BEIRUT — The heartbeat of Lebanon reverberates in the throes of a massive uprising by its population frustrated at economic conditions in the country and demanding a new government — and Pope Francis has responded by championing, in word and image, the freedom and dignity of all the Lebanese people.
Since Oct. 17, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese — Christian, Muslim and Druze alike — have mobilized in streets and public squares throughout the country. The protests were sparked by proposed new taxes, compounding a dire economic crisis and deteriorating living conditions in Lebanon, while rampant political corruption has also fueled the frustration that has led to the protests.
Caving in to the protesters’ demands, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri submitted his government’s resignation to Lebanese President Michel Aoun Oct. 29. Lebanese jubilantly responded, waving flags.
Commenting on the resignation, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch of Antioch and all the East, said, “The Lord is leading the ship of the homeland, and we hope that this step will be the beginning of the solution.” Shortly after Hariri’s announcement, Cardinal Rai was leading the Rosary at the Maronite Patriarchate north of Beirut, in step with his plea to the faithful to pray the Rosary.
“Our Lady is the mother of Lebanon, who inspires the work and reads the needs of her children, as she did in the wedding of Cana without anyone asking her,” he said. “We have said from the beginning that our strength and arms are the Rosary.”
Cardinal Rai convened a meeting of the Maronite bishops Oct. 30, in which they expressed their hope that the Lebanese would receive the resignation “in a constructive spirit.” The bishops called on political officials to “rally around” Lebanese President Aoun, “who is entrusted with the constitution, to speed up the taking of the necessary constitutional measures to protect Lebanon, in response to the aspirations of all Lebanese.”
The Maronite bishops extended “a sincere tribute to their brothers and sisters who are protesting from all sects and regions of Lebanon, coupled with the support of their rightful demands.”
Pope Francis’ Prayers
The bishops also thanked Pope Francis for “his good and noble attitude towards the Lebanese uprising.”
Following the prayer of the Angelus on Oct. 27, the 11th day of protests, Pope Francis said, “I send a special thought to the dear Lebanese people, in particular to young people, who in recent days have made their cry heard in the face of challenges and the social, moral and economic problems of the country.”
The Pope urged everyone in Lebanon “to seek the right solutions along the path of dialogue.”
“I pray to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Lebanon, so that — with the support of the international community — that country may continue to be a place of peaceful coexistence and respect for the dignity and freedom of every person,” Pope Francis said.
A resolution to the crisis in Lebanon, he said, would be “for the benefit of the entire Middle East region, which suffers so much.”
A photo of His Holiness holding up a T-shirt, embossed with “I Am Lebanon — Proud, Independent & Free,” rapidly streamed through Lebanese social media in the homeland and abroad.
While the Pope addressed the country’s situation, Lebanese of all ages and religions were mobilizing to form a 106-mile-long human chain stretching the length of the country from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south.
Also on Oct. 27, commencing with the ringing of church bells throughout the country at 5:30pm, Cardinal Rai urged the faithful to pray the Rosary each day at that time.
In addition, churches in Lebanon have been organizing prayers, special Masses and have called for fasting.
The Lebanese people have been smothering under a crippling socioeconomic existence, with more than one-third of Lebanese citizens living below the poverty line.
The country’s unemployment rate stands at nearly 40%, while public debt presently stands at more than 150% of Lebanon’s gross domestic product. These economic problems come at a time when the common perception in the country is that many of Lebanon’s politicians have amassed wealth at the expense of their fellow Lebanese.
People struggle to provide for their families in a country where two electric bills are the norm: one for the sporadic government-provided electricity and one to private businesses that provide energy through generators to make up for daily outages.
Households that can afford to are also paying for privately run water deliveries to supplement the country’s insufficient water supply. Parents increasingly have had no other recourse than to withdraw their children from Catholic and other private schools for enrollment in public education. In 2018, some 70% of Lebanon’s students attended private schools. The government had suspended housing loans, dampening prospects for young couples who want to plan a future. And a lack of job opportunities has caused many Lebanese — and particularly university graduates looking for work — to emigrate.
In what many see as the last straw, the government then proposed a slate of new taxes, including surcharges on WhatsApp, a free social-media app that allows its users to call and text for virtually no cost to the user. Many Lebanese consider the app a vital alternative to the country’s high mobilephone rates.
Mobilizations to streets all over the country soon morphed into hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, all religions. Some estimates of demonstrator numbers have reached nearly 2 million, among an existing Lebanese population of approximately 4 million.
Awash in a sea of Lebanese flags, protesters has been largely festive in mood as years of pent-up frustration with the government translated into solidarity and comradeship among Lebanese citizens. Side by side, with the national anthem and other patriotic songs reverberating from speakers, some participants joined arm in arm for the traditional dabke dance. Religious identity aside, together the demonstrators demanded the resignation of all of Lebanon’s political leaders. “All of them means all,” has been a popular slogan.
“The time has finally come for those who stole our dreams to give way to trusted leaders,” Badih Saikali, who has been regularly participating in protests, told the Register. Referring to this time as an “historical revolution that has slowly but surely been brewing,” Saikali stressed, “never did the Lebanese people feel the vibes of the winds of change so deeply in their hearts, minds and souls, joined by their confidence that the country is finally on the verge of being reborn like a phoenix.”
Roula Abou Chebel, a Maronite Catholic who has been joining in the protests with her family, told the Register, “For the past 30 years, Lebanese people have been suffering from corrupted politicians. This is the first time ever that all Lebanese people united. All we want is a government to take care of our basic human rights. Our demands constitute only proper water, electricity, proper infrastructure, women’s rights and jobs.”
Added Chebel, “Lebanese people have the right to live a decent life in our homeland instead of spending our lives as expats in foreign countries.”
Peaceful but Powerful
While protests have remained for the most part peaceful, the overwhelming magnitude of the uprising has paralyzed the country, with schools, universities and banks closed since the uprising began on Oct. 17.
On Oct. 25, Cardinal Rai declared, “It is not possible to continue to ignore the cries of the Lebanese people of all ages and walks of life, who are in a total state of revolution for the ninth consecutive day, from the north to the south and from the east and to the west, demanding — and we stand by their demands — a new government, a government that is worthy of the trust of the Lebanese people.”
Cutting short a pastoral visit to Africa, Cardinal Rai had convened an emergency meeting Oct. 23 at the patriarchate, gathering Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Protestant leaders, including patriarchs, bishops and heads of religious orders, in the presence of the Vatican ambassador to Lebanon.
“We salute the revolting people, and we express solidarity with their peaceful uprising,” the Christian religious leaders said in a statement.
“The people have sent a message that transcends sectarian divisions,” they noted, adding that the Lebanese people “have showed that they were more united than their leaders and gave evidence of the will of national life in a time of disintegration.”
Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Catholic, while the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim. About 40% of Lebanon’s citizens are Christian.
The Christian leaders charged that “successive governments for 30 years ignored our appeals and neglected their axiomatic duties.”
They implored the government to respond to national demands, including a credible, democratic government; an independent and just judiciary; transparency; and impartiality regarding conflicts. The Christian leaders also demanded that the government combat corruption, stop waste and, with effective laws, recover plundered money.
At the same Oct. 23 meeting, Christian leaders also called for the government to provide education, job opportunities and social services to the Lebanese people.
Honoring JPII’s Message
In 1989, Pope St. John Paul II declared, “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
“These are the most basic rights,” the Christian religious leaders noted in their Oct. 23 joint message calling for sweeping government reforms. “We call upon the international community, near and far, to support Lebanon as a people and a nation to remain the beacon of this East and the homeland of a ‘message,’ as described by Pope John Paul II.”
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut.