A powerful explosion and subsequent shock wave which spread more than six miles killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. A lament and an appeal
“Ah, let me cross over and see this good land beyond the Jordan, this fine hill country, and the Lebanon!” – Deuteronomy 3:25
All of us should shed a tear for what has happened to Lebanon’s beautiful capital, Beirut — the lovely port city of a gorgeous, mountainous country just to the north of Israel.
On August 4, at about 6:07 p.m., an explosion in the harbor of Beirut sent a brief mushroom cloud billowing into the sky, followed by clouds of red and grey smoke and a powerful shockwave (but comparatively little heat — something observers noted — the heat would have set the city on fire). The shock wave raced through the “Paris of the East,” so-called because of its beautiful streets and hospitable people, shattering windows into millions of glass shards, causing thousands of injuries.
So August 4, 2020, in Lebanon, much like September 11, 2001, in the United States, will go down as a day of tragedy and sorrow for Lebanon’s people.
At his weekly General Audience the next day, on Wednesday, August 5, Pope Francis prayed for victims in Beirut. “Let us pray for the victims, for their families,” Francis said. “And let us pray for Lebanon so that, through the dedication of all its social, political and religious elements, it might face this extremely tragic and painful moment and, with the help of the international community, overcome the grave crisis they are experiencing.”
The explosion was at first attributed by government officials to the accidental explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) stored at the harbor for the past seven years. In 2013, the fertilizer was being transported by a Moldavan-registered ship from the Black Sea to Africa. A Russian national now living in Cyprus identified as Igor Grechushkin had been paid $1 million to transport the high-density ammonium nitrate to the port of Beira in Mozambique, according to reports.
The ship, named the Rhosus, set out from the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia, but never made it past Beirut. The ship was impounded by Beirut port authorities, and the Russian owner abandoned the vessel, which later sank in the harbor. The cargo was brought ashore and left for seven years in the warehouse that just blew up.
What caused it to blow up?
Lebanese authorities at first said it was touched off by a fire in a fireworks factory next to the warehouse. But then U.S. President Donald Trump said in an August 4 press conference that his top generals had indicated to him that the explosion may not have been accidental, but touched off by “a bomb.”
“According to them—they would know better than I would— but they seem to think it was an attack,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “It was a bomb of some kind.”
“How can you say ‘accident’ if somebody left some terrible explosive-type devices and things around?” Trump asked reporters during a White House briefing the next day. “I don’t think anybody can say right now… Some people think it was an attack and some people think it wasn’t.”
Then, speaking on August 7, the president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, also seemed to change his position from the original one that it was a terrible accident, saying the Beirut explosions could have been “due to negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb.” He said he had asked French President Emmanuel Macron to provide Lebanon with satellite imagery which might show whether there were any missiles or airplanes in the area which may have had something to do with the explosion.
So there seems to be some slow movement in official circles to look more closely at the possibility that there was intent behind the explosion— which would, of course, make it not a lamentable accident, but a terrible crime.
We have several dear friends who are Lebanese, and they are well, thank God. Still, our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Beirut, and of Lebanon, who have been harmed and traumatized by this terrible explosion. And during his lifetime, Jesus visited the Phoenician cities along Lebanon’s coast, Tyre and Sidon, preached to the people there, and healed the sick. The soil on which he walked is “holy ground.” As Pope Francis said, the people of Beirut are in need of assistance. We have spoken with our friends, Maronite monks in Rome and Lebanon, about how we can help. They have encouraged us to contribute to relief efforts sponsored by the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon. We invite all readers to join us in this effort. You may make donations at the InsideTheVatican.com website. Each person who contributes will become enrolled in a group called “Friends of Lebanon.”
Factions and divisions arise in the Church. The Church’s real, abiding unity comes from the Holy Spirit and is “incarnated” in acts of charity in time of need. Please join us in supporting the people of Lebanon. In this way, we will “incarnate” the unity of the Church in this factious time. —Robert Moynihan