A Syrian soldier stopped a motorist at a roadblock in western Beirut during the bloody fighting last month and demanded to see his identity card.

The man, whose name was Khoury, produced it. Khoury, a common name, is Arabic for “priest,” so the soldier asked whether the driver was a member of the Maronite branch of Roman Catholicism. Maronites are Lebanon’s largest Christian community, with about 600,000 adherents of roughly 1 million Christians in the country.

When the man nodded yes, the soldier said, “Then you are a Phalangist.” Like most Arabs, the soldier identified all Maronites with the Phalange and National Liberal parties, whose private militias had been trading artillery barrages with the Syrian forces for a week.

This incident, described by eyewitness Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Alex Morris, Jr., highlights the role that religious confessions play in Lebanon’s deadly strife. This particular Khoury, it turned out, was no member of the Phalange. But nine times out of ten the soldier would have been right. The push to partition Lebanon comes basically from the Maronite Christians. Other major Christian communities, such as the Greek and Syrian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, have not been inclined to provoke a face-off with their Muslim neighbors.

Geography and history help explain the Maronite stance. What is today Lebanon was once part of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. Its people were of the Orthodox (Greek) Church.

Muslim armies swept through the area in the seventh century and brought it under Arab administration. The coastal and interior lowlands were gradually Islamized, but the Lebanon mountain range became a kind of Christian sanctuary. This was especially true for the Maronites.

Two centuries ...

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