Lebanon Update #2, 2021, August 3: A Path Forward
“The Lebanon financial and economic crisis is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.” —Conclusion of the Lebanon Economic Monitor, Spring 2021, “Lebanon Sinking (to the Top 3),” a publication of The World Bank
“The power supply has been cut across Lebanese territories indefinitely.” —Statement from Electricite du Liban (EDL), the main electricity producer for Lebanon, asking residents in the eastern city of Zahle to reduce electricity consumption, cited in a July 9 BBC report
Simon of Cyrene, a simple bystander, steps forward to help Jesus to carry His cross.
This is the second of our Unitas reports on the dramatic situation in Lebanon today. We send these reports to our “Friends of Lebanon” members — those who have sent donations to support the people of Lebanon. We are calling this Report: Lebanon Report #2, August 3, 2021. All the reports will be archived on the Inside the Vatican website. (See also this.)
Note: To support this work, please go to this link and scroll down to “Donate to Support the Church in Lebanon.” Any amount is greatly appreciated. Any donor is automatically included among our “Friends of Lebanon” and will receive regular updates in the months ahead.
We will be holding a video conference call on Friday, August 13, to discuss the situation in Lebanon. This is a monthly conference call. All “Friends of Lebanon” are invited to participate.—RM
Friends of Lebanon: One Year Later
By Christopher Hart-Moynihan
Director, Unitas “Friends of Lebanon” Project
August 3, 2021
Tomorrow, August 4, 2021, is the one-year anniversary of a tragic day in the history of Lebanon.
On August 4, 2020, the port of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, was the scene of an explosion that caused at least 207 deaths, 7,500 injuries, and left an estimated 200,000 people homeless.
The blast itself was recorded in real-time on numerous devices and the image of the shockwave rippling through downtown Beirut was shared almost instantly worldwide. Like many others who watched footage of the explosion, we wondered if there was something we could do to help. Through a number of e-mail newsflashes sent out to the 15,000 readers of the Moynihan Letters, we requested support for those affected by the blast. The funds we raised were used to provide immediate aid to those who were suffering most following the August 4 explosion.
Over the past year, we have worked particularly closely with two individuals on the ground in Lebanon: Georges Assaf, a Maronite Catholic, and Aya Naimeh, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, both living in Beirut. Georges and Aya are both part of an organization, Lebanese Young Talents, that seeks to assist young people living in Beirut to pursue their future in a rebuilt Lebanon, and not leave the country.
A Worsening Crisis
Although a year has passed since the explosion, Lebanon is still facing a political and economic crisis that is making it difficult for ordinary Lebanese people to obtain basic goods like food, water, gas, and medicine.
Compounding the frustration is the fact that the official investigation into the cause of the blast has been ineffectual. This article from Amnesty International details the political interference that has hampered the probe, while National Geographic has interviewed some of the victims’ families.
Why is the crisis in Lebanon getting worse, rather than improving? On the surface, it seems that a recovery should be possible. For one thing, there is currently no armed conflict between the various political factions, and Lebanon is also well-known as a former hub for finance and tourism and has one of the highest education levels of any countries in the Middle East.
To learn more about how the situation in Lebanon is evolving, we spoke with Bishop Gregory John Mansour, who heads the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, New York (an Eparchy is the Eastern Catholic equivalent of a Diocese). Bishop Mansour is heavily involved in the humanitarian efforts in Lebanon.
Bishop Mansour’s episcopal motto is “No Greater Love,” taken from John’s Gospel (Gospel of John 15:13) and expresses the depth of God’s gracious love for us in Christ Jesus. It captures the inspiration of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which calls to each Christian, whatever his or her state in life, and asks us to join with Him in this love and ministry for others. It is written both in English and Arabic to represent the languages of the people served by Bishop Gregory; it is yet another reminder of the “beloved community” formed by our faith and His love for us, His people.
A Bishop’s Perspective
Bishop Mansour was born into a Lebanese family in Flint, Michigan (USA), in 1955. He was ordained a Maronite Catholic priest in 1982 and a bishop in 2004, and he was named chairman of Catholic Relief Services’ board of directors in 2016. His work with the humanitarian organization has taken him to Jordan, El Salvador, Egypt, Uganda, Nigeria, and now back to Lebanon.
“When I’m here in the United States, I’m called the Lebanese bishop. In Lebanon, they call me the American bishop,” he said, laughing.
The bishop praised the resilience of ordinary Lebanese people as well as the Catholic institutions in Lebanon, which have continued their work in the midst of crisis.
“The next day [after the port explosion], Christians and Muslims were in the streets with bandages and Lebanese sandwiches, shovels and brooms,” he said.
However, he told us that both people and institutions are struggling to stay afloat.
“The need is great,” the bishop said. “A year ago, a family of four could live on $100 a month. But that same $100 a month is now $10 a month. So many are not able to pay tuition for schools, or pay their hospital bills. But the Catholic institutions in Lebanon are unbelievable. They are running on empty, and everybody is taking pay cuts just to make ends meet, to keep their schools open, hospitals open, nursing care facilities and drug rehabilitation centers open.”
Bishop Mansour explained that Catholic schools play a key role in Lebanon, which is why keeping them open is so critical to Lebanon’s future.
“That’s where the Christian-Muslim conviviality that is Lebanon’s identity truly plays out,” he said. “Not in the mosques, not in the churches. The Catholic schools is where they meet. At least a third of students are non-Catholic. Some of the Catholic schools are 90% Shiite [Muslim], but they employ the Christians and they keep them in that area. In one particular school, the bus drivers, the teachers, the janitors are Christian. So in areas where Christians are the minority, they keep [the Christians] there. They have gardens on their lands that are run by Christian families. But the student population, as I mentioned, can be up to 90% non-Catholic. And this is Lebanon, this is the beauty of Lebanon. All of the Muslims, the Shiites or Sunnis or Druze, who go to our schools remember that fondly, that they got an excellent education.” The bishop mentioned that he has been deeply involved with Caritas Lebanon in efforts to ensure that 80 of Lebanon’s more than 320 Catholic schools do not close their doors (we will be covering these efforts in greater detail in subsequent reports).
While Catholic schools give employment and a sense of community to Christians in Lebanon, their communities still face unique challenges.
“The Christian community often feels that everyone else gets the help and they are left to struggle on their own,” the bishop said. “The Saudis help the Sunnis; the Iranians help the Shiites. Who’s helping the Christians? The government has not been helping anybody for the last several years. The difficulty is that most of the humanitarian efforts that include everybody are Christian. Our doors are open to all.”
The bishop gave as an example a care facility in Lebanon for 250 women and girls with special needs, who are cared for by 11 nuns and 15 lay women.
When he visited the facility, he asked, “Where do these women and girls come from?”
The response: “Bishop, they come from poor families.”
“No, 60% Sunni, Shiite and Druze, and 40% Christian.”
“Do the families help?”
“They assist with whatever they have, but we are mostly doing this on our own.”
“Everybody is looking for help,” the bishop told us. He particularly praised the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Caritas Lebanon, and the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross (we will cover the work of these organizations in upcoming reports), as well as Catholic Relief Services, which, he said, has a special mission to strengthen all of the Catholic institutions on the ground and channel money to them. “I’m very proud of the Catholic Church’s humanitarian footprint,” he said.
Bishop Mansour sees Lebanon as an experiment, testing whether Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups can live in peace alongside one another in one nation.
“The Ottoman Empire was brutal towards everybody, especially those who were not quite like them: Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Assyrians, and Maronites in Lebanon,” the bishop said. “When the Ottomans were defeated in 1919, our Maronite patriarch, at 76 years old, traversed the Mediterranean Sea and arrived at Versailles, France, insisting that Lebanon be carved out of Greater Syria in the Ottoman Empire, and that it be a Christian-Muslim refuge. He didn’t just draw the map around the Christian enclaves, he was sure to include the areas of Shiites, Sunnis and Druze on purpose, intentionally. And so it was an experiment. Whether that can survive time, especially with some groups who do not share this vision of Lebanon, is the question.”
I asked the bishop why that Maronite patriarch of that time, Blessed Elias Peter Hoayek, wanted the non-Christian communities surrounding the Christian enclaves to be part of Lebanon. “That’s the exact question some Christians are asking today,” the bishop said. “Some of them say that we should have learned from history that Muslim leaders never have good intentions toward us, and that we should have protected ourselves. But on the other side some are saying, ‘No, we did this on purpose. There must have been something from God in this.’ Why would a man, 76 years old, traverse across the sea to Versailles, and ask for — and almost demand — that the allied countries form a Lebanon? And why did he include non-Christians within those boundaries, on purpose? It was a deliberate attempt to say that Christians and Muslims can find their better angels and create something that will endure. And that’s the question: will that experiment endure?”
“Will that experiment endure?”
“The majority of Muslims in Lebanon love the idea of Lebanon,” the bishop added. “They are passionate about Lebanon. It’s the fringe of the Sunni and the fringe of the Shiite, who believe that nations are not that important, rather that the spread of Islam is what’s important. Likewise there are Christians who have added to the woes of Lebanon by their greed and selfishness.”
In addition to his humanitarian work in Lebanon and elsewhere, Bishop Mansour has also been involved for several years with the International Religious Freedom Summit, held for the past few years in Washington, D.C.
“I was so proud to be an American,” he said, speaking about the inaugural summit sponsored by the State Department a few years ago. “You had Christians advocating for Rohingya Muslims, Jews advocating for Uyghur Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals all gathered. The next year it was also sponsored by the State Department and doubled in size. This past year the private sector organized it and it was just as great.”
The summit was an opportunity for the bishop to make his case that Lebanon and the United States have a special connection, as countries and societies founded on the basis of religious freedom.
“The point that we, especially those from Lebanon, tried to make is that religious freedom is the charism of the United States,” Bishop Mansour said. “It is our first freedom, of course, that’s known. But the difference between the United States and far too many other countries is that in the U.S., a person’s conscience, a person’s relationship with the creator is more important than dictates of the state.
“That’s why, for me, Lebanon is so very important, because Lebanon was created with a similar purpose,” he continued. “So that Muslims and Christians could be judged by their own courts in religious matters, and for other civil and criminal matters, there is such a thing as a state. But the state is not predominant; it is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end: religious freedom.
“If you look at many of the Islamic countries,” the bishop said, “where have the Jews gone? And right behind them are the Christians.
“We can blame an idea: the idea that the state, or the state religion, is the beginning and end of all things — which certain Islamic countries believe, and likewise most socialist countries, and all communist countries. For a better tomorrow, we have to promote something different: religious freedom. Not just freedom to worship, but freedom to express one’s faith in public, not to be persecuted for one’s faith. Not to have one religion favored over another.”
Friends of Lebanon: Who We Are
Friends of Lebanon is one of several projects being carried out by UNITAS, an initiative of Urbi et Orbi Communications.
Even though most of us have never set foot in Lebanon, the country has held a special place in our hearts for many years. Over the past decade, the monastery of the Lebanese Maronite monks at the Villa Serenella in Rome has become a calm oasis for us amid the hustle and bustle of the Eternal City. For many years, we have brought pilgrims to the monastery and listened to the traditional liturgy of the Maronites, sung in the ancient Syriac language.
This personal connection was the reason why, when we heard about the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, we felt that we had to do something to help.
Directly following the explosion, we reached out to Tony Assaf, a Vatican journalist from Lebanon. Tony is a close friend of ours who was, once upon a time, a seminarian at the Villa Serenella. Tony put us in touch with Fr. Joe Bou Jaoude, a Maronite priest living in Beirut and ministering to the Maronite community there. Through Fr. Joe, we made contact with two people who have worked closely with us over the past year: Georges Assaf, Tony’s brother, a Maronite Catholic, and Aya Naimeh, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, both living in Beirut.
Together with Georges and Aya, this spring we began to shift the focus of our project: in addition to providing short-term help, we are now also bringing long-term hope to the afflicted Christians in Lebanon.
As the crisis continued through the fall of 2020 and into the spring of 2021, we continued to provide education funds to directly support students in Beirut who had had their studies disrupted. Through Georges and Aya, we were able to disburse more than $4,700 to a total of 27 students up until March of 2021, giving them the ability to continue their studies.
A video on the Instagram page of Lebanese Young Talents can give you an idea of the urgency of the situation and the impact that your donations have made. The video features the story of one of the individuals who received emergency funds through Friends of Lebanon. This man, Anthony Karam, was driving in his car 400 meters away from the “ground zero” of the explosion and endured a five-hour operation to save his eye after walking through the streets of Beirut in search of a hospital that was not full. The video can be seen here.
In many places, the video may be difficult to watch — especially at the end, where Anthony describes the relief of recovering sight in his left eye after the operation while simultaneously realizing that he had permanently lost the use of his left eye.
There is another video on the Lebanese Young Talents page thanking everybody who donated to support students continuing their education during the 2020-2021 school year. That video can be seen here.
Where do we go from here?
Though we are now 12 months removed from the date of the explosion, Lebanon is still confronting multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic depression, which has been worsening since 2019. This video provides one summary of the origins and current state of Lebanon’s economic crisis. This article describes how the current economic crisis is making it difficult for Lebanese to buy food for their families, along with a pictograph showing the decrease in purchasing power over the last two years.
—Christopher Hart-Moynihan was born in Rome in 1989. He studied linguistics at William and Mary College in Virginia. He speaks Spanish, Italian, Russian, French, and has studied several Native American Indian languages.