The Maronites are the largest body of Christians in Lebanon. About three Christians in five are Maronites – or one Lebanese in four. The Maronites now speak Arabic but have been there since Roman times. They even use Aramaic, the language of Jesus, in part of their mass.
They have kept their loyalty to the pope down through the ages. That makes them Catholics. But while their beliefs are Catholic, their rite — their ways of worshipping – is Eastern, much like that of the Orthodox church. A Maronite priest, for example, can marry and their mass is in West Syrian.
They are called Maronites because their history begins with St Maron (350-410). He brought the ideas of St Antony of Egypt to Antioch and founded monasteries in and about the mountains Lebanon.
When the Arabs came in the 600s, defeating the Byzantine armies and spreading Islam, they went to live in the mountains. While everyone else was going over to Islam they remained faithful Christians through the ages — and that in spite of some terrible times at the hands of the Muslims, such as the Massacre of 1860 by the Druze.
Other Christians fleeing the Muslims also came to live with them in the mountains – the same mountains where the famous cedar trees of Lebanon grow.
Some say that the Maronites were once Monothelites, that they believed that Christ had a divine will but not a human will. The Maronites deny this as it is an idea that was condemned by the Catholic Church long ago. A sign that this might be true, however, comes from the fact that the Maronites fought against the Byzantine armies in 684 when they came to take back the area from the Arabs. The Byzantines would have forced them to give up any Monothelite beliefs while the Arabs did not care.
The French first encountered them during the Crusades when they fought together against the Muslims. Since 1648 the French have tried to protect them as much as they could. After the Massacre of 1860 they got the Ottomans Turks to agree to leave them alone and give them some amount of self rule (under threat of sending in their own army). In 1920, after the Ottoman Empire fell, the French created a new country for them: Lebanon.
Since the 1800s many have left the mountains. Some went to live in the cities along the coast, like Beirut and Tyre. There they took on Western ways much more quickly than their Muslim neighbours. Others went overseas to North and South America.
Today about half of all Maronites live outside of Lebanon, especially in Cyprus, Syria, Palestine and America.
Most of the Arabs who have come to America are not Muslims but Christians, many of them Maronites. Being white Christians they do not stick out much. Because Maronite churches are far and few between in America, many wind up becoming Roman Catholics (same beliefs, different churches and ways of doing things).