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Mar Maroun monastery restoration undeterred

Hermel’s Mar Maroun monastery is carved out of rock near the source of the Orontes (Assi) River.

HERMEL, Lebanon: A long-running dispute over control of Hermel’s historic Mar Maroun monastery has not stopped the Maronite church from beginning a project to renovate the cliffside church.

The monastery, carved out of rock near the source of the Orontes (Assi) River, has been in decline for many years, as natural forces and shepherds seeking shelter from winter storms have taken their toll.

But Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s visit to the Baalbek-Hermel region last summer, and his stop at the monastery, helped to jump-start restoration.

But this has not been without controversy. The Baalbek-Hermel Maronite Archdiocese, former MP Ghassan Ashkar and members of the local Dandash family have been locked in dispute over control of the monastery and the land it sits on for decades.

According to some historians, Roman engineers were the first to inhabit the site, staying in an opening they carved into rocks while they worked to irrigate the surrounding areas. The Orontes River emerges just 50 meters from the original cavern.

In the 4th century A.D., a Syriac monk is said to have inhabited the opening, and it became known as “the monk’s cave.” Later, this monk was joined by others who were early students of Mar Maroun, the priest whose teachings founded the Maronite sect.

After the monks left the cave, the area fell under control of the Mamluks and the Ottomans. Later it was left abandoned and vulnerable to decay.

According to Mohammad Dandash, whose family lays claim to some of the land where the monastery sits, ownership disputes first began in 1934. It was then that his grandmother sued the Maronite Patriarchate because it had taken over the monastery’s land after the family was forced to leave the area for Syria in 1923 by the ruling French Mandate.

Dandash’s grandmother won her legal bid in 1957, and later a member of the Ashkar family bought a majority of the land from the Dandash family. That land now belongs former MP Ghassan Ashkar.

Ashkar says that there is “a conspiracy between the state, a [Maronite] bishop, and a governmental official” regarding the land. He says that resolving the dispute is now the responsibility of Rai, President Michel Sleiman, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Some 10 years ago, the property where the Mar Maroun monastery sits was acquired by the Energy and Water Ministry’s Directorate of Water Resources, as part of a bid to build a dam on the Orontes River. Work on the dam was stopped by the 2006 war and has not been restarted.

The Archdiocese objected to the ministry’s move, and the issue was eventually resolved when the government signed a contract with the Archdiocese, retaining ownership of the land but allowing it to renovate the church and open its caverns once again.

According to Bishop Semaan Atallah, the parish priest of Baalbek-Hermel, the monastery was once owned by monks, but historical circumstances caused the property to change hands, and the Archdiocese only wishes that it remain a sign of life in the heart of the East.

“We seek to renovate the monastery out of our spiritual, pastoral and national responsibilities, and to state that the Christian presence in Lebanon and the region is fine,” Atallah said.

“[The renovation] is a return to the roots and identity of the Christian church, and a way to achieve ... coexistence in Lebanon, especially as the monastery once received both Christians and non-Christians, and embraced dialogue between religions,” he continued. “It is more a national than a historical site.”

So far, the inside of the Mar Maroun monastery has been cleaned, but renovation work has not yet begun.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2012, on page 3.

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