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ARC Home > Projects > Sacred gifts :
Lebanese forests | Church protects the “Valley of Saints”

LEBANON: Church protects the Harissa Forest, one of the Mediterranean’s top 10 “Forest Hot Spots”

The forest of Harissa lies steeply above the busy town of Jounieh, just north of Beirut. For more than 1,000 years it has been virtually undisturbed, supporting a few orchard owners and plenty of wild animals and plants. But after the Lebanese war the developers started moving in with concrete and bulldozers, threatening this last green coastal space in the region, and one that WWF has named one of the top 10 “Forest Hot Spots” in the Mediterranean.

AFDC poster to stop forest fires
At the heart of the forest is the Maronite Church’s cathedral and shrine to Our Lady. Her statue towers over the mountain, which is perhaps appropriate as she might be seen as the key to its deliverance.

The Maronite Church – representing Lebanon’s most popular form of Christianity – owns a large proportion of the Harissa forest and in 2000 the Church made the unprecedented move of issuing a public pledge to preserve its forest.

With the support of local conservation group AFDC (Association of Forest Development and Conservation) and ARC, the Patriarch pledged to make the Harissa Forest the world’s first “Maronite Protected Environment”.

This Sacred Gift will advance forest conservation in the Mediterranean for a diverse range of species, including ancient oak and pine trees. This Gift could serve as a model for forest conservation by religious groups in other parts of Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

A medallion at the beginning of the Harissa valley pilgrimage
This commitment will not only protect the Maronite Church in perpetuity: it has also encouraged other groups to make similar pledges. In June 2003, the Church established a full Management group to oversee the ecological protection of the Harisa Forest in association with the municipality of Jounieh. The city agreed to purchase a further 325,000 square meters of adjoining privately-owned forest land to keep in its natural state, and several private owner families are also discussing committing to protect further areas of adjacent forest land.

The Maronite church is Orthodox in practice, but formally linked to the Catholic Church. It owns considerable land holdings in Lebanon and in the spirit of its 7th century founder, St Maron, it is now exploring how to create other Maronite-Protected Environments, including the sacred Qadisha Valley in Northern Lebanon.

The publicity surrounding this Sacred Gift inspired volunteers in the diocese of Antelias to create an eco-religious tourism project in its 77 villages (containing 95 churches). They went on to create a protected oak forest in the church-lands around the monastery of St George, Bherdok – and an ecology education centre in the monastery building itself.

The Druze were so impressed by the sacred gifts programme that they chose to make their Jisr El Qadi region a Sacred Gift in 2008
The Church in Lebanon protects the “Valley of Saints”>


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Related information

November 1, 2003:
Holy Lebanese Valley Formally Declared Protected
The future of an endangered holy valley was made more secure this week when a Maronite church leader presented a landmark document to HRH the Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.
Maronite pledge, October 30, 2003:
The Qadisha declared a Maronite-protected environment
For over 1500 years the Church has found sanctuary in the natural beauty and Godliness of Qadisha. Today it is under threat. This document and the promises within it could save the valley.
Tunza Magazine; January 26 2004:
From Small Beginnings...
The story of how five students got together to replant a forest devastated by fire - sowing the seeds of what was to become a full-scale national youth action group for the environment.