Pope Francis Urges Action to Save Lebanon

The country St. John Paul II said was a message to humanity, is ‘weeks to several months’ away from total collapse, unless the international community can save it.

Jean Assaf, an 80-year-old retired police officer who earns a monthly pension worth around $180, down from $1,400 before the crisis, looks at an old photo album at his home in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district on March 24. Lebanon is in the grips of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with more than half of its population living in poverty.
Jean Assaf, an 80-year-old retired police officer who earns a monthly pension worth around $180, down from $1,400 before the crisis, looks at an old photo album at his home in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district on March 24. Lebanon is in the grips of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with more than half of its population living in poverty. (photo: ANWAR AMRO / AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Lebanon is weeks to months away from a full-blown collapse, according to some analysts, which would have ripple effects throughout the Middle East, especially harming Christianity’s indigenous presence in the region. And Pope Francis is working with Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai to rally both internal and international support to save the country, which is critical to the survival of the Church in its birthplace.

The Holy Father communicated recently with both President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, calling on them to break the political deadlock and promising a papal visit to their country if they form a government. President Aoun, a Maronite Catholic, is part of a political coalition that includes Hezbollah, whose militia rivals the Lebanese Armed Forces and acts as a proxy of Iran. Hariri, who is Sunni, is part of a political coalition of Lebanese parties claiming to seek Lebanese political neutrality and an economic alliance with the Gulf States. 

“Lebanon cannot lose its identity, nor the experience of brotherly living together, which made it a message to the whole world,” Pope Francis wrote to President Aoun on April 27.

The president is at loggerheads with Hariri, who wants to form a cabinet of 18 technocrats supposedly free from political allegiances to implement much-needed reforms and root out corruption. However, Aoun has not consented to the plan, calling for political-sectarian representation in the proposed cabinet, which is largely unrepresentative of Christian interests, leaving Hariri unable to form a government since October 2020. 

Pope Francis also met with Hariri in a private audience for 30 minutes on April 22. 

“I explained to His Holiness Pope Francis the problems we are suffering from and asked His Holiness for help. His Holiness the Pope is keen on coexistence in Lebanon, and he views the Lebanese as one body,” the prime minister-designate told Lebanese media.

A communiqué from Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, following the visit said Pope Francis hoped “Lebanon, with the help of the international community, will once again embody ‘the strength of the cedars, the diversity which from weakness becomes strength in the great reconciled people,’ with its vocation to be a land of encounter, coexistence, and pluralism.”

The Holy Father’s diplomatic efforts aim to support Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai’s push for an international conference that would bring Lebanon’s divided parties together and save the country from its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Cardinal Rai has leveraged his spiritual authority in Lebanon to meet with the different Lebanese factions in an appeal for them to come to the negotiating table — but his push for an international conference and a neutral Lebanon is strongly opposed by Hezbollah.   


Lebanon’s Message at Stake

St. John Paul II stated Lebanon’s historic message to the world is how “different faiths can live together in peace, brotherhood and cooperation.” But Church leaders are keenly aware that the U.S. and international community needs to act now to prevent Lebanon’s historic message from disappearing in 2021.

“Lebanon teeters dangerously close to failed state status,” In Defense of Christians’ advocacy director, Steven Howard, explained to an IDC-sponsored press roundtable that included the Register.

Once regarded as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon’s economy has collapsed under the burden of political deadlock, political corruption and Hezbollah’s entanglements in foreign conflicts at the behest of Iran in Syria, Iraq and Israel and even as far away as Yemen. More than 50% of Lebanon’s population is now below the poverty line. Banks are inaccessible, fuel subsidies are running out, and food prices have skyrocketed 400% over the past year, with families unable to feed, clothe and shelter their children. 

The Lebanese pound has lost nearly 90% of its value since late 2019, and international banks have also cut or reduced ties with Lebanon’s central bank, over its alleged role in Lebanon’s systemic corruption and financing of Hezbollah’s military exploits. The country’s economic lifeline was severed by the 2020 Beirut Port explosion that killed 200 people, injured thousands, destroyed 300,000 homes, and wiped out 90% of Lebanon’s wheat storage. While Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government resigned in the wake of the deadly blast, his cabinet remains a caretaker government, as talks to form a new government under Prime Minister-designate Hariri have broken down since October 2020. The disaster has become emblematic of how deadly and intractable the country’s corruption has become, as even billion-dollar proposals to repair the port cannot advance due to the failure to form a government. 

Richard Gazelle, senior adviser for IDC, said the timeline for Lebanon’s complete collapse in this “dire situation” is now calculated in terms of “months or even weeks” and will send shockwaves throughout the Middle East and the world, especially the United States, unless decisive action is taken to save Lebanon and its constitution founded on “democracy, pluralism and multi-confessionalism.”

Lebanon is the one country where a Christian is the head of state, where Christians and Muslims have political equality, and where a person can freely change religious status. The president of Lebanon is always a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister is Sunni, and the speaker of Parliament is Shia. However, the country’s peaceful coexistence is disrupted by Hezbollah, which is the only Shia political party that refused to disband its militia after the end of Lebanon’s civil war.

Gazelle explained Lebanon is historically the “bastion of Christianity in the Middle East,” shaped by centuries of Christianity, adding, “If the world is not vigilant, it won’t remain that way forever.”


Getting to an International Conference

Bishop Peter Karam, patriarchal vicar and titular bishop of Acre of Phoenicia of the Maronites, said the Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Rai, is calling “for the convocation of an international conference on Lebanon” to help gather the Lebanese around the negotiating table to solve outstanding issues among the Lebanese.

“We want the international community, especially the United States [together with France], to help spread this call and proposal in the U.N. and Security Council,” he said. “Because the salvation of Lebanon really depends on declaring and recognizing Lebanon as a neutral state.” 

Among other things, Lebanese neutrality would prevent Iran from using Lebanon as a base for military action in the region, particularly against Israel, and would likely require Hezbollah to disband its militia, which is now equal to the size of the Lebanese Armed Forces and is fighting at Iran’s behest in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as importing drugs into Lebanon. Iran has worked to financially prop up Hezbollah with $700 million annually, to advance its geostrategic interests. Hezbollah, in turn, is providing food, fuel and social services in Lebanon and ramping up those efforts in preparation for the country’s total collapse. 

Bishop Karam affirmed that “Lebanon is on the verge of total collapse” and warned the devastation of the health, education and banking sectors, which heavily employed Christians, will fuel migration out of the country. The nation’s private-school system — including Catholic schools — is about to run out of money without external financial support, he warned.

“Lebanon may not exist if we don’t solve this crisis now,” he said.


U.S. Leadership Is Critical

The United States has attempted to exert some pressure on Lebanon’s political situation. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale warned personal financial sanctions could be on the table for Lebanese political leaders who obstruct progress toward reform. The U.S. is also attempting to mediate between Israel and Lebanon over a maritime border and has provided assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces as a counterbalancing institution to Hezbollah. 

But what has stymied billions of dollars in U.S. and international humanitarian assistance to Lebanon is the country’s endemic political corruption and the risk that funds entrusted to Lebanon’s government for disbursement to the people could end up subsidizing Hezbollah’s military offensives instead. 

Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said the U.S. should recognize “this is a situation of extreme emergency” and act with imagination. Rather than give humanitarian assistance money government to government, Fernandez said the U.S. should partner directly with the Catholic Church in Lebanon, because there is no government partner that is not “the same people that put [Lebanon] in this catastrophic situation the Lebanese people find themselves in.”

“We have to think big, and think boldly, and break free of the state formation-support paradigm,” he said. 

Fernandez explained the U.S. needs to empower Patriarch Rai as much as possible and give the Church and other private entities the resources to provide food, medicine and other services to blunt the impact of Hezbollah and corrupt political parties until an international conference generates real solutions for Lebanon.

He stressed the need is critical: “You need to have something that is going to be there while you hold that international conference.”