort you, forward as you already are, to meet together and form a synod without delay: to defend those who need protection; to administer remedies to your brethren who are in peril; to recall the divided members to unity of judgment; to rectify errors while opportunity is yet allowed: that thus you may restore to so many provinces that due measure of concord which, strange and sad anomaly! the arrogance of a few individuals has destroyed. And I believed that all are alike persuaded that this course is at the same time pleasing to Almighty God (as well as the highest object of my own desires), and will bring no small honor to yourselves, should you be successful in restoring peace. Delay not, then, but hasten with redoubled zeal to terminate the present dissensions in a manner becoming the occasion, by assembling together in that spirit of true sincerity and faith which the Saviour whom we serve especially demands from us, I may almost say with an audible voice, on all occasions. No proof of pious zeal on my part shall be wanting. Already have I done all to which my attention was directed by your letters. I have sent to those bishops whose presence you desired, that they may share your counsels. I have despatched Dionysius, a man of consular rank, who will both remind those prelates of their duty who are bound to attend the Council with you, and will himself be there to superintend the proceedings, but especially to maintain good order. Meantime should any one, though I deem it most improbable, venture on this occasion to violate my command, and refuse his attendance, a messenger shall be despatched forthwith to banish that person in virtue of an imperial edict, and to teach him that it does not become him to resist an emperor's decrees when issued in defense of truth. For the rest, it will be for your Holinesses, unbiased either by enmity or favor, but consistently with ecclesiastical and apostolic order, to devise a fitting remedy whether it be for positive offenses or for unpremeditated errors; in order that you may at once free the Church from all reproach, relieve my anxiety, and, by restoring the blessings of peace to those who are now divided, procure the highest honor for yourselves. God preserve you, beloved brethren!"

Empress Helena and Jesus' visit to Maghdoushe (quote from Al-Mashrique)

Our Lady of Maghdoushe
Cover of a booklet compiled by the Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Saba Dagher (of the Byzantine Melkite Greek Catholic Savior Order) on the Miraculous Shrine of our Lady of Maghdoushe, near Sidon. The booklet references & contains material from this page.
Did Christ Visit Maghdouche's al-Mantara Cave, now Chapel?

Helena-Empress-Mother of the Romans, leaned forward with quickening interest as her son's humble Sidonian subject, looking straight into her eyes, told his guileless tale of Jesus' visit to Sidon.

"And when Our Lord had finished teaching the multitude in

Sidon. He ascended the mountain to rejoin His Mother, who was waiting"

"Go on," said the Empress, gently.

"And after resting there for the night, the Holy Personages returned on the morrow to Galilee. Thus spoke our fathers and our fathers' fathers, admonishing us always to hold sacred that spot."

"Thank you, my son. You have come a long way to bring us this news which we sought. Await us without, and we shall give our answer to your elders."

The Phoenician peasant kissed his Empress' extended hand and withdrew in awe.

"It is preposterous, Your Majesty", cried the Keeper of the Privy Purse. "If you continue to listen to everyone who comes to you from the Holy Land and to endow every spot for which they advance any kind of fantastic claim, the treasury will soon be bankrupt. All students of the holy writings know that Our Lord's mission was in Galilee and Judea, not in Pheonicia."

"Patience, patience. It was I who sent for this man, on hearing from the superintendent in charge of building the nearby, signal fire tower that the simple Christian folk of Maghdoushe village so venerated this spot. Do you see any guile in this man? When the village elders heard why I had sent for him, they asked that I join them in convincing their Bishop that a little chapel should be consecrated at this holiest place in Phoenicia. That is why I have summoned our Lord Bishop of Tyre." She motioned to a chamberlain who conducted the Tyrian prelate to the council chamber.

Scriptural Proof

"What is your opinion of this matter, good Father" asked the Empress, after explaining the villagers' tradition to him.

"It is possible, Your Majesty, that the references which St. Mark makes (meaning III, 8 and VII, 24-31) could be interpreted to mean that Our Lord's mission in Upper Galilee also extended to the southern cities of Phoenicia, within our own see of Tyre and Sidon. Thus far, no miracle has ever been reported at this spot, and we have no records, other than verbal tradition, to indicate its holiness, only.. "

"Only what, good Father ?"

"Your Majesty, these are good and honest folk. They have no doubt been Christians since the time ol Our Lord, or certainly since St. Paul's ministry among them. They keep faith with God and with man. There is no reason why they should try to deceive us in this matter, and our Holy Mother the Church teaches us that sacred tradition can have the weight of scripture in certain cases. They ask for nothing but that I consecrate tne spot for holy worship, to keep faith with their fathers' pious tradition. They ask for no church, only for the blessing of the cave as a little chapel in honor of the visit of the Holy Family. Till now I have hesitated, doubting my capacity to so judge tradition, and for want of records or of a miraculous happening, but... "

"But if we endow a little chapel there, and provide it with a suitable ikon, what harm is done ? If miracles be needed, God will provide them in His good time ".

"Then Your Majesty will sponsor this undertaking ? "

"It is our wish. Let us summon the villager and give him our answer".

Empress Orders Shrine

When the Sidonian stood before her, the Empress spoke to him softly. "Our good Bishop has consented to consecrate the holy place, and we shall send you an ikon and some altar furnish- ings for the new chapel, in token of our esteem. What ao your people call the spot today ?"

"We call it the "Place of the Awaiting", Great Lady, for it was there that Our Blessed Mother awaited her Son ", answered the peasant.

" Good. Do you, Lord Bishop, consecrate it to " Our Lady of the Awaiting", and we shall provide for it a likeness of the blessed Mother, and other suitable objects, and the wherewithal to provide lamps and oil, and other necessities, that our own faith be not less than that of our good villagers of Maghdoushe".

And so it was.

At a date which could not be far from the year 326, the Empress Helena forwarded to the religious authorities of the province of Phoenicia Prima, an ikon of the Virgin and Child, which, like so many other holy pictures known to have been the gifts of Byzantine royalty, eventually came to be regarded as miraculous, and was said to have been painted by the hand of St. Luke himself. Funds were provided from the imperial purse for the upkeep of the chapel during the remaining three centuries of Byzantine rule in Phoenicia. The little shrine was known and visited by the Phoenician Christians, but being overshadowed by the proximity of the major Holy Places in Palestine, does not seem to have attracted foreign pilgrims or undue fame.

Heraclius' Farewell

In 636, Phcenicia's last Byzantine sovereign, Emperor Heraclius, recoverer of the True Cross from the Persians, was decisively beaten at the Battle of the Yarmuk by Arab Generalissimo Khalid ibn al-Walid.

"Farewell, O Syria, and what an excellent land thou art for the enemy !" exclaimed the Basilios, on being forced to abandon the eastern provinces of his empire to the Caliph. The latter, Omar, a pious and humble man, spared Christendom's holiest shrines, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and showed an inclination toward tolerance in dealing with his new Christian subjects.

Alas, it was not so with Phoenicia, Prima. Less tolerant administrators laid heavy hands on the Christian maritime cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Byblos, Tripoli, Latakia and even holy Antioch, where the very name "Christian" had first been used.

A hard decision now lay before the elders of Maghdoushe.

"It is not that we object to being the Arab caliph's subjects", they reasoned, "for our fathers had begun to speak Arabic and to adopt Arab customs long before ibn al-Walid's Moslem armies swept over our land. But our faith will be cha]lenged if we remain here in the foothills of Sidon. Already most of the Sidonians have become Moslems, to enjoy privileges and immunities. They will tempt our sons and daughters".

Advent of Islam and Christians of the East
By Dr. George Khoury, Catholic Information Network (CIN)
The Arab Prophet

During his lifetime, Muhammad reacted differently at different times to Jews and Christians depending on the reception they accorded him and also on his dealings with Christian states. At first, Muhammad favoured the Christians and condemned the Jews because they acted as his political opponents.This is reflected in Sura 5:85 : Thou wilt surely find the most hostile of men to the believers are the Jews and the idolaters; and thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say, "We are nasara"; that, because some of them are priests and monks, and they wax not proud. (Sura 5:85; see also Sura 2:62; 5:69; 12:17).

Later he turned against them and attacked their belief that Jesus was God's son (Sura 9:30), denounced the dogma of the Trinity (4:17), and pointed to the division of the Christians amongst themselves (5:14). Most often though, Muhammad adopted an intermediate position: the Christians are mentioned together with the Jews as "People of the Book," while their claim of possessing the true religion is refuted. (See Sura :114; 3:135, 140; 9:29). And they will be punished by God.

Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden--such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book until they pay the tribute out of hand...That is the utterance of their mouths, conforming with the unbelievers before God. God assail them! How they are perverted! They have taken their rabbis and their monks as lords apart from God, and the Messiah's, Mary's son, and they were commanded to serve but One God; there is no God but He (Suras 29-31).

During his lifetime Muhammad settled his relations with Christian political entities by treaties whereby they were allowed to keep their churches and priests, and also had to pay tribute and render some services to Muslims.

During the period of two hundred years following Muhammad's death, the attitude of Islam to Christianity remained generally similar to what it had been during the closing years of the prophet's life; Christianity was regarded as parallel to Islam, but corrupt. To this extent, Islam was superior. The outstanding consequence of this period, however, was the impressing on the masses of ordinary Muslims the view that Christianity was corrupt and unreliable.This, together with the death penalty for apostasy, kept the Muslims in lands ruled by the scimitar effectively insulated from Christian propaganda. Let us view this more closely, considering first the period immediately following the death of the prophet in 633 A.D.

The Covenant of Umar I (634-644)

The year after the death of the prophet in Arabia, the stage was set for a full-dress invasion of neighboring lands. In 634 the Arab forces won a decisive victory at Ajnadayn, and Damascus surrendered to Khalid ibn-al-Waleed in September 635. Jerusalem capitulated in 638 and Caesarea fell in 640, and between 639 and 646 all Mesopotamia and Egypt were subjugated. The last links connecting these Christian lands with Rome and Byzantium were severed; new ones with Mecca and Medina were forged. In about a decade the Muslim conquests changed the face of the Near East; in about a century they changed the face of the civilized world. Far from being peripheral, the victories of Islam proved to be a decisive factor in pruning life and growth of Eastern Christianity.

After the Arab invasions have stopped, there arose the problem of administering these new lands. Umar ibn-al-Khattab (634-644) was the first man to address himself to this problem. Despite the fact that later additions were made to it, it is agreed that the surviving covenant represents Umar's own policy. The conquered peoples were given a new status, that of dhimmis (or ahl-al-Dhimmi). As dhimmis they were subject to tribute which comprised both a land-tax (later kharaj) and a poll-tax (later jizyah) while they enjoyed the protection of Islam and were exempt from military duty, because only a Muslim could draw his sword in defense of Islam.

How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs

The Christian community, educated and civilized in the multicultural Byzantine east, was the catalyst that brought modern education and learning to the invading Arab tribes. By translating the works of the Greeks and other early thinkers and by their own contribution, the Christian community played a vital rule in transmitting knowledge. Later on, that flourished in the major Arab contribution to the fields of science and art. Some names of Eastern non-Arab Christians that should be remember for this often forgotten and unappreciated fact are:

Yusuf al-Khuri al-Qass, who translated Archemides lost work on triangles from a Syriac version. He also made an Arabic of Galen's De Simplicibus temperamentis et facultatibus. Qusta Ibn Luqa al-Ba'lbakki, a Syriac Christian, who translated Hypsicles, Theodosius' Sphaerica, Heron's Mechanics, Autolycus Theophrastus' Meteora, Galen's catalog of his books, John Philoponus on the Phsyics of Aristotle and several other works. He also revised the existing translation of Euclid. Abu Bishr Matta Ibn Yunus al-Qanna'i, who translated Aristotle's Poetica. Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn 'Adi al-Mantiqi, a monophysite, who translated medical and logical works, including the Prolegomena of Ammonius, an introduction to Porphyry's Isagoge. Al-Hunayn Ibn Ipahim Ibn al-Hasan Ibn Khurshid at-Tabari an-Natili, and the monophysite Abu 'Ali 'Isa Ibn Ishaq Ibn Zer'a. Yuhanna Ibn Batriq, an Assyrian, who produced the Sirr al-asrar. 'Abd al-Masih Ibn 'Aballah Wa'ima al-Himse, also an Assyrian, who translated the Theology of Aristotle (but this was an apidged paraphrase of the Enneads by Plotinus). Abu Yahya al-Batriq, another Assyrian, who translated Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. Jipa'il II, son of Bukhtyishu' II, of the prominent Assyrian medical family mentioned above, Abu Zakariah Yahya Ibn Masawaih, an Assyrian Nestorian. He authored a textbook on Ophthalmology, Daghal al-'ayn (The Disease of the eye). Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, an Assyrian. Sergius of Rashayn, "a celepated physician and philosopher, skilled in Greek and translator into Syriac of various works on medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and theology". Other Monopysite translators were Ya'qub of Surug, Aksenaya (Philoxenos), an alumnus of the school of Edessa, Mara, bishop of Amid.

For further details, see book review: How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs

The Ummayads

The Ummayad caliphs (661-750) lived as Arabs first and Muslim second. As a consequence, their era was liberal in both political and religious matters. However, during the rule of the Ummayad caliph Umar II (717-720) there arose the concern to summon conquered peoples to Islam and to create favorable conditions allowing an equitable or better participation of all Muslims in the social and political life of the community. Umar was shocked that non-Muslims should exercise authority over Muslims, and tried to prevent it. In Egypt he removed some of the Coptic officials from their positions and replaced them by Muslims, and it seems that he applied this policy throughout the whole empire. He wrote to the governor of Egypt: "I do not know a secretary or official in any part of your government who was not a Muslim but I dismissed him and appointed in his stead a Muslim." This policy of Umar II was translated during the later Abbasid era into a major program due to the discontent of many Muslims with the excesses and corruption of the liberal Ummayad caliphs and the frustration that non-Arabian Muslims, especially Persian Muslims, felt on being treated as second-class citizens. Also due to external political circumstances and to the unruly and socially disruptive conduct of some Christian groups, Umar II reacted with some vehemence against the Christians. He abrogated the jizyah for any Christian who converted, and imposed other demeaning restrictions:

Christians may not be witnesses against Muslims. They may not hold public office. They may not pray aloud or sound their clappers. They may not wear the qaba', nor ride on a saddle. A Muslim who would kill a Christian would be liable to a fine, not death. He abolished the financial arrangements whereby churches, convents and the charities were maintained. Despite these exceptions, Ummayd rule was characterized on the whole by political as well as religious and intellectual liberalism. That is why Ummayad caliphs, with the exception of Umar II, did not press for or even favor, conversion to the Islamic faith.

The Abbasid Era (750-1258)

With the Umayyad's fall in 750 the hegemony of Syria in the world of Islam ended and the glory of the country passed away. The coming to power of the Abbasid dynasty marked a radical change in the balance of power within the caliphate. In a vast and complex body such as the caliphate had now become, there was an intricate network of party interests, sometimes conflicting and sometimes coinciding. The recovery of the equilibrium was thus no simple matter; and for the whole of this century, (i.e., the 8th century) the caliphs had as a prominent aim the framing of a policy which would rally the majority of the inhabitants behind it. In an Islamic environment, it was inevitable that such a political struggle should have religious implications. First, and vis-a-vis other Muslim groups, the Abbasid caliphate touched a number of risings of Kharajites who refused to submit to the new rule. There were also other opponents who questioned the legitimacy of the Abbasids' claim to the caliphate. As for the Christians as well as for the rest of ahl-al-Dhimmi, the Abbasid era would prove to be less tolerant of non-Muslims and would either re-enact old anti- Christian legislation or create new restrictions.

The Abbasids chose Baghdad for headquarters, though for a short period of time al-Mutawakkil (847-861) transferred his his seat back from Iraq to Damascus (885). As the Melkites were few in numbers in Mesopotamia it was the Nestorians and the Jacobites who under Abbasid rule shared more strongly in the literary life of the country and brought greater contributions.The beginning of the Abbasid caliphate until the reign of al-Mutawakkil (847-861) marked the zenith of the Nestorian Church from mid 8th century to mid 9th century. This prodigious success was made possible by the great number of zealous and educated monks, formed by the many schools existing at the time. In Baghdad itself, there were apparently many important monasteries, groups of professors, and students. There were, for example, the school of Deir Kalilisu and Deir Mar Fatyun and the school of Karh.

In the last two schools medicine and philosophy were taught along with the sacred disciplines. Christian physicians and especially scribes exerted some kind of tutelage within the Nestorian Church, and tried their best to obtain for their community a more benevolent legislation from Muslim rulers. Though the Abbasids showed tolerance towards the other religious, non-Muslim groups, still their tolerance was displayed mostly vis-a-vis some of their coreligionists who lived on the margins of traditional Islam.

The Christians, especially the Melkites who lived in the eastern provinces of the empire, had much to endure. Before, al-Mutawakkil Abu Gafar al-Mansur (754-775) imposed many vexing measures upon the Christians. In 756, he forbade Christians to build new churches, to display the cross in public, or to speak about religions with Muslims. In 757, he imposed taxes on monks, even on those who lived as hermits, and he used Jews to strip sacristies for the treasury. In 759, he removed all Christians from positions in the treasury. In 766 he had the crosses on top of the churches brought down, forbade every nocturnal liturgical celebration and forbade the study of any language other than Arabic. In 722, he required both Jews and Christians to exhibit an external sign to distinguish them from other believers. Abu Gafar al-Mansur also put in prison, for different reasons, the Melkite Patriarch Theodoret, the Patriarch Georges, and the Nestorian Catholicos James. Al-Mahdi (775-785) intensified the persecution and had all the churches built since the Arab conquest destroyed. The Christian tribes of Banu Tanuh, which counted 5000 fighters, were forced to embrace Islam. Angered by the defeats he incurred at the hands of the Byzantines, al-Mahdi sent troops to Homs in Syria, to have all the Christians abjure their faith. However, many of these laws were not enforced. For example, when Umar II tried to dismiss all dhimmis from government services, such confusion resulted that the order was ignored.

The Barmakid viziers, of Turkish origin, who were the strong arm of the Abbasid caliphs, seem to have manifested a certain measure of benevolence towards ahl-al-Dhimmi (the tributaries) and especially towards the Christians. It is only at the end of the rule of Harun al-Rahid (786-809), i.e., after the disgrace of the Barmakids, that some measures were taken against the Christians. Harun al-Rashid re-enacted some of the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish measures introduced by Umar II (717-720). In 807, he ordered all churches erected since the Muslim conquest demolished. He also decreed that members of tolerated sects should wear a prescribed garb. But evidently much of this legislation was not enforced. Under his son al-Ma'mun (813-833) there was in 814 a general persecution in Syria and in Palestine. Many Christians and church dignitaries escaped into Cyrpus and into Byzantine territories. Conditions under al-Watheq (842-847) did not improve and were sad indeed for the Christians. Under al-Mutawwakil (847-861) there was intensification of discontent on the part of Christians due to harsh conditions imposed on them. In 850 and 854 al-Mutawwakil revived the discriminatroy legislation and supplemented it by new features, which were the most stringent ever issued against the minorities. Christians and Jews were enjoined to affix wooden images of devils to their houses, level their graves even with the ground, wear outer garments of yellow color, and ride only on mules and asses with wooden saddles marked by two pomegranates-like balls on the cantle. Basing their contention on a Qur'anic charge that the Jews and the Christians had corrupted the text of their scriptures (Surs. 2:70; 5:16-18), the contemporary jurists ruled that no testimony of a Jew or Christian was admissible against a Muslim.

Legally speaking, the law put the male dhimmi below the male Muslim in nearly every way. It protected his life and property but did not accept his evidence. Eight acts put the dhimmi outside the law: conspiring to fight the Muslims, copulation with a Muslim woman, an attempt to marry one, an attempt to turn Muslim from his religion, robbery of a Muslim on the highway, acting as a spy or a guide to unbelievers, or the killing of a Muslim. However, despite these stringent laws, the social status of Christians was not that bleak. The consequences of this anti-Christian legislation were mitigated to a certain degree by the number and influence of some Christians in prestigious and vital professions, such as in medicine and high positions of government; e.g., Abu l-Hasan Sa'id ibn Amr-ibn-Sangala, who occupied the position of secretary under the Caliph al-Radi (934-40), and who was as well appointed as special secretary for the two sons of the Caliph in 935, and also Minister of Expenditure, and who rendered inestimable services to the Christians. Because Islam prohibits the practice of usury to Muslims, Christians exercised a certain monopoly on the trades of goldsmith, jeweller, and money-lender. Consequently, many Christians were rich and this stirred further feelings of jealousy against them. On the whole, relations between Muslims and Christians were peaceful and unfair laws were not always enforced.

However, the Christians could not help but feel and endure the stigma of inferiority. Even the literature of Islamo-Christian controversy should not mislead us on their true condition in the land of Islam. The tolerance they enjoyed was not the result of a state policy consistently upheld by all the caliphs. On the part of the caliphs, it was mostly motivated by their concern to protect and advance the sciences and the arts. The Islamization of Syria and Iraq and other lands no doubt facilitated Arabization. After the Arab military victory, there was the conquest and victory of Islam as a religion when many Christians in Syria and other lands converted to Islam to escape their oppressive and humiliating conditions. Finally there was the linguistic victory as Arabic supplanted Greek and Syriac.

Phoenician Christian dispersion and refuge in Mount Lebanon and Cyprus
Exodus to Zahle

The younger men argued that the hills and valleys of Sidon were

rich and fruitful. To withdraw into the inhospitable fastnesses of Mount Lebanon, to abandon their sacred shrine, where the Holy Family had honored their village alone of all Phoenicia would be cowardice. The chapel itself would be their talisman and safeguard.

"Nay. These are evil days. There will come fanatics who will seek out our holiest shrines to destroy them. The good Omar spared Jerusalem, but those who followed him grow more bold and arrogant daily, and only God knows what may some day happen to the Holy Sepulchre itself. It is best that we conceal the place of Our Lady in Maghdoushe and go to the land of Christians, in the interior, keeping the secret and our faith in our hearts until we return here in better days".

According to the patriarchal custom of the Arabs and of Mount Lebanon, the will of the elders prevailed. Carefully they concealed the entrance to the ancient grotto with stones, earth and vines. Little by little they sent their herds and most prescious possessions back through obscure mountain paths to the strongholds of Christian Lebanon. When the decided-upon day arrived, the entire populace fled en-masse to the towns of Zahle and Zouk, from whose secure heights strong Christian bands were successfully maintaining themselves. Eventually the caliphal governors, wearying, of incessant and fruitless punitive expeditions. advised the imperial court in Damascus that the best way to control these stubborn "People of the Book" would be to recognize them as autonomous communities, paying a fixed tax, under their own religious leaders. It was thus that the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and of all the Orient became a virtual Prince-Bishop of Mount Lebanon. The Greek Catholic followers of the Byzantine rite, to which the Maghdoushe villagers adhered, were placed beneath the rule of their owm metropolitans and of the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch. As long as they stayed in their new mountain retreats they were unmolested, but return to Maghdoushe they dared not.

The legend of Sayidet al-Mantara; as Our Lady of the Awaiting is called in Arabic continued to be passed down among the exiled Maghdoushians for the next thousand years. It grew dim, but it persisted.

The community could have returned in Crusader times, some half-thousand years later, save for a new factor. The Crusaders, it so happened, were all of the Latin rite, and although the Maronites and many of the Greek Catholics were also in communion with Rome, they clung to their Oriental usage and to their Syriac and Greek liturgies, refusing to subordinate themselves to the Latin customs of the Franks, which the latter tried to impose throughout their dominions. For their part, the Crusaders of Sidon, or La Sagette, as they called it, spent most of the 12th and 13th Centuries in the shadow of al-Mantara without ever suspecting the grotto chapel's existence. In fact, they built a small castle, called La Franche Garde, on top of the ruins of Empress Helena's tower, within a stone's throw of the hidden entrance to the cave, without ever finding it.

Return Under Fakhreddin

Rediscovery of al-Mantara had to await the reign of Lebanon's greatest ruler of all times, the Druze prince, Fakhreddin II "the Great" (1572-1635), in the early 17th Century. The diminutive mountaineer, paramount prince of the followers of a secret Oriental religion which believes in strict unitarianism and in the transmigration of souls, was perhaps the most tolerant and enlightened Arab ruler of his day and age. With a Christian (Maronite) Prime Minister, a Moslem Minister of the Interior, a Druze army commander and a Jewish Finance Minister, it was

not surprising that his non-sectarian state, where all religions flourished under the princely patronage, soon became the most contented and prosperous principality in the Ottoman empire.

Openly making treaties with Tuscany, other Italian states, Spain and France, opening his ports to foreign trade, welcoming Jesuit missionaries to open educational missions in Mount Lebanon, Fakhreddin the Great created, for the first time in a thousand years, the conditions of freedom and security which alone could induce Maghdoushe's sons to return to their ancestral home.

Again the elders announced their decision. Again the young men drove the flocks and herds over mountain trails back to the pleasant rolling hilltops above Sidon.

But they could not locate Sayidet al-Mantara, now only a dim, half-forgotten tradition, even though for years they worked almost daily within a few yards of the hidden grotto, as they pulled down La Franche Garde, stone by stone, for building material for their new homes.

Rediscovered by Lad

One day, as a village lad was tending his goats in a bramble thicket near the ruined castle, one of the kids fell down a chimney-like opening in the porous limestone rocks typical of Mount Lebanon. He could hear the little goat bleating, still alive, in some recess, far below. Good goatherd that he was, the boy made a rope of vines, tied it to a small tree, and descended, somewhat fearfully, into the black depths. Just before he reached the spot where the goat was, his rope broker and he tumbled onto a flat rock floor, but the little goat scrambled happily into his arms. When his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the lad ,was startled to see before him what appeared to be a rock-cut altar, from whose niche came the faint glow of a golden object Approaching it, the boy saw that it was a holy ikon. Without touching it, he piled some nearby stones on the floor beneath the hole through which he had fallen, and worked his way back up the fissure, the little kid securely tied into his clothing. Running to the village, he told the people of his discovery.

The next day a man was let down into the cave with a torch. He found tha walled-up entranceway and led a party to open it. The elders solemnly assured the younger generation that this was indeed the holy spot of their ancestors, whose memory had been one of the community's strong,est bonds of solidarity while they were in exile.

"The ikon is ours, given to us by Saint Helena. Let us enshrine it in our new church", they said, sending a courier to the Bishop of Sidon to advise the prelate of the momentous discovery. The holy picture was carried with reverence to the towering new church of Crusader masonry in the center of the town and placed on the sanctuary screen.

But when the Bishop arrived, a day later, the ikon was missing from the church. Nevertheless, His Excellency went to see the holy cave. There, on the rock-cut altar, was the ikon !

"Strange," said the Bishop, "but take it back to the church."

That night they put a guard around the church, but in the morning the ikon was back in the cave.

The Reluctant Ikon

"Enough", observed His Excellency, "it is clear that Our Lady does not wish the holy ikon to leave the grotto. According to tradition, the cave has already been dedicated as a place of worship, and this is substantiated by the altar-stone. Therefore, we hereby rededicate it as the Church of Sayidet al-Mantara and we order that the ikon remain perpetually on its altar."

And thus it remains today. A few pointed masonry arches were later built as a simple porch for the church, whose main room is the chapel, with the contiguous grotto chambers used for storage. The adjacent hilltop has now been converted into Sidon's Greek Catholic cemetery, where Catholic Sidonians, and others of their rite throughout Lebanon, may be buried near the spot where they believe that Jesus and Mary once stood, looking down upon Phoenicia's Queen of Clities, in the early days of the Roman empire.

The ikon itself, which has never left the sanctuary since the 17th Century, is faded and worn, with metallic haloes of gold and with silver hands affixed to the wood over their painted sors. A leg of the Child, also of silver, has been misplaced too far to the left, and the entire picture is now encased in glass and almost impossible to photograph satisfactorily. Under the circumstances, the painting has never been studied thoroughly by competent experts, but those who have examined it superficially agree that it seems to be of the early Byzantine type, if not older. The metallic additions are modern, not antedating the 17th Century.

Crusader Ruins Buried

On the point of the hill, where the shell of a World War II guard post obscures the site of the castle's ruins, visitors now go to get a sweeping panorama view of Sidon. During the late Ottoman period, workmen discovered the door to an underground vault of the castle, but the village priest, on instructions from his bishop, ordered it sealed and reburied for fear that a Turkish expedition might come looking for treasure, with dire results for both Sayidet al-Mantara and the villagers of Maghdoushe.

Renan, in 1860, found one course of masonry still above the ground, but today ever, that has disappeared. There are traces, however, of the rock-cut stairway, 100 yards long and three to four in with that ran up the hill from the west to an esplanade in front of (south of) the castle, although the modern highway now cuts through a large section of this grand staircase.

To reach al-Mantara one may take a "service" taxi near the south end of Sidon's main street (for 50 piasters, to Maghdoushe) asking to be let out at Sayidet al-Mantara, or, if driving, follow the coast highway about 4 kilometers south (across the river Saitaniq), turning left, (inland) on the branch paved road for an additional three kilometers or so.

Source:

  1. Lebanon, Bruce Condè, second edition, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960

For additional reading on the status of persecution of Eastern Christians after the Arab invasion and the subsequent occupations by Muslim forces, please read a detailed account on this Assyrian site. Further, the massacres of Eastern Christians in the late 1800s is well documented in the "Massacres" page on this site.

Eusebius of Caesarea

Eusebius, c.260-c.340, was the first historian of the Christian church. The outbreak of persecution during the reign of Diocletian forced Eusebius to take refuge in Egypt, but he was captured and imprisoned. Around 315 he was elected bishop of Caesarea, in Palestine, and became embroiled in the controversy over Arianism, in which he took the side of Arius. At the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), he sought to reconcile the opposing parties. Although he did not incline to the homoousios doctrine of Athanasius, which established the full divinity and equality of Christ with the Father, he eventually signed the formula approved at Nicaea, largely in deference to Emperor Constantine, who had convened the council.

Eusebius was a writer of immense productivity and learning. His Chronicle (c.303) and Ecclesiastical History (c.324) are principle sources of early Christian history. The History is both a political theology and a theology of history, the first major attempt to explain the association of Christianity with the Roman Empire and to take a historical approach in describing the development of the church.

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius, d. c.342, was the bishop of Nicomedia and a leader of Arianism, a Christian heresy denying the divinity of Jesus Christ. Little is known of his early history, although it is likely that Eusebius and Arius were fellow disciples of Lucian of Antioch. At first the bishop of Berytus, Eusebius moved to Nicomedia, the seat of the imperial court. He signed the formula approved at the Council of Nicaea (325; see Nicaea, COUNCILS OF) declaring the full divinity and equality of Christ with the Father. After the council, however, Eusebius advocated the views of Arias with renewed zeal. Though Emperor Constantine I banished him, he was restored through the favor of the empress, and he used his increasing political and ecclesiastical ascendancy to procure the banishment of Athanasius, one of the leaders at Nicaea, in 335. In 337 he baptized Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and in 339 he was appointed bishop of Constantinople.

Panegyric on the Splendor of Affairs

A Certain one of those of moderate talent, who had composed a discourse, stepped forward in the presence of many pastors who were assembled as if for a church gathering, and while they attended quietly and decently, he addressed himself as follows to one who was in all things a most excellent bishop and beloved of God, through whose zeal the temple in Tyre, which was the most splendid in Phoenicia, had been erected.

Panegyric upon the building of the churches, addressed to Paulinus, Bishop of Tyre

Tyre was subsequently under the influence of Ptolemaic Egypt and in 200 became part of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom; it finally came under Roman rule in 68 BC. It was often mentioned in the New Testament and was famous in Roman times for its silk products and for a purple dye extracted from snails of the genus Murex. By the 2nd century AD it had a sizable Christian community, and the Christian scholar Origen was buried in its cathedral (c. 254). Under Muslim rule from 638 to 1124, Tyre grew prosperous as part of the kingdom of Jerusalem, a crusader state in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Holy Roman emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, who died on the Third Crusade, was buried in its cathedral (1190). Captured and destroyed by the Muslim Mamluks in 1291, the town never recovered its former importance.

In biblical times it was in Qana (Cana) near Tyre that Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast. (More to come regarding newly found archeological evidence).
Cathedral of Paulinus discoverd in Tyre. (More to come regarding newly found archeological evidence).

What remains to be said, in the coastal towns of Phoenicia the population became mainly Sunnite Muslim, but in town and country alike there remained considerable numbers of Christians of various sects. In course of time, virtually all sections of the population adopted Arabic, the language of the Muslim states in which ancient Phoenician (now Lebanon) was included.

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