The passing away, last month, of Mar-Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, raises questions crucial to the country’s future.

In their long history, from the fifth to the twenty first century, and especially in the last ten centuries, since they became a minority in a Muslim-majority Levant, the Maronites have always seen in themselves more than one of the most historically prominent groups of Eastern Christians, and the largest within Eastern Catholics. In their view, Maronism embodied both: the representation in the East of the Christian values of grace and love, coupled with a forcefulness they acquired from inhabiting Lebanon’s sprawling mountains. They looked at themselves as vastly different from the the Sunni and Shii Muslims in the valleys below and even from the Druze: their mountainous neighbours – but also as a bridge between those Muslims and the Western world, to which the Maronites have always felt a strong affinity (anchored on religious and cultural links). That view of their role fuelled aspirations for prominence and eminence in the region. And they did achieve these aspirations, for in the period from the late seventeenth to early twentieth century, the Maronites were at the forefront of waves of cultural advancement in the region extending from Iraq to Egypt.

But alongside aspirations, there were fears. The Maronites’ view of themselves as distinct from all groups around them, including other Eastern Christians, made them, throughout the Levant’s long, turbulent history, represent ‘the other’. And in that region, being ‘the other’ has often brought, at best unwelcomed attention, at worst persecution. Living in dispersed, small mountainous villages helped them maintain their autonomy and defend themselves against the invaders who had dominated the valleys below. Still, fear seeped into the bones.

History confirmed the Maronites’ fears. The Ottomans repeatedly tried to subjugate them; the Egyptians (under Mohamed Ali and his son, Ibrahim Pasha) used them as pawns in their long campaign (in the 1830s) to inherit the Turks’ possessions in the region; and the English repeatedly sided with the Druze in their recurring struggles with the Maronites. Apart from the occasional support from France (their “compassionate mother” as some of them call it), the Maronites have learnt to be independent – and fierce.

The Maronites’ fortunes followed those of their region. They prospered when the region (from the Gulf to Iraq to Egypt, and of course, the Levant) was open to trade and cultural exchanges. They struggled when the region closed down, looked with apprehension and distrust at the world around it, and of course when others (especially in Europe) came to dominate or plunder. To a large extent, the Maronites alternated between embracing their role as a bridge and shrinking into their fears and detachment.

Fear is one’s worst enemy. And at a moment when clouds of war dominate the horizon, fear can take over a group’s mind, and we find that group manifesting its worst. This is exactly what happened to the Maronites during Lebanon’s civil war (from 1975 to 1990). The Maronite Church put it perfectly: “The Church saw its sons being killed, saw them killing, and saw them killing each other” (it sounds much more poetic in Arabic).

The demons that fear has reared for decades were unleashed. Many Maronites wreaked havoc, on their own communities, as much as on others. And when the fires were doused in the 1990s, primarily by Saudi money, the catharsis that was supposed to come after, did not take hold, because the Maronites found themselves after the war, with by far less power than when they entered it.

The Ta’ef Accord, signed in Saudi Arabia, which ended the Lebanese civil war, has diluted the power of the office of the president (always reserved for a Maronite) and enhanced those of the prime minister (always a Sunni Muslim). And that a charming Saudi-Lebanese billionaire, Rafik Hariri, came to become the prime minister throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s, exacerbated that dilution of Maronite power.

The peace was guaranteed by the Syrian army, which remained in Lebanon, orchestrating and often dictating the entire political scene.

And alongside Hariri and the Syrian army, there was Hezbollah. The social, political, and military Shii group that has grown during the civil war and in the wake of its decisive role in compelling Israel to withdraw from Lebanon (after a failed domination of its south for years), remained after the civil war, the sole armed non-state group in the country. Gradually, in the 1990s, it grew into a key pillar of an Iranian-Syrian axis.

The Maronites found themselves diminished relative to a larger than life Sunni prime minister backed by Saudi wealth, the Syrian army with its ruthless might, and a growing Shii ideological group with a cultural ethos at the extreme opposite of the Maronites’ lifestyle and view of the spirit of their country. The emotional pains that came with that diminished role, and with their collective memory of slaughtering each other, were painful manifestations of the Maronites’ deep fears.

Harriri’s assassination, in 2005, created a historic opportunity. The Syrian regime was a prime suspect; international actors were enraged; Saudi Arabia saw it as a direct attack on it. Quickly, a movement that comprised, primarily Maronites, Sunni Muslims, and Druze, came together with the sole objective of “liberating” Lebanon from Syrian dominance. Few months later, the Bashar Assad regime withdrew its forces from Lebanon after almost 30 years of being the most influential player in the country’s politics.

Mar Nasrallah Sfeir was there. He, subtly, put the weight of the Maronite Church behind that movement. But despite the success of compelling the Syrian regime to leave, the Maronites neither regained their old prime political positioning, nor even managed to come together as a coherent body. Instead, some of the most prominent Maronite figures saw the future in aligning themselves with the Assads and Hizbollah.

There were no good versus bad guys here. In the minds of some leading Maronite politicians, Syria and Hezbollah were the only parties with real power in the country. Plus, in their view, Lebanon’s (and the Maronites’) long-term security was in an alliance against Sunni political Islamism (especially as some of its groupings cross the line to militancy).

Diversion of views within the Maronites brought acute polarisations. The front that had driven the Assad regime out of Lebanon crumbled.

Today, the Maronites’ divisions extend to their views of the future. The main presidential contenders (after the 84-year old President Michel Aoun leaves the scene) represent diametrically opposite views on almost all key domestic and international policy issues. There is no one political group around which the Maronites coalesce. Not even an agenda of priorities on which they agree.

Yet, they face serious challenges.

Their neighbourhood is undergoing the most dramatic change in almost the century that’s the age of their own country. The US, and with it Israel, are facing off the Iranian, Syrian, Hezbollah front, with potentially devastating consequences to Lebanon. Militant Sunni Islamism remains alive, waiting to resurrect itself in the Eastern Mediterranean. And the Assad regime is reestablishing its authority over a demographically altered Syria, eyeing its traditional influence in Lebanon.

Demographics is another acute challenge facing the Maronites. The Lebanese system of dividing political posts between the key sects is based, not only on the Ta’ef Accord, but also on the supposed sectarian representation in the population. But there’s a reason that the last census conducted in Lebanon was in the 1930s. Any census today would show that the Maronites have become a minority, far after Sunni and Shii Muslims. This could raise justifiable questions about the basis upon which the Maronites retain their special positioning, including their hold over the presidency. It could also raise questions about the entire political underpinnings of Lebanon: what does Lebanon stand for? Are the foundations laid down in the 1920s, on the premise of a special place for the Maronites in the country and the region, still valid?

The Maronites will need to come up with serious answers.

Three are obvious.

The first answer is an affirmation – that, yes: Lebanon, despite the immense demographic change in the last hundred years since its creation, remains a unique country in the region, remains an example of the living together of different sects, according to the Maronites’ vision from a century ago. But that vision has been facing acute challenges in the last four decades, since the civil war erupted. And so, for this idea to be credible, Lebanon, and especially the Maronites, who had weaved its political fabric, would need to present new evidence to resuscitate this notion of peaceful existence under the same rules, especially as the hallmarks of recent history are nothing but memories of either tons of spilled blood or dysfunctionality.

The second answer is: no. Here, Lebanon would grow beyond its uniqueness; would evolve into a normal country, where political positions are not allocated based on someone’s faith, and where the country’s political system transcends sectarianism. This might sound the correct answer, but it is unlikely, because all of the country’s big political groups are inextricably enmeshed in the sectarian fabric, are familial fiefdoms where a father hands down power to son or to step-son, and because these groups have been reaping huge economic rents from the status quo.

The third answer is even more ambitious, but is more likely than the second - if the Maronite Church rises up to it. That is, to put forward a new vision for what Lebanon means. It is timely. Lebanon is approaching its centennial anniversary. And as the Maronite Church was the mother, in the 1910s and 1920s, who had conceived and carried the idea of Lebanon (as a unique country in that part of the world) and delivered it into reality, today, it can conceive a new vision.

This new vision must take into account the present’s very different demographic situation relative to that of decades ago, let alone a century earlier. It must envisage a new, inspiring role of the Maronites in their milieu, in the Levant and in the wider Arab and Islamic worlds. And it must find an understanding with Hezbollah (the sole armed non-state actor in the country) that neither hands Hezbollah sovereignty of Lebanon in return for protection from Sunni Islam (whether political or militant), nor comes across as trying to resuscitate the Maronites’ special role through a transitory expedient alliance.

Many compared Mar-Cardinal Sfeir to Mar Howayek (the head of the Maronite Church who led the creation of Lebanon a century ago). Personalities aside, the Church today can learn from the Church then – when it rose above the traditional rivalries between different leading Maronite houses and embraced its inescapable political role, when it put clearly the idea that the Maronites’ safety and sustenance in the region can come only through a workable partnership with the Muslims of the valleys beneath their mountains and in the vastness around Lebanon, and when the Maronites do not seek detachment and protection from that vastness, but rather invent for themselves a role in the betterment of that neighbourhood. In the 1920s, The Church embraced its historic responsibility, and the result was an independent Lebanon that prospered for over a half century. What happened, and continues to happen in the past four decades, is unsustainable, and its first casualty will be the place of Maronism in the Levant.

Today, as it was a century ago, the Eastern Mediterranean and the wider region around it, is undergoing immense changes. A new vision, a new meaning for Lebanon, are needed. And, of all of Lebanon’s political and religious players, only the Maronite Church has the historical gravitas to put forward such a vision of the future.