I took one of those strips home to Beirut, the painted eyes of the saints staring at me even as I write this article. It was done by ghoulish men, probably from Iraq, only months ago.
In the Middle Ages, the European Crusades attempted, brutally, repeatedly but ultimately unsuccessfully, to restore Christian hegemony over the region.
Since then, only Lebanon has maintained a Christian population approaching anything like a plurality, although Egypt maintains the single-largest Christian population in the Middle East.
(The Maronites, by the way, had supported the earlier Crusaders.
The Orthodox of the time stood with the Muslims.) Christian-Muslim enmity on this scale was a tale to frighten schoolchildren.
The Christian presence in the Middle East dates back, of course, to Jesus Christ during the Roman Empire.
That 2,000-year presence has gone uninterrupted since, especially in the countries of the Levant: Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Syria—and Egypt. The Eastern and Western Church don't quite see eye to eye--haven't for about 1,500 years.
On a recent Saturday, 50 of these refugees gathered for a funeral at the Assyrian Church of the East in Beirut, which sits on the steep slope of Mount Lebanon, not far from a BMW-Mini Cooper dealership and a Miss Virgin Jeans shop. Sargon Zoumaya, buttoned his black cassock over a blue clerical shirt as he prepared to officiate over the burial of Benjamin Ishaya, who arrived just months before, displaced from one of the villages ISIS attacked.
(He had died of complications following a head wound inflicted by a jihadist.) ‘‘We’re afraid our whole society will vanish,’’ said Zoumaya, who left his Khabur River village more than a decade ago to study in Lebanon.
Inside the church, men and women sat in two separate circles.
A young woman passed out Turkish coffee in paper cups.
Lebanon's Maronites split off from the Vatican centuries ago, then agreed to return to the fold, preserving to themselves rites, dogmas and customs of their choice (don't tell a Maronite priest he can't marry!