Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, New York, and Bishop Abdallah Elias Zaidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles spoke with the Register at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, July 14.
They shared how the beleaguered nation of Lebanon is a “religious haven” for so many faiths, including Christians, and detailed some of the threats and challenges to that coexistence. Bishop Mansour went earlier to Lebanon for the synod of bishops’ meeting with the head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Cardinal Béchara Boutrous Rai.
Bishop Mansour called Lebanon “unique” because “it was formed, on purpose, to be a religious haven for Christians and Muslims.” He summarized the history of its formation, which was “at the initiative of the Maronite patriarch, Patriarch Elias Hoayek,” who in 1919 “went on a boat from Lebanon to Versailles, France, to meet with the Allied forces after they had defeated the Ottoman Empire so that a Lebanon carved out of the Middle East could include Christians and Muslims alike and the boundaries even were purposefully designed so that Sunni, Shiite and Christians could live in conviviality.”
“By God’s grace, he got his way, and Lebanon was formed in a national pact between the religious communities, which is at the very heart of it. It was a pact between the religious communities, 18 different communities in Lebanon,” he said. Drawing on the history of its formation, Bishop Mansour said that he and Bishop Zaidan were at the religious-freedom summit in order to “promote and to advocate for a Lebanon that continues to be, as Pope John Paul II said, ‘more than a country, a message'.”
Bishop Zaidan told the Register that, today, Lebanese Christians are facing challenges to that message, including “fear of that abuse of power outside the government from militia, specifically Hezbollah, that could undermine the existence of the country as an independent country, which means this would undermine democracy.”
“That’s why the Church always stands for the government to be a strong, unified government for everybody,” he said. “Lebanon is a country for all, not just the Christians, not just one Muslim [group]; it’s for everybody to have and enjoy religious freedom — freedom at all sides, not freedom from religion, freedom of religion. And we want peace.”
He continued, “That’s why our Patriarch Cardinal Rai has been a great advocate for neutrality of Lebanon, so that Lebanon can continue its mission; and we ask all the countries of the world to support that effort and to come together and support Lebanon.”
Bishop Mansour noted that Cardinal Rai has been “pushing two things: One, the neutrality of Lebanon, so we’re not absorbed into the regional conflict — because there’ll always be conflicts — so keeping Lebanon as a neutral country, like the Switzerland of the Middle East. Second is an international conference sponsored by maybe the United States and France at the United Nations, in which other countries would support Lebanon so that some of the external things that affect the governing of Lebanon could be resolved so that we could resolve our internal conflicts and form a new government in Lebanon.”
Cardinal Rai said in February that an international conference could “remedy the paralysis in the Lebanese system” and that “it is necessary to declare that the situation in Lebanon has reached a dangerous stage, which necessitates a frank stance, sincere word and bold decision.”
Bishop Zaidan advised that “Lebanon needs help economically. It’s devastated at this time of the devaluation of the Lebanese pound versus the dollar, and minimum wage is nothing.” He said any financial help U.S. Catholics “could give to our brothers and sisters would show that beautiful humanitarian solidarity with them.” He explained that at this time, the Christians there do not face “direct persecution,” in that they are able to attend church, but they face “all the different economic hardships and political hardships, and, security-wise, they start pushing and pressuring the Christians: That’s why they would flee and leave.”
Focusing Attention on Lebanon
He and Bishop Mansour noted in a recent statement that the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut turned it “into an apocalyptic city. Hospitals, schools, houses, businesses, and much more are destroyed, leaving people feeling hopeless and helpless.”
Additional assistance for the Christians in Lebanon, Bishop Zaidan said, would be to lobby “for the U.S. government, through the representatives, to keep Lebanon on their radar, keep Lebanon on their agenda, and not to put Lebanon aside or not to sacrifice Lebanon for other interests.” He also attested to “the power of prayer,” asking Catholics “to keep praying for Lebanon; pray for our brothers and sisters. When we pray, at least we tell them: You’re not alone. We feel with you, and we ask God to help you, as well.”
“Lebanon is important because if we lose the Christians of Lebanon, we could lose Christianity in the Middle East,” he warned. “That’s the only haven; they’re the only country in the Middle East where Christians have a voice, and that’s why Lebanon has that mission.”