Maronite Bishop Michel Aoun heads the Eparchy of Jbeil in Lebanon. He teaches sacramental theology at the Holy Spirit University in Beirut and serves as the liaison for the country’s Catholic patriarchs and bishops with Caritas Lebanon. He spoke with international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need on a recent visit to New York. He spoke in particular on the local Church’s role in coming to the aid of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon—the great majority of them Muslim—an influx that has posed enormous challenges for a country whose own population is just 4.5 million.
What is the situation at present—are the refugees being integrated somehow?
The refugees are everywhere, along the border with Syria, and in every town and village across the entire country. They are not in refugee camps. These people get some support from international organizations, but they also are seeking work. That is a problem: a Syrian will work for a lot less money than would a Lebanese. As a result, the country is getting poorer. For Caritas it is a special challenge; we are called to help the Syrians, which upsets the Lebanese, who are saying they themselves increasingly need support. Syrian Christians, on the other hand, have local connections, are helped by Churches, etc. The Muslim refugees pose the biggest challenge.
What has been the approach of Caritas in Lebanon?
In conjunction with our partners in Europe and elsewhere, we are allotting at least 30 percent or sometimes even 40 percent of our budget to fund projects in support of vulnerable Lebanese—for example, in supporting schools. That is a good thing. We are also focusing on projects that benefit the Lebanese as well as the Syrian refugees. In addition, we support Lebanese communities that have a particularly hard time coping, such as those living along the Syrian border; we help them with modest economic development, education, or supply of water, so that local residents are not forced to migrate to the big cities like Beirut. It is important to keep these villages vibrant, so that they simply not lose all their residents.
With violence abating, to some extent, in Syria, is the refugee crisis in Lebanon easing? Are Syrians—Muslims and Christians—beginning to return home?
That process has not yet begun, much as we want that to happen. Those Muslims who are in Lebanon are opposed to the Assad regime; the majority is Sunni. They await action on the part of the international community so that they can be sure that they will be given protection from being persecuted by the Syrian regime.
There is another issue. These refugees have now spent some four years in Lebanon and have gotten used to a better way of life than the one they left behind. Some are reluctant to leave also because Lebanon offers certain liberties that the dictatorship in Syria, a totalitarian system, would never allow.
Is the additional Sunni presence in Lebanon a threat to Lebanon’s stability?
Lebanon must preserve a certain balance, an equilibrium. Absorbing such a large number of Sunnis could thus pose a threat to that equilibrium. Neither the Shiite nor the Christians of Lebanon could accept that; a solution to the refugee crisis must be found.
Are there tensions in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims?
No, there is a long history of harmony between the two communities, which dates back many decades, up to a century. That culture of living side-by-side is inscribed in the hearts of our people. They work side-by-side and, in Catholic schools, often there are 15 percent or 20 percent, or more, of the students who are Muslim. Muslim parents are eager to have their children taught certain basic values at our schools.
Could Lebanon be a model for the Middle East in this regard?
Yes, St. John Paul II declared that Lebanon, with its conviviality among Christians and Muslims, has a message for the region. Citizens here have the same rights and obligations. It is therefore crucial for the world to help Lebanon preserve this unique state of affairs that shows the world that Christians and Muslims can live together.
Given the upheaval and wars in the region, is Lebanon at risk of losing its privileged position in this regard?
The greatest risk is that Christians will leave Lebanon, also that they do not have many children. That is crucial for maintaining this equilibrium. Christians should not become a small minority. Right now, approximately 38 percent of Lebanese are Christians, with Muslims comprising 62 percent, more or less half Sunnis and half Shiites, not counting the refugees.
What does the Maronite Church in Lebanon want Churches in the West to do?
It would be great if Christians in the West would petition their government so that, for example, the US government take account of the importance of Christians in the Middle East. It seems that sometimes that economic considerations have precedence, as has been the case in Iraq, for example. Western policy should ensure that Christians remain in the Middle East—their presence is vital.
The Lebanese example shows why: Lebanese Muslims are very much influenced by Christians—they are different than Muslims in Syria or Iraq, because they have lived side by side with many Christians and have been exposed to Christian values, including their support for democracy, and tolerance. That is a vital, indispensable gift Christians have to offer the region.