Just north of Beirut lies the Harissa forest, one of the top 10 “Forest Hotspots in the Mediterranean”, according to the WWF. At more than 1,000 years old, the forest had been largely untouched, until construction and real estate projects began to pose a threat, both to the physical environment and the wild animals and plants that rely on it.
More than 27 endangered and 52 rare plant species thrive in the Harissa’s 400 hectares (only 4 sq km), as well as 168 species of animals, 152 types of butterflies and 69 species of birds.
The Maronite Church’s cathedral and shrine to Our Lady lies at the heart of the forest. 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 – has owned a large proportion of the Harissa forest for many centuries, perhaps as long as 1,500 years. In the year 2000 they made a public pledge to preserve the forest – the world’s first Maronite Protected Environment.
Spectacular: The shrine and cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon sits in the middle of a precious area of woodland overlooking Beirut. The site is holy to Muslims as well as Christians, and is a major pilgrimage and tourist destination Picture: Shutterstock
The pledge was made with the support of with the Association of Forest Development and Conservation and ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. It enabled conservation of a diverse range of species, including ancient oaks and pine, and served as a model of forest conservation for other religious groups in Lebanon and across the wider region.
Inspiring other forests to gain protection
The project was successful in inspiring other Lebanese programmes including the creation of a protected oak forest in the church lands surrounding the monastery of St George, Bherdok, and an ecology education centre in the monastery itself.
A management group to oversee the protection of the Harissa forest was established in 2003, and worked with the municipality of Jounieh to purchase a further 35 hectares of adjoining forest land to preserve its natural state. These ventures are all done in the spirit of the 7th Century founder of the Maronite church in Lebanon, St Maron, who chose to live a life outside in nature.
The sanctuary is by no means exclusive to Christians. It is the most favoured place for Muslims in Lebanon to honour the Virgin Mary. Its guardians – the Congregation of Lebanese Maronite Missionaries – hold regular events to encourage conciliation between different faiths and communities. Pilgrims and tourists from all faiths are attracted to the location.
The shrine’s location at a great height but within day reach of Beirut has helped to ensure that its attractions are well known. Pilgrimage to Harissa was made easier by the construction of a cable car from the coast at Jounieh in 1965.
A faith-based approach succeeded where appeal from scientists failed
It is important to recognise that the first international appeal to save the Harissa forest did not succeed. Aerial surveys in the 1990s identified the Harissa as one of several wooded areas around the Mediterranean which were under threat. The coastline of Lebanon had been developed piecemeal until it was one almost continuous development, with only isolated islands of the country’s famous forests remaining.
A taskforce from the UN Development Agency sent a 48-page document to the forest’s guardians, setting out the environmental value of the woodland and its importance in scientific terms. But – as recounted in Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment, a 2013 book by Martin Palmer and Victoria Finlay for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) – the UN got no reply.
‘To the Church, the scientists had missed the point. They had not mentioned the reason why the forest had been preserved in the first place ...'
The reason? To the Church, the scientists had missed the point. They had not mentioned the reason why the forest had been preserved in the first place – that it was the setting for one of the most important shrines in the country. “No mention of the forest’s spiritual, cultural, historic and emotional significance was made. As a result they were unable to communicate with the Church and its followers,” wrote Palmer and Finlay.
A different approach was needed. As it happened, ARC and the WWF had been working together on a programme called Sacred Gifts for a Living Planet. 'Protecting the sacred Harissa forest seems to be an ideal example of a Sacred Gift,' wrote Palmer and Finlay. 'With this in mind, representatives of ARC and the local Association for Forest Development and Conservation went to meet the head of the Maronite Church [whose palace is in the Harissa forest]. Within half an hour the Patriarch had committed the Church to protect the forest in perpetuity.'
Palmer and Finlay give examples of the dry, emotionless appeal of the scientific community in justifying the value of the forest and contrast it with the rich language in which the Maronite Church made its own commitment to preserve it:
'For centuries the Church has defended the natural beauty and godliness of the forest and hills of Harissa, as well as so many other holy places in Lebanon … In so doing, we observe that the land, and the flora and fauna on it, do not ultimately belong to us. We are simply the guardians of what belongs to God.
'But today, new threats endanger this holy site and so many others. Harissa is now surrounded by the growth of building and just as the basilica (cathedral) is a boat floating on the mountain so Harissa floats like a ship of nature above the tide of modern development.
'Therefore the Church must speak boldly and make clear to all that the holy forest of Harissa will remain, protected, managed and owned for God by the Church.'
This spiritual conviction explains, argue Palmer and Finlay, why the forest is now protected formally as well as spiritually. It is also why, since the Church’s declaration in 1999, the Church has also created an ecology centre for young people, protected two other major woodland sites, and developed a programme of environmental education in 77 villages and towns, becoming one of the key advocates of environmental protection in Lebanon.