Lebanese prelate: ‘protest does not unite a divided country’

MELKITE Archbishop Issam John Darwish heads the Archdiocese of Zahle, Lebanon. He spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Lebanon and the country’s ongoing protests, and political and economic crisis.

Lebanon was already experiencing significant hardship due to an unprecedented economic crisis before the pandemic. Has COVID-19 brought the country to its knees?
Since the pandemic has impacted the economy of great countries, we have to expect a more significant impact on Lebanon, since this country has been suffering the burdens of indebtedness and corruption. However, there are genuine attempts by the new government to prevent the virus from bringing the country into its knees.

Archbishop Darwish

Lebanon is a multi-religious country. Has the pandemic strengthened a sense of trans-religious solidarity and unity?
Trans-religious consensus is much more than the result of the pandemic or the economic crisis. Consensus  and solidarity form a culture that needs to be anchored, along with the adoption of an ethical conviction. Protest does not unite a divided country. What can unite it is a unifying education and a functioning model of national governance. Otherwise, Lebanon will remain a field of frustrating experiments and failing statesmanship.

What is the Catholic Church doing to help people affected by the pandemic?
Patriarch Absi asked all the bishops to put the agricultural lands owned by their dioceses at the disposal of the parishioners to cultivate them. In our diocese, we offered our lands this year to the Christians of our diocese to cultivate them; we also provided Tel Chiha hospital with the equipment necessary to face COVID-19 and collaborated with the American University Hospital on training the hospital staff, so they would be ready to face the pandemic; and, finally, we increased the distribution of hygiene kits to help the people protect themselves.

ACN supports the project Saint John the merciful table that provides meals for the needy, including Syrian Christian refugees. Due to the  pandemic the restaurant was closed. Has the restaurant reopened? Has the number of aid recipients of aid increased?
Saint John the merciful table has never stopped providing free hot meals to the needy; due to the pandemic we put in place a plan that allows people to get their meals without risking their safety. So the people were able to come and pick up their meals every day, with safety measures in place. This procedure is continuing. The number of recipients has increased and is still increasing daily; we are now providing more than 1,400 meals every day.

 Lebanon is hosting per capita the highest number of refugees in the world, especially from Syria. Their situation was dire before the pandemic. How is it now? And are Lebanese starting to question their solidarity with the refugees?
Yes, Lebanese citizens have begun to question their solidarity towards refugees. The majority of Lebanese were already reluctant to accept the volume of refugees at the start of the Syrian crisis; then the entry of refugees imposed itself on the Lebanese government at certain times. The situation is becoming more and more dire because the number of refugees proved to be very high; now, during the pandemic the huge number of undisciplined refugees is threatening that solidarity as well as the ability of the host country to accommodate them.

How is your archdiocese helping Syrian victims of the pandemic?
Until now, in Zahle and the nearby region there are no victims. The Syrian and the Lebanese people living in Zahle are still safe. But we are taking the necessary precautions to be prepared for any new cases, especially by equipping the hospital and providing training to the staff.

From a pastoral point of view, what is the biggest lesson the pandemic has taught the Church? The lesson differs from one Church to another, but I tend to believe that the Lord’s providence is reminding us of His commandments and His everlasting love and mercy. Humankind is also called upon consider the significant damage industry and weaponry are doing to the natural order. We ask God to purify our faith and give us the opportunity to repent, so that He may lift the threat of this pandemic forever.

Has the pandemic brought Christians closer to the Church?
The believers have always been and still are close to the Church. They always ask us to reopen the churches. Whenever we were praying in the church, and the faithful were not allowed to enter, some of them stayed outside and prayed with us. They believe that Holy Communion protects them.

—Oliver Maksan