Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Monday, 6 August 2007 14:37 UK

Who are the Maronites?

Lebanon's Maronites make up the largest Christian community in the country - a community where religion and politics are inextricably mixed.

Amin Gemayel, left, and Michel Aoun
Maronite leaders Amin Gemayel, left, and Michel Aoun

Traditionally Maronites sit at the top table of power. According to the sectarian dispensation of the Lebanese constitution, they hold the presidency. But, it is a deeply divided community, with various political parties jockeying for power.

Christians - including Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Greek Catholic - make up less than 40% of Lebanon's population. It is estimated that Maronite Christians, who are affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church but retain their own traditions and practices, make up just over half of that figure.

Historically, Maronites have been rural people. They are thought to trace their roots back to the 4th Century. In the 7th Century, due to religious persecution, they withdrew from the coastal regions to the mountainous areas of Lebanon and Syria, where they lived in isolation.

Prestigious families

Today, they are scattered around Lebanon, with a heavy concentration in the Mount Lebanon region in the north.

The community's recent history has been associated with prestigious families - such as the Gemayel, Aoun and Chamoun families - which played major roles in the country's 1975-90 civil war.

The Maronite Church traces its origins to a 4th Century Syrian hermit, St Maron
Migration to Mount Lebanon is believed to have occurred in the late 7th Century
Their language Syriac - Christian Aramaic - survives today in their liturgy

Some of those families were bitter foes during that bloody time, with their own militias fighting all-out battles for leadership of the Christian community.

Maronites have tended to be strong advocates of Lebanese independence and freedom from Syrian influence. They have traditionally been pro-Western, looking particularly to France.

At the end of the civil war, which left Syria as an occupying force, a number of Christian leaders left for exile in France.

One, Michel Aoun, a former Maronite Lebanese army chief, led a campaign from his Paris home against Damascus. He returned in 2005 after Syria had withdrew from the country.

But, for what appears to be political ambition, he has allied his Free Patriotic Movement with pro-Syrian groups. It was a move that shocked many in the community.

The Phalange is a derivative of phalanx or battalion
Its early stance was pro-Western and opposed to Pan-Arabism
It once formed ties with Israel

The Gemayel family is inextricably linked to the right-wing Maronite Christian party, the Phalange, founded by Pierre Gemayel along Fascist lines in 1936.

The Phalange has a controversial legacy from the war, during which it was allied to Israel and struggled to maintain the Maronite Christians' domination of the Lebanese political scene.

The party, which once also fell under Syrian influence, is now led by Pierre Gemayel's son Amin.

His son, also called Pierre, was assassinated in 2006. Amin is a key player in the anti-Syrian majority coalition, which is supported by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia.

The head of the Maronite Church is the Patriarch of Antioch and all The East. The current leader is Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir.

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