BEIRUT — The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism promoted a March 17-22 visit, a visit which involved, with the assistance of the Vatican’s Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP), journalists and pilgrimage operators from various Italian dioceses.
The Register, which took part in the visit, spoke to prominent Lebanese authorities about the Christian contributions to their society and the ongoing threats to Christians in the area.
At the end of the visit, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Béchara Boutros Raï sought to remind the group of journalists gathered in his Beirut residency that Lebanon used to be a predominantly Christian country.
“Stop using the word ‘minority’ to define Christians in the Middle East!” he said.
The patriarch’s words sum up both the fundamental importance and the complexity of the situation of the Christian community in Middle East — the very region which gave birth to Christianity.
In most countries of the area, the Christian presence has been constantly and significantly reduced, especially since the end of the 19th century. Today, it has become a small community fighting for its survival.
To this extent, Lebanon remains unique in the Middle East. Devastated by a 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990, this country consists of 18 religious communities — Catholics, other Christian sects (40.5% in total, according to a 2012 report for the U.S. Department of State) and a variety of Muslim sects (54%).
Lebanon as a Message
To maintain peaceful coexistence among these diverse groups, the Lebanese government relies on a strong political system founded on the country’s Constitution of 1990 and the National Pact of 1943, which provide for an equal number of Christian, Sunni and Shiite political representatives in the national government.
In explaining how the Lebanese achieve such unity amid diversity, Patriarch Rai cited Article 9 of the constitution, “The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and shall guarantee that the personal status of the population is respected.”
In granting religious liberty, the patriarch said, the constitution is informed by a tolerance that carefully steers clear of anything that would offend religious sentiment in the country.
Article 9 “means the Lebanese Parliament doesn’t legislate against any divine law,” he said. “Its high value is that, in the midst of a Muslim world, it could guarantee democracy and cultural differences. This is what Lebanese people have created, and this is what we want to save.”
The country is indeed known to be the safest place for Christians in the Middle East. The dedication Mass of a Latin Rite Catholic church March 18 at the U.N. Interim Force’s military base in Lebanon (UNIFIL), in Shama, confirmed the tolerance that the constitution sought to achieve. The first Latin Rite church in the whole Middle East — dedicated to John XXIII and Our Lady of Mount Carmel — is the result of a collaboration between Italian forces at the head of UNIFIL and a local coalition of Catholic and non-Catholic residents.
A few days later, March 25, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, thousands of young Lebanese gathered in celebrations in different parts of the country to honor the Virgin Mary. The feast day became a national holiday in 2010.
“It is the Virgin Mary that unifies the Lebanese,” Khalil Alwan, the vice-dean of the Sanctuary of Our Mother of Lebanon in Harissa, told the Register. “Muslims do respect and venerate the Virgin Mary because a whole chapter of the Quran is dedicated to her, and the Annunciation is mentioned, as well.”
This Maronite sanctuary, built at the beginning of the 20th century, welcomes more than 2 million people every year, including a large number of Muslims, many of whom come from Iran.
“I regularly attend Mass, and I know the Lord’s Prayer by heart,” said the Muslim Alawis governor of the Lebanese district, Bachir Khodr. Quoting the famous assertion by Pope John Paul II that “Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West,” Khodr, 36, praised the quality and richness of the education that, like many other Muslims in Lebanon, he received at a Catholic school in his childhood.
The Strength of Catholic Education
ORP’s institutional visit coincided with the 144th anniversary of St. Joseph University of Beirut (USJ), which ranks as the second-best university of Lebanon and is considered one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the Middle East. Founded in 1875, it was born from an unexpected collaboration between the Jesuits and the very anticlerical French Third Republic.
“The French understood they couldn’t get any cultural outreach abroad without Catholic education” Father Salim Daccache, the rector of the university, told the Register, noting that such influence shows how, throughout history, Catholic excellence in culture and education allowed the Church in Lebanon to resist or even mollify those who might otherwise be hostile to the Church’s mission.
“The Council of Trent prescribed to the Catholic faithful to defend their faith through education, and we still see the fruits of such mandate today,” Father Daccache said. “If the various Catholic communities maintain their presence in the East, it is because they spread a strong education system that helped them resist even in a minority position, as it consolidated the faith and the identity of the faithful, enabling the Church structures to grow.”
The university has about 240,000 students, 36% to 38% of which are Muslims.
Former Minister of Justice Sélim Jahel once wrote that “the capital and fundamental contribution of St. Joseph University of Beirut is to have succeeded in spreading the rule-of-law culture in the country.”
The Refugee Crisis
But USJ is not an isolated case nowadays. Collectively, the Latin Patriarchate schools in the Holy Land represent a pillar of education for Christians and Muslims — and a major component in the region’s relative stability.
As the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch pointed out, Lebanese Christians are a key element for the Middle East and play a stabilizing role in the Arabic world, especially in Lebanon. However, the hard-fought stability between Christians and Muslims in the country is being jeopardized by the refugee crisis, raising concerns among Lebanese authorities.
“We can’t bear to have more than a million and a half Syrian refugees in a country which is smaller than Sardinia,” Patriarch Rai told the Register. “The European Union mustn’t bind their returning home to a political solution in Syria.”
Patriarch Raï explained that, although the vast majority of Syrian territories are now freed from ISIS terrorists, an average 200 refugees per square kilometer (about 77 square miles) occupy land in Lebanon, and there are now more Syrian pupils in public schools than Lebanese pupils.
“Both Syrian and Palestinian refugees are Sunnis,” he said. “If Sunnis’ presence were to prevail, Lebanon would lose its identity and its mission. The Lebanese pluralistic system would disappear and could become a confessional country like every other Middle Eastern country.”
The country has also welcomed thousands of Palestinian refugees over the past decades, especially in the region of Békaa, near the Syrian border, which alone hosts 500,000 to 600,000 refugees today. This phenomenon greatly affects their socioeconomic life, as well as Lebanese demographics, and tensions between refugees and the local residents are growing.
“Helping Syrian people resettle in their original lands is far easier and cheaper than financing them in Europe, where the survival rate is 10 times higher,” Khalil Karam, the ambassador and permanent delegate of Lebanon to UNESCO in Paris and a former chargé d’affaires to the Holy See until summer 2018, told the Register.
Karam, who defines himself as a committed Christian, expressed his concern over the increasing exodus of Eastern Christians that accompanies the refugee crisis, fearing that these communities might lose their precious identity and be definitively secularized in Western countries.
“The current European policies regarding this crisis are inappropriate,” he said, “and I have done my best to raise the awareness of the Holy See about these matters during my mission in Rome.”
Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.