ROME – On July 1st, Pope Francis will welcome the main Christian leaders of Lebanon to address what he described as the “worrying” crisis the country is going through.
To this end, the pontiff asked the intercession of the Mother of God venerated in the Lebanese Shrine of Harissa, and asked the faithful of the world to pray for “a more serene future” for this “beloved” country.
Lebanon’s three main Christian denominations are Maronite Catholics, Melchite Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox, but there are several other smaller Christian communities from Protestant, Oriental Orthodox and smaller Eastern Catholic denominations. An estimated 35 percent of the country is Christian, and Lebanon is the only nation in the region where Christians retain considerable political power.
Francis has alluded to the crisis in Lebanon on several occasions, including last September, when he asked for a day of prayer and fasting for the trouble Middle Eastern country marking the one-month anniversary of the deadly explosion in the Beirut port on Aug. 4, 2020.
Speaking at the end of a Wednesday audience, and holding the corner of a Lebanese flag presented to him by a Catholic priest who was among the faithful attending the weekly papal gathering, Francis reiterated the appeal issued in 1989 by his predecessor, St. John Paul II: “Lebanon cannot be abandoned in its solitude.”
The Argentine pontiff has also picked up the metaphor from his predecessor describing Lebanon “as the message” when it comes to coexistence, tolerance and respect among people of all faiths.
Among the many things that make Lebanon unique is its power-sharing system, that stipulates that the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament has to be a Shia Muslim.
However, since the explosion in the port of Beirut led to the previous government to resign, the political leadership has been unable to reach an agreement to form a government.
The August blast killed 211 people, wounded more than 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods.
The country is currently enduring an unparalleled financial, economic and political crisis for months worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, that has killed some 7,000 people. The national currency has lost nearly 85 percent of its dollar value since late 2019, causing havoc in a country that depends on imports for most of basic goods. The country is experiencing its worst recession since the civil war of 1975-1990, with more than half of the population of six million living under the poverty line.
Coming back from Iraq in March, Francis said that he had hopes for visiting Lebanon soon, after being asked by a Lebanese reporter who was on the flight if a visit to Lebanon could be “imminent” seeing that the “message” that is the country “is disappearing.”
“Lebanon is a message,” the pope said. “Lebanon is suffering. Lebanon is about more than maintaining an equilibrium. It has the weakness of differences, some of which are still not reconciled. But it has the strength of great reconciled people, like the strength of cedars.”
The pope also acknowledged that Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai had asked him to make a stop in Beirut during his trip to Iraq but he decided against it because “it seemed too little to me, a crumb in the face of a problem, a country that suffers as Lebanon does.”
Since then, there’s been a continuous effort to offer help during the Lebanese crisis, including welcoming Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to the Vatican in April, where he urged all Lebanese political leaders to “urgently commit themselves to the benefit of the nation.”
During his meeting with Hariri, Francis reaffirmed his desire to visit Lebanon as soon as conditions allow.
Earlier this week, the pontiff sent a message to Lebanese President Michel Aoun expressing his solidarity with the country, writing that “evil and death cannot have the last word on the path of life.” In a message intended as a response to the president’s Easter wishes to the head of the Catholic Church, the pontiff wrote that “faith in the Resurrection puts in our hearts the strength to build a better world.”
Though there have been no details revealed thus far regarding the July 1 meeting in Rome, it’s expected to take a similar form than a gathering of South Sudan’s top politicians and religious leaders held in 2019, when in a plea for peace in this war-torn country, Francis stunned his guests by kissing their shoes.