VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis shone a light on the troubled country of Lebanon, currently faced with deep economic, social and political unrest, during an ecumenical day of prayer at the Vatican, calling the country’s political leaders to set aside self-interest for the benefit of their people.
“Stop using Lebanon and the Middle East for outside interests and profits! The Lebanese people must be given the opportunity to be the architects of a better future in their land, without undue interference,” Pope Francis said during his speech closing the prayer for Lebanon on Thursday (July 1).
Lebanon is experiencing a strong economic depression, which ranks among the top 10 — if not the top three — economic and financial crises in the world since the mid-19th century, according to World Bank data published on Wednesday.
Over half the Lebanese population lives beneath the poverty line, with rising inflation and a massive diaspora of young citizens. “Colossal challenges, continuous policy inaction and the absence of a fully functioning executive authority” are to blame for the country’s spiraling into chaos, according to the World Bank report.
Last summer, a large explosion in the port of Beirut, its capital, left 180 people dead and roughly 300,000 displaced. In the aftermath, citizens protested in the streets against the political stalemate gripping the country.
“Today the country is dead,” said Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Foundation of the Order of Malta in Lebanon, speaking to reporters over Zoom on Wednesday. “The country is hostage between the illegal weapons trade and politicians who have decided through their governance to forget about Lebanon,” he added.
The Vatican and Pope Francis have taken a deep interest in the troubled nation. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, charged with handling the Vatican’s relations with states, said Lebanon has been a recurring theme in conversations with foreign dignitaries and heads of state visiting the Vatican.
Asked why Lebanon, more than other struggling countries, has risen to the top of the list of foreign interest at the Vatican, Gallagher said “Lebanon is a place where we think we can make a contribution,” during a Vatican news conference Friday announcing the day of prayer and reflection.
Lebanon plays a key role in the Vatican’s presence in the Middle East; it’s the only Middle Eastern country where Catholics are protagonists on the political scene. The mosaic of Eastern Catholic rites in the country — especially the Maronite Church — defines the identity of the small nation, nestled between Syria and Israel. The president of Lebanon must be a Maronite Catholic, according to the constitution, and about one-third of members of its Parliament are Catholic.
The day of prayer at the Vatican, under the motto “The Lord has Plans for Peace. Together for Lebanon,” included nine representatives of the local Catholic churches: the Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Rai; Patriarch Joseph Absi of the Melkite Catholic Church; the Latin-rite apostolic vicar of Beirut, Bishop Cesar Essayan; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan; Chaldean Catholic Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut; Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church; Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch; the Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Aram of Cilicia; and the Rev. Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon.
Together, the bishops represent the various Catholic traditions of Lebanon and their meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican is being closely watched by faithful and political actors in the country. After being welcomed at Casa Santa Marta, where the pope lives at the Vatican, the religious representatives had three rounds of meetings before the prayer in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The day of prayer is “very important,” according to Sehnaoui, because it “will definitely take the pulse of the different Christian communities and other communities as well” in Lebanon.
The Synod of Bishops of the Maronite Church supported in a document issued June 19 the proposal made years ago by Patriarch Rai, which calls for Lebanon to become a neutral state among the complex realities in the Middle East. Maronite bishops have expressed hope that the international community will intervene in the paralyzed political situation in the country — a position that would be strengthened if supported by the Vatican.
“Neutrality means the definitive refusal by Lebanon to enter coalitions or conflicts at a regional or international level, to not suffer interference in its internal affairs by any state,” Rai told the news agency of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Sir, after the explosion in Beirut, adding that a neutral Lebanon also means guaranteeing religious pluralism.
But Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox representatives are more hesitant on the question of a neutral Lebanon, according to some local reports, and their objections are shared by the Shia political party and militant group Hezbollah.
In his speech, Pope Francis seemed to support Rai’s position on the future of Lebanon, stressing the country “must remain a project of peace” in “these woeful times.”
“Its vocation is to be a land of tolerance and pluralism, an oasis of fraternity where different religions and confessions meet, where different communities live together, putting the common good before their individual interests,” he said.
Francis also appealed to the citizens of the country, Christian and Muslim, to hold on to their roots and have hope in the future of Lebanon, while calling on its politicians to “find urgent and durable solutions” to the current crisis. The pope urged the international community to come together so the country will “not collapse, but embark upon a path of recovery.”
With thousands of Christians fleeing from Lebanon and its neighboring countries, the future of Christianity in the Middle East hangs in the balance, Sehnaoui said, adding the pope “understands the situation very clearly.”
If Lebabon collapses, and with it the Christian community there, he said, “the Holy Land will only be a historical fact.”