Issued by the Catholic Center for Studies and Media - Jordan. Editor-in-chief Fr. Rif'at Bader - موقع أبونا

Published on Tuesday, 20 July 2021
Why is Pope Francis concerned about Lebanon?

Ben Joseph/  :

In the Middle East, home to numerous ancient Christian sects, Christian-Muslim ties depend on maintaining the internal demographic equilibrium.


The Middle East has been the domain of Muslims since the seventh century, but they have presided over a mixed society which at times was outnumbered by non-Muslims.


In Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East with a considerable Christian population, there is a widespread perception that the number of Christians is declining.


In Iraq, which Pope Francis visited in March, and Lebanon, which he plans to visit, efforts are being made to bring back the internal demographic equilibrium.


Pope Francis has been expressing his desire to visit Lebanon since last December but no concrete plans have been announced.


The plight of Christians in the land of cedars has worsened since 2005 with the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri and a wave of bombings in Christian-dominated areas.


With Christians accounting for 35 percent of its population, Lebanon’s constitution dictates that the president is Christian, the prime minister is Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker is a Shiite Muslim in the country of 6.83 million.


The largest Christian denomination is the Maronite Church. Founded in the fourth century by Syrian hermit St. Maron, the church has been in communion with the Catholic Church since 1736.


Lebanon is currently governed by a caretaker government as political leaders have failed to cobble together a government after the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, which killed nearly 200 people, injured 600 others and caused US$4 billion in damage.


After prime minister-designate Saad Hariri's resignation on July 15, the country faces more political conflict after Hariri's supporters descended on Sunni Muslim areas of the city, setting fire to rubbish bins, blocking the motorway to the airport, and clashing with the army.


Unemployment and migration have been part of hard social realities. While no official emigration statistics are available, the Christian exodus has been fueled by economic reasons due to a lack of employment opportunities.


Ahead of the Vatican’s day of prayer for Lebanon on July 1, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister, said that a weakening of the Christian presence due to emigration “risks destroying the internal equilibrium and the reality of Lebanon itself.”


“The Holy See is deeply concerned about the collapse of the country economically, financially, socially, which would particularly affect the Christian community and the identity of Lebanon,” Archbishop Gallagher told journalists at a Vatican press conference on June 25.


Pope Francis echoed similar views on Lebanon during his speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See this year.


“It is most necessary that the country maintain its unique identity, not least to ensure a pluralistic, tolerant and diversified Middle East,” the pope said.


The demographic imbalance was stressed by Cardinal Béchara Boutros Rai, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church.


“Lebanon is created to deal with Christians and Muslims on an equal basis,” Cardinal Rai said on July 8 at a webinar organized by the Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East.


When Israel was established, there was a massive exodus of Palestinians to Lebanon between 1948 and 1967, which tilted the balance in favor of the Muslim population.


More than 500,000 Palestinians have been living in Lebanon since 1948, and some 1.5 million Syrians have reached Lebanon as refugees since the Syrian war started in 2011.


Therefore, protecting Christians in Lebanon is ultimately protecting Christianity in the Middle East at large, Cardinal Rai said.


A Christian presence has existed in Iraq since the second century. The largest groups are the Chaldean and Assyrian churches.


After the US-led invasion in 2003 and establishment of Islamic State in 2013, there was a rise in attacks on Christians. Half the Christian population left the country and their number fell by over 80 per cent.


According to official data, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 1987. Today their number is estimated to be less than 250,000.


Spurred by political uprisings and war, many Christians emigrated to North America, Western Europe and Australia.


After the Islamic State took control of territories around Mosul in northern Iraq and the Nineveh Plains, Christians were expelled.


According to estimates, more than 100,000 Christians left the Nineveh Plains and moved to the autonomous Kurdish regions.


The papal visit to Iraq in March was aimed at reversing the trend of dwindling Christians in Iraq.


Though the Iraqi government has started a rehabilitation process under international pressure, Christians are in a dilemma over whether to return to damaged homes or migrate from a country that cannot protect them.


The papal wish to visit Lebanon is part of a plan Pope Francis started to revitalize the brotherhood of Abrahamic religions, with a focus on Christian-Muslim ties. 


His historic visit to Iraq kickstarted that plan. With no historical rivalries, Christian-Muslim ties are moving in the right direction in the modern, affluent United Arab Emirates.


After the Document on Human Fraternity was signed in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 by Pope Francis and the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Vatican has been closely interacting with the UAE government.


The Vatican recently conferred on Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, a Man of Humanity award from the pontifical foundation Gravissimum Educationis.


Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, president of the foundation, has also inked a pact with the UAE education ministry to improve educational standards in the country.


“It is education that will contribute to awakening a fraternal generation and to contribute to a peaceful world,” Cardinal Versaldi said.


The Abrahamic Family House, standing for peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding between three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is due for completion in 2022.


The progress of the construction is being closely followed by Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, according to UAE media.


As a place for learning, dialogue and worship, the Abrahamic Family House, designed by architect Sir David Adjaye, is intended to be a cultural landmark.


The UAE has already fixed the names of the houses of worship, namely the Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church and Moses Ibn Maimon Synagogue.