As the historic summit with the Pope in Rome approaches, we look at the Middle East’s largest Christian community, which is in great peril.
The economic and political crisis in Lebanon—home to the Middle East’s largest Christian community—has deepened ahead of an historic July 1 meeting between Pope Francis and Christian leaders from the country.
This week, the country’s currency plunged to a record low of 17,000 to the U.S. dollar, having lost 90% 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 3:00 a.m. to line up at petrol stations, in scenes more reminiscent of Venezuela than one of the region’s more prosperous countries.
A Haven for Christians Fleeing Persecution
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, it 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, to work together, and we would like to see this continue,” said Regina Lynch, Director of Projects of 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 explosion last year in Beirut, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. The blast decimated the mostly Christian neighbourhoods around Beirut’s port area, killing at least 200 people. Almost 100,000 buildings were destroyed and several hundred thousand people were left homeless in one fell swoop.
“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,” stated Regina Lynch.
The Lebanese Exodus and a Papal Summit Bringing Hope
In this context, Pope Francis announced a summit to be held on 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 also 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 expressed interest in visiting the country as soon as possible.
Father Jad Chlouk, from the Maronite Archdiocese of Beirut, repeated the need for international support a few days ago during the presentation about the annual activities of ACN.
“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,” says Fr. 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 the midst of 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.”
ACN, a Catholic pontifical foundation, has provided extensive support to Lebanon in its current crisis, with more than 7.95 million in aid following the August 2020 dockside blast, including emergency aid and repairs for church buildings in the capital’s historic Christian quarter.