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The Christian community in Lebanon is experiencing the effects of climate change in their sacred forest and valley.
Middle East Science & Health

The Christian community in Lebanon is experiencing the effects of climate change in their sacred forest and valley.

Majestic cedar trees towered over dozens of Lebanese Christians gathered outside a small mid-19th century chapel hidden in a mountain forest to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, the miracle in which Jesus Christ, on a mountaintop, shined with light before his disciples.

The leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, stood at a wooden podium and gave a sermon as the yellow light of the sunset filtered through the cedar branches. Afterwards, the assembly sang hymns in both Arabic and Aramaic.

The cedars hold great significance for the Christians in Lebanon, as these resilient evergreen trees are able to withstand the harsh winters of the mountains. It is a source of pride for them that the Bible references Lebanon’s cedars 103 times. These trees are a representation of Lebanon and are prominently featured on the national flag.

The well-known trees in the northern part of the country are not near the confrontations between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers along the border of Lebanon and Israel in the past few weeks, amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

The continued existence of the cedar forests is uncertain due to rising temperatures caused by climate change. This poses a threat to the diverse range of species and could damage one of the nation’s most cherished Christian landmarks.

Lebanese priest Hani Tawk prays outside the Qannoubine Monastery, hidden deep in the Kadisha Valley, a holy site for Lebanon's Maronite Christians, in Bcharre, Lebanon, on July 22, 2023.

On July 22, 2023, in Bcharre, Lebanon, Lebanese priest Hani Tawk is seen praying outdoors at the Qannoubine Monastery, located in the Kadisha Valley. This monastery holds great significance for the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.

The Cedars of God Forest, located in the northern town of Bcharre and situated 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) above sea level, is a beloved landscape among Christians. This protected area offers stunning views of the Kadisha Valley, meaning “sacred” in Aramaic, and has served as a place of refuge for Christians throughout Lebanon’s turbulent past. Hidden within the dense trees, caves, and rocky cliffs along the 35-kilometer (22-mile) valley are some of the world’s largest monasteries.

In 1998, UNESCO, the cultural agency of the United Nations, designated the cedar forest and the valley as World Heritage Sites. These locations have become increasingly popular among hikers and environmentalists from various countries. Additionally, a growing number of Lebanese people of different religions also visit these sites to escape the urban environment and enjoy the fresh air.

Hani Tawk, a priest of the Maronite Christian faith, shared that individuals of all religious backgrounds come to visit the Saint Elisha Monastery, including Muslims and atheists. He explained that as Christians, the monastery holds special meaning as it serves as a reminder of the saints who once resided there and allows them to connect with a sacred atmosphere.

by humans have led to severe droughts in many regions, resulting in food insecurity and displacement

Human mismanagement and climate change have caused widespread droughts in various areas, leading to a lack of food and displacement.

Activists and locals argue that the consequences of global warming, worsened by inadequate governance, endanger the valley’s ecosystem and its cedar woodland.

In the next 30 to 40 years, it is likely that the biodiversity of the Kadisha Valley, known as one of the most diverse in the world, will significantly decrease according to Charbel Tawk, an environmental engineer and activist from Bcharre (not related to Hani Tawk).

For several years, Lebanon has experienced the effects of climate change. Farmers have complained about the lack of rainfall and forest fires have caused destruction in the northern pine forests, similar to those that occurred in Syria and Greece. In many parts of the country, where electricity outages are common, residents have struggled to cope with the intense summer temperatures.

A cross sits on a cliff overlooking the sunset over the scenic Kadisha Valley, a holy site for Lebanon's Maronite Christians, in Bcharre, Lebanon, on July 21, 2023.

On July 21, 2023, a cross can be seen perched on a cliff, gazing out at the sunset over the picturesque Kadisha Valley in Bcharre, Lebanon. This valley holds religious significance for the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.

The temperature in Bcharre has risen above 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), which is not uncommon for Lebanon’s coastal cities but unexpected for the mountainous town in the north.

The nuns at Qannoubin Monastery during medieval times would sit in the shade of the courtyard, on the hillside of Kadisha Valley, fanning themselves and drinking water. They fondly recalled a time when they could sleep comfortably on summer nights without relying on electricity.

Impact already seen

There are already concerning indications of the effects on the cedars and Kadisha.

According to Charbel Tawk, the increase in temperature has resulted in bigger groups of aphids, who consume the bark of cedar trees and produce a substance that can lead to the growth of mold. Bees, who typically remove this substance, have been less active. Additionally, the warmer climate has allowed aphids and other pests to remain active for a longer period of time and reach higher elevations.

These pests pose a threat to the growth of cedar trees by potentially hindering or causing damage.

Tawk is concerned that the fluctuation in temperature may have negative effects on the survival of cedars in lower elevations. Additionally, the frequency of fires is increasing, posing a potential threat.

Cedar trees typically thrive in elevations ranging from 700 to 1,800 meters (approximately 1 mile) above sea level. Tawk’s group has successfully planted approximately 200,000 cedar trees at higher elevations and in previously unoccupied areas. Out of these, 180,000 have survived.

Tawk inquired about the resilience of these cedars, which are able to thrive at elevations of 2,100 to 2,400 meters. He was observing a grove of cedars on a secluded hilltop.

Mitigating solutions

Community religious leaders and advocates for the environment are calling on the government of Lebanon to collaborate with universities in conducting a comprehensive research on fluctuations in temperature and their effects on the diversity of species.

However, Lebanon has been facing a severe economic crisis for a prolonged period. Government funds have depleted, and numerous highly skilled professionals are actively pursuing job opportunities overseas.

“The concept of a state as we know it no longer exists. Despite their sincere efforts, the ministries do not have the necessary financial resources,” stated Freddy Keyrouz, the mayor of Bcharre. He, along with other mayors in neighboring towns, have appealed to local residents for assistance in conservation efforts and to the Lebanese diaspora around the world for financial support.

Environmental engineer Charbel Tawk looks after a cedar tree as part of a forestation initiative 2,400 meters (7,800 feet) above sea level, in Bcharre, Lebanon, on July 22, 2023.

On July 22, 2023, Charbel Tawk, an environmental engineer, tends to a cedar tree as a part of a reforestation project at an altitude of 2,400 meters (7,800 feet) in Bcharre, Lebanon.

The Maronite Church has implemented stringent regulations in order to safeguard the Cedars of God Forest, which includes prohibiting any development within its boundaries. As a result, kiosks, souvenir shops, and a sizable parking area have been situated at a considerable distance from the forest.

“Illegal items that are flammable are strictly prohibited from entering the holy forest,” stated Charbel Makhlouf, a clergyman at Bcharre’s Saint Saba Cathedral.

The Cedar Forest Committee, of which Tawk is a member, has been caring for the cedar trees for nearly thirty years, with help from the church. They have placed sensors on the trees to monitor temperature, wind, and humidity, in order to detect any potential threats of forest fires.

Trouble beyond the forest

In the Kadisha Valley, beneath the forest, Tawk directs attention to other worries.

Specifically, the proliferation of cypress trees poses a threat to the diversity of other species, disrupting the balance that existed in the valley.

He explained that we have observed them growing larger than other species, whether through absorbing sunlight, harnessing wind, or spreading their roots. This will have an effect on other plants, birds, insects, and all reptiles in the area.

According to Tawk, the measures taken to safeguard the valley have inadvertently harmed its biodiversity by eliminating beneficial human activities.

A cross with a statue of a crucified Jesus Christ hidden between the trees in the Saint Elisha Monastery, tucked into the scenic Kadisha Valley in Bcharre, Lebanon, on July 22, 2023.

On July 22, 2023, a cross featuring a statue of Jesus Christ on the cross was concealed among the trees in the Saint Elisha Monastery located in the beautiful Kadisha Valley in Bcharre, Lebanon.

Previously, the presence of herders who grazed their goats and other animals in the valley played a role in controlling the spread of invasive species. Additionally, their grazing activities helped decrease the risk of fires, along with local families who collected deadwood for winter fuel.

However, after the valley was declared a heritage site and the Lebanese government imposed strict regulations, many residents chose to leave. Currently, only a small number of priests and nuns reside there.

According to Tawk, trees have encroached on areas that were once inhabited and cultivated by people. As a result, a fire could easily spread across the entire valley.

Father Hani Tawk sat in a cave close to the Qannoubine Monastery, listening to the various birds singing in the valley. He expressed his belief in the community’s strong faith and connection to nature, which has been passed down through generations since their ancestors sought refuge here.

“He expressed that by damaging that tree, you are encroaching on a rich past and potentially jeopardizing the future of your offspring.”