In an eerie echo from the past, today we remember the death of 5 Jesuits in Syria. There deaths were part of a wave of persecution against Christians by the Druze, a sect of Shia Islam. For many years the Druze and Maronite Christians had lived peacefully, side by side in the Lebanon. However in 1840 began a period of social unrest between the Maronite peasants and the feudal system that was overseen by the Druze and Ottoman Turks. It resulted in a brutal civil war with violence on both sides, and ultimately the death of 20,000 Christians and destruction of 380 villages and 560 churches. It ended when the French intervened, in what has been called the first humanitarian intervention in history.
One of the first Jesuits to die was the mission superior, Frenchman Edward Billotet. As superior of the entire Lebanese-Syrian mission he increased the number of schools funded by the Propagation of the Faith and in 1853 he started an Arabic press for disseminating Christian literature. When he received the gift of a vineyard outside the city, the Druseswanted him to pay taxes. But because he was a French citizen he was therefore not subject to the sultan’s taxation. and as the revenue from the vineyard went to support a Christian school and a Catholic church this infuriated his Druze enemies. Alongside him died Brother Habib Maksoud, who had been a prosperous young merchant of the Melkite RIte. He had helped the Jesuits construct their school at Moallaqa and taught there without pay. When he entered the Society in 1847 he was the first novice from the Near East since the Society’s restoration in 1814.
Among the other Jesuits to die was a talented Italian architect, Brother Ferdinand Bonacina. As well as a practicing architect he was also as a first-rate carpenter and mason. He built the Jesuit residence in Beirut, the seminary-college at Ghazir, churches in Bikfaya and Zahle and a seminary for the Maronites. It is said that when he faced his murderers, he said: “Don’t you remember me; I built your cotton mill for you.” “Yes, we do.” they replied, “but now you are our enemy”. The two others killed were Lebanese brothers, Brother Younes and Brother Habieche. Killed with them was a young postulant from an illustrious family who worked as sacristan. In a year when the Dutch Jesuit Father van der Lugt was shot dead in Homs, and the Italian Jesuit Paolo dall'Oglio is missing in Syria (, it is poignant to reflect that such persecution is not consigned to history.