Archbishop Paul Abdel Sater said the recovery from the Aug. 4 explosion that decimated the already economically struggling country has been slow.
BEIRUT — ’The horrific double explosion on Aug. 4 in Beirut, Lebanon, destroyed half of the Middle Eastern country’s capital, especially regions inhabited by Christians. The disaster — considered one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosions — is the result of the detonation of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years in a port warehouse. It killed 200 people, injured more than 6,500 and left 300,000 people homeless.
The tragedy comes as Lebanon’s economy is collapsing, pushing the population further into poverty.
Maronite Catholic Archbishop Paul Abdel Sater of Beirut spoke to the Register at the chancery, where destruction from the explosion, like so much of Beirut, is obvious.
Breezes blow from blasted-out windows of the chancery’s lobby. Makeshift glass sheets cover the damaged windows in the archbishop’s office, his desk chipped and splintered from the impact of glass shards.
Archbishop Abdel Sater spoke of his anguish in seeing the Lebanese people suffer, the absence of the government in assuming its role in reconstruction, the expression of solidarity and care on the part of Pope Francis through the visit of the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the rise in emigration of Lebanon’s Christians. He urged the international community to support Lebanon so that it may continue — as Pope St. John Paul II had proclaimed of Lebanon — as a “message.”
What was the greatest pain for you as a shepherd, related to the blast?
The greatest pain was a few minutes following the explosion when an employee and a priest were injured here at the chancery. We took them to the hospital. Seeing all these people — fathers, mothers, husbands, wives — who were all bleeding, walking aimlessly in their house clothes looking for a hospital to receive them. It was sad to see how much the Lebanese people have been robbed of their dignity. And the only thing I was thinking about was that this person I see now, bleeding, is a father who is important in the life of his family. Or a mother who sacrificed so much for her family. And they have been treated this way by an unknown evil person or persons (who perpetuated the explosion). For what?’ What makes me sad is that Lebanon is a country where the human person is losing his and her dignity and it’s a country that has sacrificed many of its children.
From your perspective, how is the situation after the explosion?
Following the criminal explosion of Aug. 4, we saw two signs: one positive sign, and the second, a very negative sign.
The positive sign is the solidarity we saw among the Lebanese people, especially among the youth who came from all around Lebanon just to be with those devastated by the explosion.
They helped in cleaning Beirut. They helped the displaced to carry their luggage and their dear belongings and they also helped, in a way, to rebuild what has been destroyed.
But the negative sign that we saw was the total absence of the government. Although now they are speaking of some compensation to be given to people who experienced damage by the explosion. Hopefully the money will indeed get to the real people and not to some fictional people and names.
Certainly the situation in all of Lebanon changed following the explosion. Since last October, we have been shaken by different challenges and difficulties — the worsening economic crisis, the COVID situation.
Now the degree of difficulty has increased. People saw their homes, their furnishings and belongings, all that they worked for, destroyed in front of their eyes in two or three seconds.
What is the status of the repairs of residences?
So far, I would say that of the 50,000 homes that have been damaged, around 5,000 to 6,000 have been repaired. Some of these homes were rebuilt at the owners’ expense, because they waited for help and help didn’t come.
This is something that the government needs to work on in a very serious way, just as they did following the war of 2006 (with Israel) when the whole government was mobilized to clean, to rebuild. We didn’t see this happening following the explosion of Aug. 4. The government has the responsibility of rebuilding.
In a few days we will have rain (the rain season) in Lebanon, so the government really needs to work harder and to start mobilizing in a very effective way.
Are the damaged Maronite churches functioning?
We have five churches, plus the St. George Cathedral, that have been functioning since a few days following the explosion. They cleaned the rubble and they tried to cover the windows, to fix the lighting and sound system enough to begin celebrating Mass again in those churches.
What organizations have been helping the diocese?
The Church has been working and helping us. We received a sum of money from the Vatican itself to help schools that have been destroyed. We have five (parish) schools damaged by the explosion and also to help the St. Michael parish which was most hit by the explosion.
[The international charitable organization] L’Oeuvre’ d’Orient has been with us the whole time. They visited all the damaged sites. They promised sums of money to rebuild schools, religious institutions, and also to help in rebuilding a few homes.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has also been very kind to us. They came to see us and visited all the damaged buildings. They made a real assessment and they worked very hard in collecting funds to help us. They promised to give some money to repair the (St. George) cathedral (which dates back to 1894), to repair the chancery, to repair the pastoral center that we have in the diocese.
Maronite dioceses from abroad also have sent us a sum of money to help us. We have also a few local donors who have been collaborating with Lebanese people in the diaspora. They have received funds, especially from the Lebanese community in Australia, and they are helping in rebuilding homes and in equipping the homes with ovens, refrigerators, TVs — whatever is needed that was damaged, destroyed by the explosion.
From your vantage point in the diocese, has the international support to Lebanon materialized?
From what we have experienced as the Diocese of Beirut, we have been collaborating with Caritas Lebanon and the Lebanese Red Cross who received help from international donors. We have been working with two Maronite patriarchal agencies — Solidarity and the World Patriarchal Maronite Foundation for Integral Development — rebuilding homes.
I can say that in general, all the groups related to the Catholic Church have been present on the ground, have been helping.
But besides that — it’s our experience as a diocese — we didn’t see many other NGOs working on the ground repairing homes in the areas that concern the diocese — which is most of the destroyed and damaged areas.
To be fair, some of the groups (NGOs, etc.) decided to work directly with the people. They did not reach people through us (the diocese).
Anyway, thanks to all the governments that have been helping and giving from their money. Thanks also for all the NGOs that are trying to alleviate a little bit of the tragedy. But there is a lot of talking instead of acting, in my opinion.
What was the impact of Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s Sept. 3-4 visit to Lebanon?
Cardinal Parolin’s visit is a very strong sign and message of solidarity and care on the part of His Holiness Pope Francis.
He was very much touched by what he saw, by what he heard from people who suffered from the explosion.
Cardinal Parolin said he had two main observations: that he admired the Lebanese people who always start again. At the same time, he said that he saw that the church in Lebanon is close to its people. And it is true.
The pastors and the priests of the parishes that have been hit by the explosion, along with other priests from the diocese, were present since the beginning on Aug. 5 and are still helping.
They were on the ground cleaning, they were listening to people, to their problems, to their sadness, to their suffering. They have been distributing food. They have been trying to get money to help families who are in need. They have been visiting the injured people in the hospitals. They have been consoling the parents, the families of those who died because of the explosion. And I wish to thank them again and again from all my heart because they have been true pastors and a true sign of Jesus’ love to everyone.
What are your plans for the future, to come out of this disaster?
Day by day, we are going to continue the reconstruction with the help of all the people of good will and we will keep talking about the explosion so we will not forget how much evil can do. And we will continue to ask the government to give us true answers (about the explosion), and quickly: Why did it happen? For which reason? Who did it?
The only hope that I have personally for the future is that, with the grace of our Lord, the Lebanese people — especially the young people — will come together to start a new generation of Lebanese who will stay away from war, from weapons, and who will work together — from all religions, from all areas of Lebanon — for the dignity of the human person in Lebanon. If the young people do not meet and work on this, there is no hope for Lebanon.
Do you have a sense regarding the numbers of Christians who are emigrating?
We don’t have real numbers, but we are hearing, more than ever before, about people trying to leave the country. It is not just the youth, it’s entire families who wish to leave.
Someone asked me, ‘Why are the Christian Lebanese people trying to leave the country?’ And I answered, ‘It’s not because of the explosion.’ Unfortunately, the Lebanese people are used to explosions, to wars. But they are leaving — especially the youth — because they feel that nothing is going to change in Lebanon. The explosion may be the factor that triggered the leaving. But they are mostly leaving because they see that the same thing is happening again and again.
They don’t see any future for the children in a country where always there are going to be troubles and sometimes troubles that involve weapons and fighting and killing. After suffering so much, after sacrificing so much, they choose to leave the country in the hope of having a better life for their children, not for themselves.
What message would you like to conclude with?
We need the international community to work on behalf of Lebanon so we can have real security in our homes, on our streets, at work, in our schools. We need true security.