Cardinal Rai

‘Existential danger’ threatens Lebanon’s future

By  Beth Griffin, Catholic News Service
  • September 17, 2020

RYE, N.Y. -- Amid the turmoil of a global pandemic coupled with a devastating August explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port while killing 200, injuring 6,000 more, Lebanon is facing “an existential danger” it has never experienced before, said Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai.

“Lebanon is experiencing unprecedented economic, social and financial problems, and is facing, as a result, an existential danger like never before in its history,” Rai told a Zoom conference Sept. 11.

The current problems include the coronavirus pandemic and the human and physical devastation caused by an Aug. 4 explosion at the port of Beirut that beyond the dead and injured left at least 300,000 homeless, Rai said. These problems are exacerbated by decades of political and financial corruption.

“Due to the fast economic deterioration and the sociopolitical crises, the middle classes, the backbone of the population and the bedrock of a flourishing nation, are slipping sharply into poverty; more than half of the Lebanese population now lives below the poverty line,” Rai said.

He said the presence of more than half a million Palestinian refugees and 1.5 million displaced Syrians has overburdened the country’s infrastructure and further taxed its ailing economy. The purchasing power of the national currency has decreased by 80 per cent and many Lebanese have emigrated to find work in other countries.

The modern state of Lebanon was established in 1920. For almost 50 years, it maintained a position of active neutrality that contributed to its prosperity and earned it the nickname of “Switzerland of the Middle East,” Rai said.

Lebanon started to decay and lost its neutrality after the 1969 Cairo Agreement was imposed on Lebanon, he said. The agreement allowed Palestinians to fight Israelis through southern Lebanon. Rai urged a return to the provisions of a 2002 Arab League accord that would restore Lebanon’s neutrality.

Under the Lebanese constitution, power is shared among Christians and Muslims.

“For us, dialogue between Christians and Muslims is the backbone of the existence of Lebanon,” Rai said.

The constitutional power-sharing is a formalized statement of a practice that existed before the constitution was adopted. Sharing and dialogue ensure co-existence of the two groups.

The practice of Christianity in Lebanon is unique in the Middle East. Indeed, it’s the region’s last foothold of Christianity, he said.

“In all the other Arab countries, Islam is the religion of the state and Christians are not given a chance to state their opinions. There is no such thing as freedom of conscience,” Rai said.

“In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims live together in equality and we want to maintain this for the sake Christianity in the whole Arab world.”

Rai said the war on Iraq has destroyed Christianity in the Middle East. One-and-a-half million Christians lived in the region before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. One million Christians have been displaced, he said. Although some priests and bishops remain in the region, Christian schools, hospitals and universities are no longer operable.

“As a result, the impact of Christianity on society has disintegrated. That is why we are so keen on keeping Lebanon as a strong country,” Rai said.

Rai said people are eager to know what the Church recommends as Lebanon considers its future. The Catholic Church in Lebanon plays a leading role in shaping public opinion because it is free and speaks the truth.

“The Church is free. The patriarch and the bishops are free and we say the truth as we see it. We are not looking for anything and this is why our word is heard and appreciated,” he said.

“The Maronite patriarch historically has been a national reference and not just a Maronite reference. ... Lebanese politicians and the diplomatic corps await the sermon of the patriarch on Sunday to see what direction the Church wants the country to go.”

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