BEIRUT, Lebanon–Lebanon is a country of religious freedom with some restrictions, despite a relatively fresh heritage of a 15-year civil war fought along religious lines, which took some 100,000 lives.
The “generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom,” said the U.S. Department of State’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, released Sept. 15, 2004.
The Lebanese constitution “provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right to practice,” said the report.
The State Department said the “unwritten ‘National Pact’ of 1943 stipulates that the President, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of Parliament be a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim, and a Shi’a Muslim respectively. The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war, reaffirmed this arrangement.”
In a nation of 4 million people with 18 officially recognized religious groups, Lebanon observes different religious holidays as national holidays, including Good Friday, Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
The free exercise of religion is qualified by the stipulation that the “public order not be disturbed,” said the report.
While Lebanon’s religious diversity is widely recognized, little agreement exists about the nation’s religious composition.
The State Department estimated that Muslims make up 70 percent of the population, compared to Christians who comprise 23 percent of the citizenry.
However, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s world factbook calculated the number of Christians in Lebanon at 39 percent. The Muslim population was estimated at slightly under 60 percent.
The British government’s Commonwealth Office estimated that 38 percent of the population was Christian, compared to 62 percent Muslim.
According to the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, however, “fewer than 1 percent” of the citizens of Beirut “know Jesus.”
Within the Christian population, the largest group is the Maronites, who have both their own liturgical and ecclesiastical tradition and a long association with the Roman Catholic Church. The Greek Orthodox Church is second in membership. Other Christian groups include ethnically based Orthodox bodies, Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists, according to the State Department.
The Baptist World Alliance’s 2003 figures estimated that the Lebanese Baptist Convention had 2,000 baptized members.
“There are a number of foreign missionaries operating in the country, primarily from Catholic and evangelical Christian churches,” said the State Department.
Like the Christian population, the Muslim population reflected significant diversity. The largest two branches were the Shi’a and Sunni. Lebanon also has “a sizeable Druze presence,” according to the report. Smaller bodies included the Alawites and the Ismaili Shi’a order.
The State Department said, “There are no legal barriers to proselytizing; however, traditional attitudes and edicts of the clerical establishment strongly discourage such activities.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.