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St. Maron's Church in S. Philly is diverse haven for Middle East immigrants

Some seek asylum. Others seek community. St. Maron's Maronite Catholic Church is an oasis of spiritual comfort for a diverse congregation.

John Azzi dances to the music as he creates Za'atar manoush (sometimes called Lebanese pizza, at the Lebanese Festival at Saint Maron's Maronite Catholic Church in South Philadelphia June 4, 2017.
John Azzi dances to the music as he creates Za'atar manoush (sometimes called Lebanese pizza, at the Lebanese Festival at Saint Maron's Maronite Catholic Church in South Philadelphia June 4, 2017.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Emil Zelmeh grew up in the village of Sadad in his native Syria, then became a doctor in Aleppo, where his Christian faith was accepted by his Muslim neighbors.

"You could live as a Christian, you could live as a Muslim, you could be a practicing or nonpracticing Christian or Muslim, and everyone got along OK," Zelmeh said while enjoying Sunday's Lebanese Folk Festival at St. Maron's Maronite Catholic Church on a cordoned-off block of Ellsworth Street near 10th Street in South Philadelphia.

The onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011 changed all that, Zelmeh said. His hometown of Sadad suffered deadly attacks by al-Nusra Front Islamist militants in 2013 and by the Islamic State in 2015. His mother and brother fled the town, returned when it was safe, fled again when it wasn't.

"They finally decided, 'We can't live like this,'" Zelmeh said. They went to Canada, where they were granted asylum. Zelmeh, his wife, and their two young daughters came to America in 2015, where the parents have work permits and are awaiting a decision on the family's application for asylum.

As soon as they settled in South Philadelphia, Zelmeh said, "we looked for the closest church where we could find community. Here, there are families from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan."

Also Egyptians and Iraqis, said the Rev. Vincent Farhat, who has been St. Maron's pastor for six years. "Whenever any Middle Eastern Christian family comes to Philadelphia," Farhat said, "the first thing they look for is a Middle Eastern church, where they feel safe, where they find people who speak their own language."

So although St. Maron's is celebrating its 125th anniversary as a predominantly Lebanese Christian church, he said, it has always welcomed a diverse congregation. "Every Sunday we pray together," he said. "We have breakfast together. The kids go to CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine] classes together. People say, 'Thank God for this church.' "

Farhat said St. Maron's -- part of the Catholic Church but not Roman Catholic -- belongs to In Defense of Christians, a national organization that advocates for the rights of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

Currently, four of St. Maron's families are seeking asylum in the United States, including an Egyptian man who said he would not identify himself because he fears for his family's safety back home.

He and his wife were living in her native Jordan when he gave a lecture critical of Islam at her Pentecostal church in the capital of Amman. He said he was quickly seized by Jordanian security officers and held for five days. "I expected to be tortured," he said. Instead, he was deported to Egypt "and given a letter saying I was not to enter Jordan, forever."

He and his wife came to the U.S. last September, seeking asylum. "My family lives in Egypt," he said. "My wife's family lives in Jordan. I am afraid for them. The extremists are like an octopus with fingers everywhere. You don't know from where the hit will come."

The only hits at the St. Maron's festival were on the rental hookahs and at the food counter, where John Azzi, wearing a red fez, informed festival-goers that he was "Abou Manoushi, which means 'master of manoushi,'" as he sweated over a hot saj (which looks like an inverted wok) frying his signature dish -- flat bread slathered with a brown sauce of thyme, sesame seeds, and olive oil.

Azzi paused occasionally to wave his tongs and ladle in the air like a conductor, keeping time to the tableh drum beats drifting across Ellsworth from George Maalouf's band.

The air was heavy with savory smells of beef and chicken kabobs, Azzi's manoushi, and strong Arabic coffee. Zelmeh smiled, ready to watch his daughters with the St. Maron Dabke Troupe. The street was jammed with people from Middle Eastern countries. "And Italians from South Philadelphia," Farhat said, smiling.