“As Christians we believe in resurrection. We are people of hope. Hope, prayer, and faith are our strength. During our history we went through very hard times, even harder than now. These are the characteristics of Lebanon”. Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Raï used these words to end his interview with a group of journalists organized by l’Oeuvre d’Orient, a French organization helping Eastern Christians since over 160 years. Born in Lebanon in 1940, Patriarch Raï is the 77th Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, and head of the Maronite Church, the largest Christian church in Lebanon. The interview took place the day after he returned to Beirut from the Vatican where, on July 1st he attended a day of prayer and reflection with Pope Francis and other leaders of the various Lebanese Christian churches and communities. The initiative was called by Pope Francis to pray on and discuss the future of Lebanon and all the Middle Eastern countries. The aim of the encounter was not to seek a political solution but to respond to the suffering of the Lebanese people.
Lebanon is a Mediterranean nation of 5 million, where Christians (mainly Maronites) make up a third of the population and form the largest percentage in all the Middle East, coexisting with large groups of Druze as well as Shiites and Sunni Muslims and other minorities. The country is going through a severe economic crisis with strong social repercussions. In late 2019 a series of nationwide mass demonstrations protested against the stagnant economy, unemployment, endemic corruption in the public sector, and failures from the government to provide basic services such as electricity, water, and sanitation. This is mainly the consequence of decades of corruption and mismanagement by a post-civil war political class that has accumulated debt and done little to encourage local business, forcing the country to rely on imports for almost everything. This facilitated the interference of several external powers that took the control of large parts of the Lebanese political and economic life, thus strongly reducing the State’s sovereignty. Furthermore, the very high number of refugees fled into the country from neighboring Syria worsened the conditions of the poorest groups of the Lebanese population.
The country was thrown into a political crisis, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning following the protests and without being able to form a new government. To add to its woes, a massive explosion on the 4th of August 2020 in Beirut port killed at least 190 people, injured over 6,000, caused over 10 billion USD in property damage, and left some 300,000 people homeless. Today, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value against the US dollar since 2019 and inflation has skyrocketed, wiping out people’s wages and causing food prices to triple. With the Lebanese pound losing 95% of its purchase power, half of the population is believed to be living below the poverty line. Tight restrictions have also been placed on bank accounts, leaving people unable to withdraw their savings or transfer money abroad. According to the latest World Bank report, Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-Nineteenth Century.
Since the start of the crisis, Patriarch Raï had strong words against the political class and defended the neutrality of Lebanon, considered to be the only way to overcome the difficulties. In this interview he speaks about his discussions with the Pope in the Vatican, focusing on the mission that the Holy Father gave him in order to save Lebanon.
What kind of exchanges did you have with Pope Francis during the day you spent in the Vatican?
There were several consultation meetings with the Holy Father on Lebanon. The Holy Father listened all day about the social, political, and ecclesiastic situation of the country and about the function of the Christian community. We were strongly encouraged by his comprehension and listening, and especially by his concluding speech indicating the outline for our mission. We will start immediately to work with the people, the youth, the political authorities, and the heads of the Muslim communities to put this mission into action. His message is our mission and we will deliver it to all Lebanese people.
Is there still the possibility to save the integrity of Lebanon despite the deep ongoing crisis?
I understand the difficulties of reconstruction, however it is very important for us to remember that our roots remain. The fundamentals of the country are still there and have survived the crisis. The Holy Father mentioned the cedar as the symbol of Lebanon, as the root of our country. There are social, political, and economic problems but we can rebuild this country because its roots are still there. It won’t be an ex-novo construction but the renovation of something already in existence. We used to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, with richness and prosperity. Now Lebanon is seriously ill but still not dead: the patient can be healed. I am very convinced of that. As for what I heard from the Holy Father, he considers the recovery of Lebanon necessary for the sake of all the Middle East.
What concrete initiatives did the Pope indicate in his message that you will try to implement in Lebanon?
He addressed the religious leaders, the Lebanese people, the diaspora, the youth, the international community, the countries that interfere in Lebanon. He had a message for each of these groups. I can answer only on what he entrusted me with. As leaders of the Church, we must do ecclesial work, charitable services for the people. At the national level we have to work with the political parties and the authorities to reach concrete actions.
What will you do to convince the political authorities to accept the Pope’s message?
The Holy Father asks to consider the national interest before personal interest. The country cannot recover its health until politicians and authorities stop looking just to their own interests. This is the main reason for which we’ve been lacking a government for the past nine months. Now the Lebanese people are poor because our currency has lost its value. The Holy Father was clear and direct: politicians are now working for their own personal interest and we cannot keep on this way.
Could a visit of the Holy Father to Lebanon facilitate this process?
At the beginning of his speech the Holy Father expressed his grave concern for Lebanon, a country that he carries in his heart. I have always said that he should not visit Lebanon until the country has a government. Should he visit Lebanon now, he would be received by thousands at the airport asking him not for food or money but for a government. What could he answer? He could just speak formally and that would be embarrassing. The Holy Father cannot come to Lebanon until there is someone to officially welcome him. The political community is responsible for the fact that his trip has not yet taken place, even if he would like to.
How do you feel after this day at the Vatican? Are you optimistic?
Our Christian culture is based on hope. We believe in resurrection. The Holy Father mentioned the darkness of night that finally shows the sunshine. We are now going through political and social darkness but this will not last forever. We are trying to overcome spiritually and materially this moment of darkness, waiting for the sunshine. I am strongly convinced that we can rebuild Lebanon, since there is a strong will among the Lebanese people. You should watch the youth of all religious groups. They are our sunshine. The Holy Father showed a strong trust in them. Several other countries went through dark ages; think only of the Eastern European countries. We Lebanese have a rich history. We are people of prayer; this is the base of our hope.
What is the function of the Lebanese diaspora in the reconstruction?
I have a strong sense of gratefulness towards the diaspora for its support to the Lebanese. They send money to their relatives in the homeland, they help build houses and churches. I am thinking of many villages in Northern Lebanon where schools are financed by the diaspora. I have to say it clearly. If it were not for the diaspora, many Lebanese would have died of starvation. The Holy Father addressed an own message to the diaspora and I add my thanks for their support.
France is also playing a key role in the reconstruction of Lebanon. President Emmanuel Macron immediately flew to Beirut after the port’s explosion…
France is doing a lot and we have to work together. Lebanon cannot depend on third countries interfering in our agenda, we count on France and on other friends to ask for the return of Lebanon’s real identity: its neutrality. This is a message of peace, pluralism, comprehension, and openness. It is a unique message for the Middle East. Lebanon cannot play its role until it is liberated from external interference. Lebanon is condemned to the current situation since it lost its identity. A Christian Lebanon makes no sense. A Muslim Lebanon makes no sense. Our identity is based on the conviviality between a thousand cultures and religions. Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East where religious equality is guaranteed to everyone. Helping Christians means helping also the other communities and vice versa. This should not stop. The responsibility of the international community is to liberate this country which is small in dimension but big in its message. Therefore, I thank president Macron for his tireless work.
Can Lebanon rediscover its roots and identity even hosting millions of refugees as it is now the case?
After 74 years the international community has not been able to solve the issue related to the presence of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is now useless to talk of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine since the region where the Palestinian state should settle is occupied by Jewish settlers, thus making impossible the return of the refugees. The international community should now find a solution to avoid both Palestinian and Syrian refugees staying inside the camps in Lebanon. Lebanon should accept Syrian refugees, however we are asking the United Nations to help Lebanon in assisting them in their return to Syria. The politics of Lebanon is based on demography, and such a massive demographic change is changing the political and social balance. Why should Lebanon take on this responsibility alone? There are now large peaceful areas in Syria – why don’t we help them live in their homeland? Therefor I say to the Syrian refugees: you are welcome, but you are in transit. The war was imposed on you internally and is destroying your culture and history. Countries are based on cultures and heritage, not on territory. Go back to your country and contribute its reconstruction.
The repatriation process of Syrian refugees has been difficult so far due to the hostile relations between Assad government and the West. Do you consider a political solution necessary for the refugee issue?
I repeatedly discussed this issue with president Macron. I told him that if he wants to save Lebanon he has to differentiate between the political relations with the Syrian government and the refugees’ right to return to their homeland. The Syrian refugees are in Lebanon since 2012, it is a long time now. The risk is that Lebanon will lose its physiognomy. While Syrians are here many Lebanese are leaving the country. Doctors, engineers, and administrators are leaving, who is going to stay in this situation?
Cover Photo: Lebanon’s Cardinal Bechara Boutros (or Rai) greets supporters – Bkerki, February 27, 2021 (Anwar Amro / AFP).
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