At the Socio-Medical Intercommunity Dispensary in the Naba neighbourhood of Beirut, people receive a hot meal to take back to their homes Sept. 2. The centre experienced considerable damage from the explosion in Beirut’s port area Aug. 4. CNS photo/Doreen Abi Raad

Politicians at heart of Lebanon’s problems

By 
  • September 17, 2020

Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai wants a revolution in Lebanon, but not too much revolution.

In an hour-long Zoom conference organized by the Fordham Centre on Religion and Culture, Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Salt+Light Media with American CNEWA donors and journalists, the most prominent Christian leader in one of the world’s most complicated countries argued both for deep change and for maintaining Lebanon’s delicate system of sectarian power-sharing in the wake of the massive explosion that tore through Beirut’s port Aug. 4. 

“We support that popular uprising, especially the young people,” Rai said.

The uprising featured young people shouting at former Maronite Christian warlord and Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, “Leave, leave, leave, you’re not everyone’s father.” The revolution Rai claims to support wants to do away with the power-sharing system in place since 1943 — a system that ensures that the president and commander of the armed forces is always a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, parliament’s speaker is always a Shia Muslim and the deputy speaker is always a Greek Orthodox Christian. 

It’s a system that Lebanese protesters argue has fostered the endemic corruption of Lebanon’s political class, encouraging patronage and back-room deals rather than transparent, open government. One of the most popular slogans of the 2019 revolution was “Christians and Muslims for a civil state.”

Instead of changing the system, Rai wants to change the personnel — putting his trust in a new generation of non-political leaders. Rai believes politicians are the problem.

“We want ministers who are independent, intelligent, technocrats who can run this country in a different style,” he said. “We want a government of crisis.”

“The problem now is, when a minister is named by the prime minister and approved by the president, it seems that this person is not accountable to parliament, but is accountable to his sect, to his group, to his ethnicity,” explained Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canada executive director Carl Hétu. “That’s what needs to change. The constitution in itself seems to be working OK. But we have to move away from owing things to all the different sectarian groups.”

Trying to help Lebanon rebuild after the Beirut port explosion that killed nearly 200 and left over 300,000 homeless has been complicated by questions about the future shape of Lebanon’s government and how to keep aid money out of the hands of kleptocrats who have run the country for generations, said Hétu.

“Aiding the people, especially now — economically, socially — will help them to be more in a position to make certain demands for change,” he said. “So helping the Lebanese in general you’re not helping to maintain a corrupt government. You’re helping the country to evolve.”

In context of the Middle East’s declining Christian population, maintaining Lebanon’s balance of power among the 18 Muslim and Christian sects recognized in the nation’s constitution is more important than ever, said Rai. Christianity in the region is in crisis and the patriarch puts the blame squarely on the Americans for their 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“As far as the Christians are concerned, the war on Iraq has destroyed Christianity in the region,” he said.

Displacing over a million Christians from Iraq has crushed a thriving middle class and destroyed Christian institutions, said Rai.

“The Christian culture cannot any longer have any impact on those societies. And that’s a loss for everybody,” he said. “Before the war in Iraq and Syria and so on, the Christians had their institutions. They had their schools, their universities, their hospitals. Now it’s all gone. … The institutions have disappeared. Which means that the impact that Christianity was having on society has disintegrated. That is why they (Middle East Christians outside Lebanon) are so keen and we (inside Lebanon) are so keen on keeping Lebanon as a strong country with a strong Christian presence.”

A strong network of independent social agencies, including Caritas Lebanon, the Red Cross and CNEWA, will ensure that aid to Lebanon reaches the people without political interference, Rai said.

“Let’s face it, we’re Catholics. We’re Christians,”said Hétu. “Following Christ means it always goes from the cross to resurrection. The Lebanese people are experiencing the crucifixion right now.”

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