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AmericanCatholic.org had the opportunity to go on an immersion tour of several countries in the Middle East, sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Jennifer Scroggins reports from Lebanon in early November. On Day 1, they visited Yaroun village.

Special Features
Day 1: Yaroun, Lebanon

View ACO in Lebanon in a larger map

Day 1: Yaroun, Lebanon

The future is uncertain for Christian Lebanese young people.(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
The old man clasps his hands as if he’s praying—no, pleading—for help as he speaks. “They need work … opportunity to work,” he says of the younger generation of Yaroun, a small village in southern Lebanon. “Most of our young people go away. Why? Because of the war—and also no opportunity for their future.”

What he is describing is a phenomenon all too common throughout Lebanon, which is seeing its youth leave its small towns—and often, the nation itself—to pursue education and employment in larger Lebanese cities or abroad.

In the south, a predominately Shiite Muslim region, the emigration problem is particularly acute as small Christian communities worry for their survival after some 2,000 years of existence. Once the young Lebanese leave home to make their way in the world, they rarely return to the villages in which they grew up.

In Yaroun, for instance, both the public and private schools have closed due to a lack of students. In the village of 1,500, only 170 are Christians. Among them, there are a mere 15 children in the village—only one girl.

Melkite Greek Catholic priest Marios Khairallah, Archeparch of Tyre, says in Yaroun there are no new marriages, no newborns. Many of the Christians he serves live in Beirut and return home to visit only on weekends or holidays. In many cases, he sees families being broken apart as children move on, leaving behind aging parents and grandparents.

Ironically, construction booms on the outskirts of many small southern towns, as large homes with gated entrances are beginning to overtake the otherwise sparse landscape. Those homes are the property of Shiites, most of whom have made their fortunes elsewhere, especially in the Gulf states, and now are returning to build estates, many for only temporary use, in their original villages.

In the land of the powerful Hezbollah party, the growing presence of Shiite wealth is more than just a symbol to the dwindling Christian communities. It underscores that behind the lack of jobs and educational options, the region’s war-torn history is the root issue.

Melkite Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouni(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
“People need security from fear of war,” says Melkite Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouni, from the seaside town of Tyre. “They want security for the long term.”

Lebanon was plagued by wars both internal and external for a decade and a half, beginning in 1975. As recently as 2006, the nation found itself caught in a war between Hezbollah and Israel.

In the south, where water is scarce, cultivation of products such as tobacco and olives long has sustained the population. To return to any kind of prosperity, however, the region needs more options for its people—and that means support and investment from the private sector. (Nearly universally, the Lebanese decry their government as corrupt and neglectful.)

But in an area where war could break out at seemingly any time, private investors are seemingly impossible to come by. Thus, so is economic development. In the village of Ain Ebel, only 200 meters from the Israeli border, even the vice-mayor splits his time between his hometown and Beirut. Nevertheless, he says that with some help, the southern Christians will not lose their hold on the land they love.

“We’re here because our roots are deep in this land. But that’s not enough,” says Tarek Matta. “To stay, we need support from others. “As long as there’s blood in our veins, there will always be crosses on these hills.”

Matta speaks with an obvious passion and expresses his determination to find a solution for his region’s many problems.

Rita Sidawi(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
In the meantime, though, young people such as Rita Sidawi, 20, will continue to move to Beirut for college—and beyond.

Sidawi says she feels “a special affection” for Ain Ebel. “Yes, of course, if we have work here, we stay here.” She describes the difficulties of being new to Beirut, where she feels like a stranger. It’s “like being born again,” she explains.

Bakhouni, the Melkite archbishop, insists that governments must take the initiative to make real peace. Only from there, he says, can the situation in Lebanon be reversed or improved. Says Bakhouni: “The one who is looking for peace will make sacrifices.”

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Anthony Grassi: Anthony’s father died when his son was only 10 years old, but the young lad inherited his father’s devotion to Our Lady of Loreto. As a schoolboy he frequented the local church of the Oratorian Fathers, joining the religious order when he was 17.
<p>Already a fine student, he soon gained a reputation in his religious community as a "walking dictionary" who quickly grasped Scripture and theology. For some time he was tormented by scruples, but they reportedly left him at the very hour he celebrated his first Mass. From that day, serenity penetrated his very being.
</p><p>In 1621, at age 29, Anthony was struck by lightning while praying in the church of the Holy House at Loreto. He was carried paralyzed from the church, expecting to die. When he recovered in a few days he realized that he had been cured of acute indigestion. His scorched clothes were donated to the Loreto church as an offering of thanks for his new gift of life.
</p><p>More important, Anthony now felt that his life belonged entirely to God. Each year thereafter he made a pilgrimage to Loreto to express his thanks.
</p><p>He also began hearing confessions, and came to be regarded as an outstanding confessor. Simple and direct, he listened carefully to penitents, said a few words and gave a penance and absolution, frequently drawing on his gift of reading consciences.
</p><p>In 1635 he was elected superior of the Fermo Oratory. He was so well regarded that he was reelected every three years until his death. He was a quiet person and a gentle superior who did not know how to be severe. At the same time he kept the Oratorian constitutions literally, encouraging the community to do likewise.
</p><p>He refused social or civic commitments and instead would go out day or night to visit the sick or dying or anyone else needing his services. As he grew older, he had a God-given awareness of the future, a gift which he frequently used to warn or to console.
</p><p>But age brought its challenges as well. He suffered the humility of having to give up his physical faculties one by one. First was his preaching, necessitated after he lost his teeth. Then he could no longer hear confessions. Finally, after a fall, he was confined to his room. The archbishop himself came each day to give him holy Communion. One of Anthony’s final acts was to reconcile two fiercely quarreling brothers.</p> American Catholic Blog God of love, as I come to the end of this Advent season, my heart is ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus. I join with Mary in saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Nothing is impossible with you, O God.


 
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