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Maronite Church Nurtures Their Ties to Lebanon

Times Staff Writer

Two months ago, Asad Farah of Hacienda Heights got the terrible news that his older brother was among 19 killed, along with former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a massive explosion on a seaside street in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

The bombing, presumably targeting Hariri, triggered tumultuous demonstrations and other events in Lebanon. Fears have grown about a renewed civil war, and Syria has faced pressure to end its long military occupation of its neighbor.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 13, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Greek Orthodox Church -- An article in Saturday’s California section about a Maronite parish, Our Lady of Mount Lebanon-St. Peter Cathedral in West Los Angeles, said other churches in the Eastern Rite Catholic tradition include the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox Church is not an Eastern Rite Catholic church.

Because of safety fears, Farah, 54, didn’t attend the funeral for his brother, Abdo, who had been working at a hotel next to the site of the explosion. Instead, Farah held a memorial at his Maronite Catholic church, Our Lady of Mount Lebanon-St. Peter Cathedral in West Los Angeles, where he has been a member since he emigrated from Lebanon 32 years ago.

Nearly 300 parishioners showed up to pay their respects. “They were right there next to me,” said Farah of his church congregation, which includes many Lebanese immigrants and their families. “They were around me all the time.”

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Like many ethnic churches throughout California, Our Lady of Mount Lebanon is a focal point for spiritual nourishment but also a place to connect with others who share the pride and pain of their beloved homeland.

The recent news of Syria’s pledge to evacuate its forces as well as a series of bomb attacks on Christian areas in Lebanon have provoked mixed emotions and generated much prayer.

“As a Christian, I don’t feel any animosity toward Syria, I have to love my neighbor,” said longtime church member Claire Mansour, 52. “But of course, Lebanon has to have its freedom.”

Our Lady of Mount Lebanon began at a house in East Los Angeles more than 80 years ago. In 1966, the congregation bought its current building, formerly St. Peter’s Church, a Roman Catholic church on San Vicente Boulevard. It agreed to keep St. Peter in its formal name and to continue to offer the Latin rite Masses along with Maronite Masses in Arabic, Aramaic and English.

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The congregation has nearly 900 families -- a mix of young and old families, many first-generation immigrants who moved to the United States to escape the Syrian forces that have occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades.

“It is a second home for us,” Norma Challita, 36, of Sherman Oaks said of the church. “It’s bringing us together as a community, as a Maronite faith. It mainly keeps us going.”

She said the recent news of bombings in Christian areas in and around Beirut has her worried about her parents and other relatives there.

But the social and religious activities at Our Lady of Mount Lebanon help remind Challita of the positive influences of her native land and keep traditions going into future generations, she said. Active in the church for 19 years, Challita helps to organize its annual children’s festival and a summer Lebanese cultural fair. Two of Challita’s three American-born children are regular attendees at Sunday school, where they learn to speak Arabic, study religion and perform in a choir.

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“You can’t travel every year to Lebanon and show them the world,” she said. “This is like many Lebanons for them.”

The church regularly participates in charity efforts for Lebanese causes; recently children in Los Angeles raised money in piggy banks for needy children in Lebanon

The Maronite, part of the Eastern Catholic tradition, is in union with the Roman Catholic Church and answers to the pope. But Maronites also have their own system of governance headed by the Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Peter Sfeir in Lebanon.

The Maronite rite takes its name from the 4th century monk St. Maron, a hermit who lived in the mountains of northern Syria and attracted a devout following. Today, it is the largest of several Eastern Rite Catholic churches in Lebanon, including Melkite, Greek Orthodox and Chaldean, officials said.

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Christians make up almost 40% of Lebanon’s estimated population of 4 million. Muslims, including Sunni and Druze, are the majority.

Our Lady of Mount Lebanon is the largest of six Maronite churches and missions in Southern California. Two of those are branch missions that Father Abdallah Zaidan, the presiding priest of the West Los Angeles church, has opened in San Dimas and the San Fernando Valley to accommodate people who live far from West Los Angeles. Those two branches hold services in area Roman Catholic churches.

“People who feel strongly about Lebanon, they prefer to come to a Maronite church,” said the Lebanese-born Zaidan, who has been at the parish for nearly 11 years. “For many of them this is their only way, their only chance to meet others to really feel at home; so it’s important that we keep the family and community ties strong.”

A grand mural behind Our Lady of Mount Lebanon’s altar depicts green trees and blue skies that reflect the Holy Valley in Lebanon or, as it’s also called, the Valley of the Saints. From the 7th to 15th centuries, persecution drove the Maronite community into that mountain region.

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Southern California is a natural lure for Lebanese immigrants looking to settle in a place where the weather, mountains and ocean views remind them of home yet that also offers the American dream, Zaidan said.

According to 2003 figures, the U.S. Census estimates that more than 24,000 residents of Los Angeles County are of Lebanese ancestry.

After Sunday morning Masses, parishioners gather for doughnuts and coffee to discuss such things as the future of Lebanon and the latest updates on Syria’s military evacuation status. There might also be light-hearted conversation about the due date of an expectant mother and where to get a great brunch after services.

“You get two Lebanese together and you get 10 opinions,” said James Kaddo, 70, a presiding judge in Superior Court in Van Nuys. Kaddo has been attending services for 55 years.

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Many members are hopeful that peace in Lebanon is near.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Pasadena resident Janah Risha, 41. “We call it the ‘de-Syrianization’ process. Once the Syrians withdraw, then the true Lebanon will surface.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“I don’t want to be too optimistic,” said Gabrielle Sayegh, 35, of Granada Hills. “You never know what can happen.”

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Whatever the outcome, the parishioners remain prayerful and continue to rely on their faith and each other.

“I know God will answer our prayers,” Mansour said. “We Lebanese are deeply rooted in our faith. The faith is our politics; our faith is our everything.”


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