NOW RETIRED, ARCHBISHOP SYRIL SALIM BUSTROS is the former Melkite archbishop of Beirut and Byblos in Lebanon. He also served as archbishop of Baalbeck and as eparch of the Melkite Church in the US. He recently spoke with Aid to the Church in Need about the mission of Lebanon’s Christians, and the ongoing political and economic crisis in Lebanon, conditions that are prompting many Christians to emigrate. In 1997, during his historic visit to the country, Saint John Paul II said that “Lebanon is a message not just a country.” It holds the promise for the entire Middle East of Christians and Muslims being able to live in harmony.
“First thing that we have to keep in mind is that Christians in the beginning of the 19th century comprised 20 percent of the population of the Middle East. They dropped to 15 percent in the beginning of the 20th century, and today the Christian population is less than 5 percent. We are still here because we have a mission to accomplish. All Arab countries forbid Muslims to convert to Christianity, so our message to the Middle East is that we have to preserve religious freedom, because if there is no such freedom there will be no respect for human rights. If there’s no freedom, you are not human beings, you are like animals. That is Lebanon’s message to the Middle East.
“That is why it is so important what Pope John Paul II said, that Lebanon is not only a country but a message of conviviality and peaceful coexistence between different cultures and religions. It is Lebanon’s mission to promote this freedom and be strong in claiming it, and try to extend it to all theArab countries.
“In all ways, we have to say God is still there and God is the ultimate love and love is still in our heart like the sun is always shining, so we have to take strength from the love of God to struggle against all the difficulties in life.
“Our ancestors have suffered and as they suffered, they kept their faith despite all the difficulties. Suffering will strengthen our beliefs. Jesus suffered to save humanity from all its sins. Jesus died on the cross so we can’t eliminate the cross from the life of Christians.
“What’s more, in Lebanon there is no distinction between Christian and Muslim in poverty. All people are poor, both Muslim and Christian, so poverty doesn’t have a religion.
“The Church plays a key role in supporting Christians so that they will stay in the Middle East. The Church throughout the Middle East supports children, through paying their school tuition and providing food and shelter to many thousands of families. Some Churches operate hospitals in which they serve poor patients at no charge and even distribute free medicines, etc.
“Also, when peace prevails in Palestine, and when the war between Israel and the Arab countries ends, I think that Christians will remain in the region and flourish thanks to new political systems.
“We are counting on Western nations to support a peaceful resolution of strife among all people and provide safety for all people in the Holy Land and Jerusalem; this is the foundation for the future of Christians in all of the Middle East.
“When Christians emigrate they will have more facilities in the west than when they stay in Lebanon or Syria, Palestine and Iraq. They have to be strong against all difficulties, since the situation is very difficult, and they are living in very poor conditions.
“Finally, we can affirm that with faith, patience, and a struggle to love one another and build solidarity among Christians, difficulties can be overcome. Moreover, the mission of Christians is to believe in their future in Lebanon, the holy land where Jesus visited often.”