Postscript : Lebanese Site Claimed for Biblical Miracle : A professor disputes the traditional belief that Israel was where Jesus turned water into wine. Today, tourist dollars are at stake.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a region where land and religion are prime ingredients for war, the controversy raging in a small village in southern Lebanon was, at the very least, predictable.

Add to the mix one of Christ's miracles, and the recipe was sure to draw attention to the sleepy village of Qana. And all Qana's elders wanted was a place on the world's lucrative tourist maps of religious antiquities.

It started last year when Youssef Hourani challenged modern interpretations of Christ's miracle of turning water into wine.

Hourani did not dispute St. John's account of what happened that day. But he disputed where it took place.

Hourani, a Lebanese professor, presented what he said was a wealth of linguistic and physical evidence documenting that the wedding where the miracle occurred did not take place, as traditionally accepted, in the Galilee region of Israel that English-language Scriptures call Cana.

Rather, the professor said, it was performed in the hillside village of Qana, where archeologists have found 13 ancient, carved statues that Hourani and others claim represent Christ and his 12 disciples.

Hourani also presented the writings of theologians from the 3rd and 4th centuries that he contends support his theory.

Few took note, though, until the Pope got involved.

A prominent Lebanese political leader, Lebanon's parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, paid a call on Pope John Paul II last November and presented him with a file supporting Hourani's claim.

Berri, a Muslim, has invited the Pope to visit the site, which includes a cave where Qana's Christian minority have been worshiping for centuries and is said to have sheltered Jesus and his companions at the time of the wedding.

Developments began to get touchy after Berri's invitation.

Most of the townspeople of Qana are Shiite Muslims, and when a radical Islamic sheik aligned with the Shiite Hezbollah organization caught wind of it, he plunked down two foundation stones at the entrance to the cave and vowed to build a mosque there.

Another Shiite cleric said flatly: "We don't want the Pope in Lebanon," which has a large and powerful Christian minority.

As the controversy intensified, the most rational voices in Lebanon have been those of archeologists who have yet to visit the site.

Hourani was introduced to Qana in 1969, when he was invited to a dinner there.

After the meal, his host led a tour of the archeological sites in the area.

Since that day, Hourani, a professor of history and philosophy who specializes in Canaanite culture, has been building his case for Qana El-Jaleel (Qana of Galilee), the full name of the hillside village.

Hourani's first line of scholarly defense against the doubting Thomases is linguistic.

Village names in south Lebanon have stayed the same for thousands of years, Hourani points out. He is armed with ancient maps and texts that he says show the name of Qana El-Jaleel has indeed referred to this town since Pharaonic times.

Down-to-earth evidence also exists. Three stone water pots excavated in Qana in the 1960s were used by Jesus at the Wedding of Cana depicted in the Gospel, Hourani insists--although there is no proven connection between Christ and a particular artifact. Nor is this the first case of disputed locations in biblical history.

Indeed, the Middle East is replete with them.

As for Kafr Kanna, the village in the Galilee region of Israel, Hourani argues that it has no linguistic connection with the name of the Lebanese town, which he insists makes a proper Canaanite connection to the time of Christ.

He says other biblical authorities have their doubts about the village in Galilee as well, suggesting that it was a pious guess that was honored as the site of the miracle mainly because of its accessibility for early Christian pilgrims visiting nearby Nazareth.

In the case of the Lebanese Qana, today's pilgrims face a problem of inaccessibility.

The cave and carvings are located on a steep hillside. Winter rains have turned it into a treacherous descent. Visitors gladly accept the helping hands of Lebanese army regulars who are stationed at the site.

The weather-worn carvings are viewed by most visitors as little more than a curiosity.

The real object of veneration is the cave where Christ and his disciples are believed to have stayed while attending the wedding. The water that seeps from the cave roof is claimed to have healing properties and makes the spot as popular among Muslims as Christians.

Lebanese soldiers use the cave as a barracks. Their cots provide a resting place for the exhausted pilgrims. Army field phones share the ledges of the cave with remnants of pilgrims' candles.

The army's presence put a stop to graffiti but not the littering of the area with film boxes, soft drink cans and snack wrappers. Nor did it catch the hammer-toting vandal who recently scarred another carving that local Christians believe represents the biblical bride of Qana.

Berri, a longtime friend of Hourani, is the man of the hour in the town.

When trouble began brewing between the Hezbollah sheik who threatened to build a mosque at the site and the Shiite owner of the property, the owner gave the land to Berri. Berri has made it clear that the site will stand as is, a Christian shrine.

Regarding the conversion of water into wine, Qana's abstaining Muslims only say: "Why would a holy man turn perfectly good drinking water into wine?"

Back in Beirut, meanwhile, the campaign is underway to get Qana placed on the lucrative map of religious antiquities.

The minister of tourism decreed the village an official tourist and archeological site. Brochures and posters on Qana will be distributed through Lebanese embassies across the world.

Admittedly the tourist infrastructure of Qana--with its 10,000 inhabitants--has a way to go. None of the sites is marked. Parking for the carvings and caves is a construction site. The guides are hordes of little boys who sure-footedly leap ahead, leaving the pilgrim to fend for himself.

The best post-pilgrimage sustenance in town is available at Hassan's restaurant, a three-table affair serving grilled chicken. The sign outside reads, Vale Ni Kana Toa. That's Fijian for "house where you eat chicken" and testament to the cultural stew of southern Lebanon.

Since 1978, more than 5,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops from 10 countries have been stationed in the region. The battalion in the Qana area is Fijian, and many of its soldiers are Hassan's customers.

The hospitality at Hassan's is warm; the chicken is piping hot. Lebanese currency or dollars are both welcome.

But if you want wine with your meal, you'll have to perform the miracle yourself.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
50°