Lebanon is a mosaic of various religious factions. There are Maronites, Chaldeans, and Greek, Syrian, and Armenian Catholics, all in communion with Rome, but following their own rituals. Other Christian sects include the Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Jacobites, Nestorians, and Protestants. Among the non-Christian elements are Jews, Druze, and Sunni and Shiite Moslems.
The most recent demographic study conducted in 2011 by Statistics Lebanon, a Beirut-based research firm, indicated that 27 percent of the population are Sunni Muslim, 27 percent Shia Muslim, 21 percent Maronite Christian, 8 percent Greek Orthodox, 5 percent Druze, and 4 percent Greek Catholic, with the remaining 7 percent belonging to smaller Christian denominations. There are also very small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus, and a very small number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
The 18 officially recognized religious groups include four Muslim sects, 12 Christian sects, the Druze sect, and Judaism. The main branches of Islam practiced are Shia and Sunni. The Alawites and the Ismaili (“Sevener") Shia order are the smallest Muslim communities. The Maronite community, the largest Christian group, maintains its centuries-long affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church but has its own patriarch, liturgy, and ecclesiastical customs. The second-largest Christian sect is Greek Orthodox. Other Christians are divided among Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox (Gregorians), Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites), Syriac Catholics, Assyrians (Nestorians), Chaldeans, Copts, evangelicals (including Protestant groups such as Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists), and Latins (Roman Catholic). The Druze, who refer to themselves as al-Muwahhideen, or “believers in one God," are concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut.
Many persons fleeing religious mistreatment and discrimination in neighboring states have immigrated to the country, including Kurds, Shia, and Chaldeans from Iraq, as well as Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, approximately 10,000 Iraqi Christians and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country.
The National Constitution of 1926 recognized this religious framework by requiring the allocation of government jobs and appointments on a religious basis. An unwritten gentlemen's agreement, worked out by Christian and Moslem leaders in 1943 and referred to as the National Covenant, secured the organization of the government on this "confessional" basis. The traditional practices of selecting a Maronite president, a Sunni Moslem premier, and a Shiite speaker of parliament, as well as allocating parliamentary seats on the basis of the relative numerical strength of religious communities in each electorial district, are traceable to this agreement.
Divisions within the Christian and Muslim faiths are considerable, but most observers accepted the Christian-Muslim dichotomy as the most salient in Lebanese society. Even so, identification by religious affiliation often blurs subtle social and economic considerations. Religion in Lebanon is not merely a function of individual preference reflected in ceremonial practice of worship. Rather, religion is a phenomenon that often determines social and political identification. Hence, religion is politicized by the confessional quota system in distributing power, benefits, and posts.
A sectarian group binds its members together on the basis of their professed allegiance to the teaching of the faith and their common location within the sectarian social and political map (see fig. 5, Distribution of Religious Sects, 1983). Ethnicity does not strictly apply to Lebanon's confessional communities, since more than 90 percent of all Lebanese are ethnically and linguistically Arabs. But the distinctiveness of Lebanon's confessional communities approximates the notion of sect to that of ethnicity. The exceptions are Kurds, Armenians, and Jews, who constitute ethnic groups in the classical sense. In sum, an understanding of the Lebanese mosaic requires an awareness of ethnicity and confessionalism because the similarity between the two concepts has become clearer in present-day Lebanon, where each sectarian group has its own agenda, political culture, and leaders.
The exact number of Lebanon's sects has always been disputed. In 1936, the French Mandate established the first official law regarding sects in Syria and Lebanon. The sects were enumerated as follows: nine patriarchal sects, one Latin church, the Protestant sect (including eleven Christian denominations) and five Muslim sects (Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawi, and Ismaili). At that time, the Muslims rejected their division into separate sects, and consequently they were excluded from the appendix of the law.
Following independence, only non-Muslims were included in a 1951 law enumerating officially recognized sects in the following order: Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox (Gregorian), Armenian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), Syrian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Nestorian Assyrians, Latins (Roman Catholics), Protestants, and Jews. The law specified that each sect was free to manage its waqf (religious endowment) properties, as well as its personal status laws for its members. The Alawi and Ismaili sects were considered numerically insignificant, which left them without legally sanctioned institutions. Other Muslim sects, Sunnis, Shias, and Druzes were considered still covered by the provisions of Ottoman Law.