Pope meets with Lebanon’s bishops as the Middle East’s largest Christian community is in peril

THE ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL CRISIS IN LEBANON, home to the Middle East’s largest Christian community, has deepened ahead of a historic July 1 meeting between Pope Francis and Christian leaders from the country.

This week, the country’s currency plunged to a record low to the U.S. dollar, having lost 90 percent of its value since an economic crisis began in 2019.

Mounting anger against the government has been exacerbated by a fuel crisis. A shortage of foreign reserves necessary to import fuel has left many Lebanese waking up at 3AM. to line up at gas stations.

For years, Lebanon has stood apart in the Middle East as a haven for Christians. It does not mandate Islam as a state religion, and an informal agreement even dictates that the President be a Maronite Catholic. For this reason, the country has welcomed thousands of Christian refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq or Syria.

“Over the years, when we have seen a rise in extremism in other countries, Lebanon has been a place where the Christians and the Muslims could live together, be educated together, and work together, and we would like to see this continue,” said Regina Lynch, director of projects for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Today, however, its status as a haven for Christians is under threat. The currency crisis has been exacerbated not only by the economic fallout of the pandemic but also by the impact of an August 2020 explosion in Beirut harbor, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. The blast decimated the mostly Christian neighborhoods around Beirut’s port area, killing at least 200 people. Almost 100,000 buildings were destroyed and several hundred thousand people were left homeless.

Damage in Maronite cathedral in Beirut (Maronite Church photo)
An explosion ripped through Beirut Aug. 4, 2020

“The Catholic schools are in danger of closing. The Catholic institutes like hospitals and clinics are struggling to survive, even to find the funds they need to buy important medicines and important medical equipment, so it’s really five minutes to zero hour now at the moment in Lebanon,” said Lynch.

In this context, Pope Francis announced a summit to be held July 1 in Rome. Lebanon’s Christian leaders, including Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, will pray for solutions to the country’s deepening crisis. Chief among these is a prayer for political leadership: Cardinal Rai has repeatedly called for both a new government and a UN-led international conference to address the country’s problems.

With no regular government in place for the past 10 months, a vacuum of political leadership has left the country unable to address its woes—let alone COVID-19. Under these pressures, Lebanese are leaving the country in droves. More than 380,000 Lebanese, most of them Christians, have applied for visas to the West since the crisis began.

Lebanese Christians hope the meeting will provide an opportunity to reiterate a request for the Pope to visit the country. Following the Pope’s successful trip to Iraq earlier this year, he has expressed interest in visiting the country as soon as possible.

Father Jad Chlouk , a priest of the Maronite Archdiocese of Beirut, repeated the need for international support.

“What is important now is humanitarian support for all Lebanese people,” he told ACN. “Christians are experiencing tough times, doubt, and confusion after the pandemic, the economic crisis, and on top of all these, the explosion. Sadly, our country is now experiencing a brain drain.”

While all Lebanese are suffering, Christians are particularly prone to emigrate to the West, where many already have family from among the large Lebanese diaspora.

“The majority of Christians are suffering from poverty,” said Father Chlouk. “Christians are not asking for donations. We are asking for stability and a safe country to live in. We need a guaranteed environment to help our kids grow in a tight-knit Christian community.”

“We are asking you, as the Holy Father did, to urge your governments and the international community to keep Lebanon away from the conflicts in the region.”

CAN has provided extensive support to Lebanon in its current crisis, with more than $6.1M in aid following the August 2020 dockside blast, including emergency aid and repairs for church buildings in the capital’s historic Christian quarters.

—Xavier Bisits & Maria Lozano

For a video preview of the Lebanon summit at the Vatican, please click here.