Maronite Patriarch Advocates for the Salvation of Lebanon
A Lebanese throng rallied last month in support of the cardinal’s campaign, and Pope Francis advised this week that he has promised the patriarch that he will visit the beleaguered Middle East nation to communicate his own support.
BEIRUT — As Lebanon spirals toward collapse without a functioning government in place, Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite Catholic patriarch, is on a mission to save his country.
In particular, Cardinal Rai has pushed for Lebanon’s “active neutrality,” based on the country distancing itself from regional conflicts. And, since early February, he has called for a United Nations-sponsored international conference to solve the country’s multiple crises.
In a show of support for his positions, thousands of Lebanese rallied Feb. 27 at Bkerke, the seat of the Maronite Catholic Church north of Beirut.
Opening with Lebanon’s national anthem, followed by a Marian hymn, Under Your Protection, We Take Refuge, O Mary (in Arabic), Cardinal Rai, speaking from a window of the patriarchate, greeted the crowd, “Long live Lebanon, united and unified, actively and positively neutral, sovereign and independent, free and strong, advocating coexistence and tolerance.”
“You have come from all over Lebanon, of all ages, despite the dangers of the coronavirus, to support two proposals, that of neutrality and that of an international conference for Lebanon under the auspices of the U.N. You have come to ask for the salvation of Lebanon,” Cardinal Rai said.
“Failure to respect neutrality is the sole cause of all the crises and wars that the country has gone through,” he stressed.
Lebanon has faced several serious crises for more than a year and a half, rooted in decades-long governmental failure marked by corruption and waste.
Once considered “the Switzerland of the Middle East,” more than half of the Lebanese people now live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate exceeds 50% amid a collapsing economy. In less than a year the Lebanese currency lost 80% of its value. Day by day, the middle class is becoming poor. According to Lebanon’s Central Statistics, inflation in 2020 exceeded 82%.
Their plight is further exasperated by the coronavirus epidemic. The last straw for the Lebanese was the devastating, catastrophic Beirut port explosion in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed large parts of the capital, leaving some 300,000 people homeless.
Lebanon has been without a fully-functioning government since the resignation of the cabinet in the wake of the August explosion. Political wrangling has held up the formation process of a new government.
In his speech at Bkerke, Cardinal Rai said the country’s politicians “have not even had the audacity to sit down at the same table to resolve the current problem.”
Cardinal Rai’s Remarks
The cardinal, whose first name “Bechara” means “Annunciation” in Arabic, will mark his 10th year as the 77th patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church on the Marian feast March 25.
Cardinal Rai continually speaks out for the suffering, exhausted Lebanese and has relentlessly admonished the country’s politicians, recently referring to them as “pawns on the chessboard of the Middle East and of the great powers.” Throughout the political deadlock, he has pressed for the formation of a new government.
In a recent homily, the Maronite cardinal pointedly asked, “Why don’t you form a government when the country has entered the final chapter of collapse? Don’t you fear God, the people and the court of conscience and history?”
In his Feb. 27 speech to the crowd at Bkerke, Cardinal Rai deplored that Lebanon is “facing a coup situation in every sense of the word on the various fields of public life, a coup against the Lebanese society.”
“Never, ever has Lebanon been in such a situation,” Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayah, patriarchal vicar general for foreign affairs at Bkerke, who stood beside Cardinal Rai during his speech, told the Register.
“What is at stake is the future of Lebanon as a country, as a formula. For 100 years, Lebanon has been trying to build itself on very valid principles of coexistence, of Christian-Muslim living together on a secular state, separating religion and politics,” Archbishop Sayah said.
“The values that Lebanon represents are unique in this part of the world. This is not something that only concerns Lebanon. It concerns the whole of the region and even worldwide,” Archbishop Sayah said.
In his speech at Bkerke, Cardinal Rai underscored that the international conference to which he is calling aims to “affirm the stability and identity of Lebanon, the sovereignty of its borders, and its attachment to freedom, equality and neutrality.”
Iranian-backed Hezbollah and some other parties in Lebanon have been critical of the Maronite cardinal’s proposition for an international conference, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah saying that it would open the door to foreign interference in Lebanon.
Without explicitly mentioning Hezbollah, Cardinal Rai alluded to the Muslim group and its weapons.
“There is no state with two powers within it, nor with two armies or two peoples. Any tampering with these constants threatens the unity of the state,” the cardinal said.
The Refugee Issue
The head of the Maronite Church also addressed the issue of refugees in Lebanon. With a native population of around 4.5 million, Lebanon has absorbed approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees. In addition, more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon. Their presence stems from the creation of Israel in 1948. The two refugee populations, which are mostly Sunni Muslim, affects the sectarian balance in Lebanon, in which less than 40% of its citizen population is Christian.
“We want the international conference to set a clear plan preventing the naturalization of Palestinians and to return the Syrian refugees back home,” Cardinal Rai said in his speech.
In reference to the despair of the Lebanese expressed in the mass protest movement that erupted in 2019, later interrupted by the pandemic, Cardinal Rai said, “I fully understand your screams and anger and understand your uprising and revolution.”
He urged the people, “Do not remain silent in the face of corruption. Do not tolerate the theft of your money, the fluid borders, the failure of the political class, the chaos in the investigation into the Beirut port explosion. Do not tolerate the failure in forming a government and implementing reforms.”
“You are Lebanon with the message, values and spirit that represents cultural and religious pluralism,” Cardinal Rai said.
He reminded them, “Lebanon is the message that Pope St. John Paul II spoke about from Lebanon, and His Holiness Pope Francis attaches special importance to the issue of Lebanon.”
Indeed, Cardinal Rai’s initial launch Feb. 7 of an appeal for a U.N.-sponsored international conference to solve Lebanon’s crises coincided with the Pope’s remarks about Lebanon the next day.
In his speech delivered Feb. 8 to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis said, “I also express my hope for renewed political commitment, both national and international, to fostering the stability of Lebanon, which is experiencing an internal crisis and risks losing its identity and finding itself caught up even more in regional tensions.”
“It is most necessary that the country maintain its unique identity, not least to ensure a pluralistic, tolerant and diversified Middle East in which the Christian community can make its proper contribution and not be reduced to a minority in need of protection,” Pope Francis said.
“A weakening of the Christian presence risks destroying internal equilibrium and the very reality of Lebanon. In this regard, the presence of Syrian and Palestinian refugees must be also addressed,” the Pope said.
“Moreover, without an urgently needed process of economic recovery and reconstruction, the country risks bankruptcy, with the possible effect of a dangerous drift towards fundamentalism,” said Pope Francis. “It is therefore necessary for all political and religious leaders to set aside their personal interests and to commit themselves to pursuing justice and implementing real reforms for the good of their fellow citizens, acting transparently and taking responsibility for their actions.”
On his return flight to Rome following his March 5-8 trip to Iraq, the Holy Father told reporters that he had decided against including a stop in Lebanon because he felt the nation deserved a separate visit, which he intends to make in the future.
“Patriarch Rai asked me to please make a stop in Beirut on this trip, but it seemed somewhat too little to me: a crumb in front of a problem in a country that suffers like Lebanon. I wrote a letter and promised to make a trip to Lebanon.”
Added the Pope, “But Lebanon at the moment is in crisis, but in crisis — I do not want to offend — but in a crisis of life.”
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.