The National Catholic Register is following developments in Lebanon closely, and interviewed CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, Michel Constantin:
Michel Constantin, regional director for the Beirut-based office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a Pontifical Mission, told the Register in a mobile phone interview no one has experienced this kind of explosive destruction in Lebanon — even in wartime.
The city’s economic gateway to the Middle East is destroyed. Lebanon faces a food crisis on top of its political, economic and financial crises. Humanitarian aid is desperately needed, and the world must act now for Lebanon; without it, the devastation of Beirut may ripple throughout the Middle East and beyond, Constantin explained.
Michel, can you tell us about the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday?
It’s like an earthquake. Even in Cyprus [145 miles away], they felt it. Beirut is half destroyed now.
We don’t know yet what kind of material has exploded. At the beginning there was some speculation that Israel bombarded storage for Hezbollah; but I don’t think so; they [Lebanon and Israel separately] confirmed that they [Israel] have nothing to do with it. So now the main story would be some nitrate ammonium materials were stored apparently in the harbor of Beirut and exploded. There’s a huge quantity of this material. The destruction is huge.
What kind of destruction are we talking about?
We have many hospitals which were evacuated due to the damage. One of them is a big hospital, St. George, run by the Greek Orthodox. It’s one of the biggest hospitals in Lebanon. It was evacuated; they don’t have any electricity. They sent away all the patients to other hospitals.
The hospitals are full, and there are no more places to put people. Whether it’s the American University of Beirut’s hospital, or the Hôtel-Dieu, which is the French hospital of St. Joseph’s University, all the hospitals are fully packed. They’ve each received 500 injured persons, and they cannot receive more.
The destruction is amazing. There is no electricity in Beirut. The regular telephones are cut. Even the mobile phones were damaged, as well, in some areas. Beirut is not reachable by phone; some roads were closed due to the glass that was broken in all the buildings, and it’s blocked the roads. So Beirut is now in a miserable state.
Is Lebanon facing a possible hunger crisis?
Yes, they have started talking about the prices and availability of bread.
What’s the direct impact on the Christian communities of Lebanon, and what has their response been?
I cannot say the impact on Christians was more than on Muslims. It is the same. We’re all on the same boat.
The explosion was so big and so huge for us that it damaged the whole city; not only the surrounding vicinity [of the blast], but the whole city miles away from the harbor was damaged.
The damage is vast. We have two hospitals — one in Gemmayzeh operated by the Rosary Sisters. It was evacuated, as the damage was so huge. They cannot keep any patient inside. And now the whole vicinity of the hospital was evacuated.
The same for Beirut’s Orthodox hospital: St. George Hospital. One of the largest and most important hospitals in the Middle East is damaged. It’s completely out of electricity: There is no activity, no communication inside it, and they had to evacuate it. This hospital had 500 to 600 beds. This is a real loss for Beirut at this critical time of coronavirus and this disaster.