Lebanese Christians: from majority to minority
BEIRUT - Lebanon, which Pope Benedict XVI will visit this week, is home to 14 Christian denominations among 18 officially recognised faith communities.
But figures on religious affiliation in Lebanon are only approximate, because a national census has not been conducted since 1932, when Lebanon was still under French mandate and 51 percent of the population was Christian.
And there is little prospect of conducting a new one because of the sensitive political issue of maintaining parity among confessional groups.
An unwritten, but rigorously followed tradition mandates that the president always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite.
After the Copts of Egypt, Lebanon's Christian community is indisputably the second-largest in the Middle East.
Christians now represent nearly 35 percent of the country's registered population of some 4.6 million people, according to researcher Youssef Shahid Doueihi, of Lebanon's Maronite Foundation in the World.
They consist of six jurisdictions that submit to the authority of the pope, with the Maronite church being the largest Christian group in the country.
There are also four eastern Orthodox communities, three Protestant sects and the Egyptian Coptic church, the latest to have been officially recognised.
The Maronite Church traces its origins to the fourth century Syrian monk Saint Maron, who sought refuge in north Lebanon's Qadisha Valley after fleeing persecution.
It united with Rome in 1736, but maintains its own traditions and practices, including a liturgy in the ancient Syriac language.
Many of today's Christians are descendants of those who converted to Latin, Protestant and Anglican rites during the Ottoman Empire's various alliances with European powers in the 19th century.
The Armenians, who fled genocide in Turkey during World War I, are divided into mainly Apostolic (Orthodox), as well as Catholic and Protestant churches.
The Chaldeans, who are affiliated with Rome, came from Iraq in the 1950s, attracted by what was then an oasis dominated by Christians in a region shaken by nationalist coups.
Maronites, who today number just under one million, were the most powerful community prior to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Their influence has since waned as their numbers drop through emigration and low fertility rates.
The Maronites along with some 310,000 Greek Orthodox and 204,000 Greek Catholics -- a sect that split from Rome in the 18th century -- represent nearly all of Lebanon's 1.59 million Christians.