Aid for Catholic schools stems Christian exodus from Lebanon

MONSIGNOR JOSEPH SPITERI SAYS THAT LEBANON IS A UNIQUE COUNTRY IN THE MIDDLE EAST because it is based on a civil constitution, which enshrines respect for freedom of conscience and expression. The diplomatic representative of the Holy See thanked Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for helping to preserve the country’s unique position in the Middle East through projects that encourage the Christians to stay.

Engulfed in an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions, Lebanon is struggling, and many Lebanese are tempted to leave, or have left already. During a meeting with representatives of ACN, who were visiting the country to see projects supported by the organization, Maltese Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon explained that “because the Christians are generally better educated, better prepared and have more relatives abroad, it is easier for them to emigrate and to find good jobs.”

It is therefore of vital importance to invest in projects that encourage Christians to remain in the country, a good example of which is support for schools. “The Catholic Church runs around 330 schools in Lebanon. Around 90 of these are what we call ‘assisted schools.’ They cater to mostly poor families and they are private, but they receive half the tuition fees from the government, and the other half from the parents. Tuition is very low, but because of the economic crisis, the government has not been paying its share.”

With the government bankrupt, the Church decided not to wait, and worked to find a solution. It made a request to ACN for funding, which was accepted. Half the amount has already been paid, with the other half on its way. Nuncio Spiteri says the importance of this aid cannot be overestimated. “These schools are very important because they maintain the Christian presence, they keep the families in the villages and provide employment for teachers, and non-academic staff.”

With the help of ACN, the Church has been able to offer teachers a grant of $300 per school year, and non-academic staff $180 in more than 50 schools. This money goes a long way toward helping pay for basic needs such as food and fuel, as with the current crisis many teachers, whose salary can be as low as $50-100, spend more money on fuel to get to work than they earn. The money that is still to come from ACN will be mostly used for scholarships, to help the poorest families keep their children enrolled in school.

“We owe ACN a big thanks. Thank you for all the help you have given to Lebanon, and to the Christians in Lebanon, so they can continue to stay here and build this wonderful, wonderful country, which is a unique country in the Middle East. I will remember you in my prayers, and I ask you to remember us, all of Lebanon, especially Lebanese Christians in your prayers. God bless you,” said Mons. Spiteri, in a message to benefactors.

ACN has had projects in the country for many years, but the massive economic crisis that hit Lebanon following the 2018 uprisings, which saw the Lebanese pound drop to about one 20th of its previous value, aggravated by a catastrophic explosion that levelled the Port of Beirut and a large part of the city, led to a fourfold increase in support.

Mons. Joseph Spiteri highlighted the importance of maintaining the Christian presence in Lebanon, also to protect the social balance that makes the country special.

“Lebanon is different from all the other countries in the Middle East. Not simply because we have more Christians, but it is the only country in the region that is based on a civil constitution. Freedom of conscience and of expression have always been respected here. It is important that Lebanon preserve this identity. It is a difficult balancing act to preserve the rights of individuals and the collective rights of the communities. But it has been done, and it can be done, and we need the good will of everyone. This is the identity of Lebanon, that is why Lebanon is so different.”

This is also why Pope Francis has said several times that he wants to visit Lebanon, to encourage this social project, and the Christian community especially. “The Pope wants to come. He has repeated this to the President and the Prime minister, who visited the Vatican recently,” the papal ambassador explained. In April the President said Francis would be coming to the country in June. The Vatican has yet to officially confirm this, but it does say the possibility is on the table.

The Nuncio holds some hope that upcoming parliamentary elections in May can result in a more stable government which, in turn, may allow the country to finally conclude a deal with the IMF and the World Bank that could help the economy get back on its feet and restore confidence.

“With no confidence, Lebanon cannot attract investment, but there is potential in agriculture and tourism, for example, these can create new jobs. We need to convince younger people that they can stay, and that they can do interesting things, this is a huge challenge,” concluded Archbishop Joseph Spiteri.

—Filipe d’Avillez