Why Lebanon Is So Important to the Holy See — and to the World

“Lebanon is more than a country — it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.” —Pope St. John Paul II

This general view taken May 11, 1997, from a helicopter in Beirut shows the 250,000 pilgrims at the open-air Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Lebanon
This general view taken May 11, 1997, from a helicopter in Beirut shows the 250,000 pilgrims at the open-air Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Lebanon (photo: AL-SAFIR / AFP via Getty Images)

On July 1, leaders of Christian Churches of Lebanon — including heads of the Maronite, Melkite, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Chaldean, Syrian Catholic and evangelical communities — were gathered in Rome for a day of prayer and reflection with Pope Francis, in response to the devastating economic and political crisis in Lebanon.

These religious leaders made special appeals to Lebanon’s citizens not to become discouraged and lose heart; to the political leaders to find solutions to the current economic, social and political crisis; to the Lebanese of the diaspora to serve the homeland; and to the members of the international community to undertake a joint effort to save Lebanon.

In the words of Pope Francis, the intention of the gathering was that Lebanon “must remain a project of peace. 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.”

Why Lebanon Is a Message 

Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859) was Austria’s foreign minister and architect of the “Concert of Europe” — a viable diplomatic system between the European Powers which kept Europe at peace for almost a century following the Napoleonic wars.

Before sending his ambassador to Constantinople, Metternich instructed him: “Tell the Sultan, if there is war in Lebanon there will be war in the Levant, if there is peace in Lebanon there will be peace in the Levant.”

The Austrian statesman and diplomat knew how to keep the equilibrium and balance of powers to ensure peace and stability. He understood that a peaceful Lebanon contributed to a peaceful and stable region, but an explosive region would sooner or later come back to haunt the territorial integrity of Lebanon, the Christian presence in the region and the coexistence among its religious communities.  

Lebanon is exceptionally diverse with respect to religious demographics. According to 2020 statistics, Lebanon’s total population is 5.5 million, with 67.8% Muslim (31.9% Sunni, 31.2% Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Although Christians are a minority (32.4%), they have played an important role in every aspect of Lebanon’s history, politics and economy.

Among the Christians, Maronite Catholics are the largest group, followed by Greek Orthodox. Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, Protestants, Latin Catholics and Mormons are the other Christian groups living in the country. 4.5% of the population is Druze, and there are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists and Hindus.

What is particular among these religious communities is a power-sharing and representation system which started in 1860 with the Règlement Organique (Organic Regulation) between the Ottoman Empire and the European Powers, and continued with the 1989 Ta’if Agreement that made Lebanon, in the words of Kamal Salibi, a “house of many mansions,” and brought long periods of peace. Religious leaders of Lebanon have worked toward institutionalizing religious coexistence as a means of building the nation from the ground up.

Lebanon’s current crisis is not new. It was 40 years ago, on Oct. 2, 1979, the first year in his papacy, that Pope John Paul II addressed the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations, giving priority to finding a solution to the crises in the Middle East. For John Paul II the only way to resolve the crises and restore security and prosperity to the Christians of Lebanon was to save the integrity of Lebanon itself. John Paul II believed that Lebanon could be saved only through a sincere commitment of all religious communities to dialogue and peacebuilding. The Pope saw Lebanon as a model of Christian–Muslim relations, a case for pluralism and security for Christians in the Middle East.

As John Paul II said on Sept. 7, 1989, Lebanon is “more than a country — it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”

The pontiff’s speech at the UN set the priority of bringing peace to the Middle East based on the rights of all and for all, while preserving the integrity of Lebanon even at the cost of opposing some of the Maronite Catholics and Maronite monks who were in favor of preserving Christianity by advancing Maronite hegemony or dividing the country into religious enclaves. These groups were also against the Palestinian refugees, who were considered intruders.

Still, John Paul II remained firm in his understanding that if there is peace in Lebanon, there will be peace in the Middle East. He said:

“A peace that, being necessarily based on equitable recognition of the rights of all, cannot fail to include the consideration and just settlement of the Palestinian question. Connected with this question is that of the tranquility, independence and territorial integrity of Lebanon within the formula that has made it an example of peaceful and mutually fruitful coexistence between distinct communities, a formula that I hope will, in the common interest, be maintained, with the adjustments required by the developments of the situation.”

John Paul II’s Appeal to all Muslims in Favor of Lebanon is significant. It showed a Roman pontiff appealing to the Muslim faithful to make their voices heard and to unite with all those who support Lebanon’s rights to live in freedom, peace and dignity and to preserve religious freedom. The Holy See’s model of Christian-Muslim relations in Lebanon gained the support of the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon. The 2012 letter by Lebanon's Grand Mufti Mohammed Rachid Qabbani to Pope Benedict XVI explained the privileged relations between Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims, which according to the Sunni Muslim leader are “their message to the world.”

The urgent appeal by Pope Francis and other Christian leaders for an end to the crisis in Lebanon will be taken seriously by the international community, as saving Lebanon means saving the Middle East: “Let animosities cease, disagreements fade, and Lebanon return to radiate the light of peace,” as Pope Francis said concluding a World Day of prayer and reflection for Lebanon.