BEIRUT — A cloud of despair is covering Lebanon as the country nears financial collapse. Already, a third of the Lebanese live below the poverty line, and the World Bank has warned Lebanon’s poverty rate could hit 50% if economic conditions worsen.
“This is an emergency,” Maronite Catholic Archbishop of Beirut Paul Abdel Sater told the Register.
“As a pastor, what really matters to me is our people, and I’m noticing, day after day, how things are getting worse and worse for ordinary families. I can see in their eyes the fear of the future,” he said.
Lebanon had been in steady economic decline for several years, under the grip of a corrupt government. The country’s debt stands at $87 billion, or more than 150% of gross domestic product (GDP).
When new taxes were announced mid-October 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese — Christian, Muslim and Druze — united in protests against the ruling elite. Owing to the pressure of the public uprising (known as the revolution, or sawra in Arabic), Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government resigned Oct. 29. Hassan Diab was designated as the new prime minister on Dec. 19, and his cabinet was appointed Jan. 21.
Since the protests, which still continue to a lesser degree, the economic crisis has worsened.
In a country with a citizen population of around 4 million, local statistics show that 220,000 jobs were cut from mid-October 2019 through the end of January. That figure is expected to reach about 250,000 to 300,000 this year. Many of those still employed have seen their salaries slashed in half, or more. For young people with university degrees, unemployment exceeds 35%.
Banks have imposed capital control measures, such as curbing transfers of money abroad and setting limits on withdrawals. Even the well-to-do are unable to fully access their money from the bank. ATM machines have mostly stopped dispensing dollars.
The value of Lebanon’s currency has plummeted, and inflation is rising. Two currencies — the Lebanese pound (LBP) and the U.S. dollar — are used interchangeably in Lebanon. While the Lebanese pound has officially been pegged to the dollar at LBP 1507.5 since 1998, increasing dollar shortages recently have pushed rates in the black market as high as LBP 2,500. This has threatened imports of essential goods from abroad and reduced individual purchasing power.
Maronite Father Joseph Souied is pastor of St. Takla Church in the Sed El Bauchrieh section of Beirut, the biggest and poorest parish in the Maronite Archdiocese of Beirut. Two years ago, 120 families in his parish were living in poverty. Father Souied estimates that number has risen to nearly 800 families.
He notes that parents are wearing “masks” in front of their children to hide their distress.
“If they smile, their heart is weeping inside. They are hurt,” he said. “Someone has betrayed them and their inner peace: their government. Our society is in a big crisis, and their worry is they don’t know when it will end.”
Church leaders have continually sounded the alarm to the Lebanese authorities.
In his homily Feb. 16 while visiting Rome, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, called on the new government “to work seriously to develop a rescue plan for an economic, financial and social renaissance.” This, he said, “is the only way” to meet the demands of the uprisings in the street, “which is also our demand because it is the cry of a hungry people.”
In a country where there are no government-sponsored social-assistance programs, the faithful are increasingly turning to the Church in their time of need.
Archbishop Boulos Abdel Sater of Beirut notes that since he was installed as archbishop of Beirut in July 2019, parishioners would occasionally request help, including financial aid, such as a small sum to pay a part of the rent. Now, with an average six people a day coming to his office, more are asking for help with the full rent, for school tuition and hospital bills, he said.
The archbishop shared how he recently met with a couple who explained that the husband is now getting only half his salary. They have accumulated around $15,000 in tuition debt for two of their three children enrolled in Catholic school.
“If I wish to help them financially, I can help with only a certain sum, because there are so many families asking for help now,” he explained.
“For us [the Church] now, all that matters is to help people overcome their difficulties, their starvation, or at least help them in a way spiritually first, but also financially, just to get through this phase that we hope will not last for a long time,” Archbishop Abdel Sater told the Register.
“The longer the crisis lasts, the more difficult it is for us to help because our resources will become less and less. We have some money put aside to help, but this money is not a source of water. It doesn’t create itself,” the archbishop pointed out.
The Church is also encouraging people to help each other as much as possible, “without distinction between Christian and non-Christian” as an expression of fraternity, he said.
Archbishop Abdel Sater emphasized that “it is the duty of the government to come up with solutions to resolve the financial crisis. It is not the role of the Church.”
He publicly reiterated this point in his homily during Mass Feb. 9 on the feast of St. Maron, patron saint of the Maronite Church. The Mass was attended by many faithful, including Lebanese President Michel Aoun (a Maronite Catholic). Also in attendance were Prime Minister Hassan Diab (a Sunni Muslim) and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri (a Shiite Muslim).
“Does your conscience not move you at the sight of a mother wailing over her son, who committed suicide because he is unable to provide for his children?” the archbishop asked in his homily.
“Lebanese people ... trust you to reform the political, economic, financial and social imbalances and work along with the true revolutionaries, who have goodwill, to find solutions that guarantee a decent living for every citizen. What are you waiting for? Otherwise, resignation is more honorable,” he said.
Archbishop Abdel Sater’s homily was met with applause.
On the spiritual level, the archbishop told the Register that priests “are trying their best first to remove despair from the heart of people, that the Lord will not forsake us. He is with us. We will not be left alone. This is a message of hope that we keep saying.”
Since the October uprising, the Maronite Church has invited the faithful to pray the Rosary for Lebanon every evening with the patriarch, Cardinal Rai, at Bkerke. It is broadcast live by Lebanon’s Christian TV station, Telelumiere, which also broadcasts satellite programming worldwide under the name Noursat.
“My fear is that Christians — especially young people — will despair enough to decide to leave the country,” Archbishop Abdel Sater said. Of Lebanon’s roughly 4 million citizens, about 40% are Christian. The danger, he explains, is that Lebanon “will become something else.”
“It will no longer be the ‘message’ that John Paul II spoke about,” the archbishop said, in reference to the Pope’s 1989 address, in which he noted that “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of coexistence for East and West.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.