Waiting for Christmas between Lebanon and Syria
It is already dark when the plane’s wheels touch down on the runway. The queue at passport control is strangely very short. A few decorations remind me that here people are preparing for Christmas too. As soon as I step outside, however, I realise that I am faced with a completely new situation. “See those houses on the hill? They are all lit up by diesel generators’.
Welcome to Lebanon…
How many times have I heard this phrase during my travels in Syria, among the cities destroyed by the conflict, but this time the effect is different, because Fadi is not pointing out to me the outskirts of Damascus or some neighbourhood in Aleppo: we are in Beirut. We are in Beirut, a city we have seen many times before, always illuminated, alive and chaotic, often blocked by traffic. Today, the streets that cross the dark, ghostly neighbourhoods are deserted.
From the airport road, in the half-light, I catch a glimpse of the skyscrapers that used to frame the Beirut of luxury and splendour: now they look like uninhabited cement statues. You have to be careful driving around: the traffic lights are off for more than 20 hours a day, and at night you can’t see anything.
Welcome to Lebanon. On street corners, three- and four-year-old children chase me barefoot to ask for money. “Money! Money!” are probably the first words they have learned and shout to everyone, while the city centre empties out and only the moon shines on the luxury hotels by the sea. Unbelievable. And it’s only the first night.
Living on 20 dollars a month
The next morning I met the Pro Terra Sancta team that carries out aid activities in Lebanon. When we start talking, it’s about 9 a.m. and on a mobile phone app they show me the current exchange rate: the dollar is worth about 22,300 Lebanese pounds (a year ago it was worth about 2,000). “Take a good look at what happens now”, they tell me. A few hours pass and the dollar is already worth 23,000. “It’s getting worse and worse”.
The pound is devaluing with each passing hour, losing ground, now worth almost nothing. An average salary is about 20 dollars. The situation is so dramatic that many teachers don’t go to school anymore because with their salary they can’t even pay for petrol for the school-work journey.
While I listen to the stories of those who have found themselves dealing with unprecedented misery, I continue to visit the many families helped. In the streets, the lights installed for the festivities are turned off, and if you meet someone a few seconds later, they will extend their hand to ask for help.
From Beirut to Damascus
Beirut is unrecognisable, and is still a mandatory stop before reaching Syria. Even though the airports have been reopened, there are still no international flights and driving through the Bekah valley is the only way to reach Damascus, the second stop on this journey.
In the country of the Assads, it is even more difficult to speak of recovery. What has been destroyed has not been rebuilt. The ruined buildings are still uninhabited. The suburbs are abandoned. Working is a dream, as is often the case with food.
The war is mostly gone, but in its place it has left hunger and poverty. There is no victory in the rubble. Only losers. And the situation gets worse if we move to the villages of Idlib province, where we have been supporting the Franciscan presence and the war-affected population for years.
Father Louay and Father Hanna: evangelising under the jihadist regime
There live two friars who give everything for others. Father Louay lives in the village of Jacoubieh, still under jihadist rule. Together with Father Hanna, he cannot leave the territories close to Turkey and lives in a situation that is very reminiscent of that in which Christians lived under the Islamic Caliphate. But even, and especially here, among the people most affected by the Islamist fury, hope still shines.
A few weeks ago, one of his parishioners was unjustly accused of blasphemy by the Islamic religious court. After a summary judgment, he was sentenced to seven months in prison and a hundred public lashes. A punishment that in his health and age (75 years) he could never bear.
The friar took courage and addressed the judges of the court directly: “He could never bear so much, I willingly accept the punishment you have decided for him”. Silence. The judges look at each other astonished for a few moments. “This has never happened to us before, abuna”. They look at Father Louay and take their time: “give us some time to think about it”.
The Saviour was born in Bethlehem and lives again in Syria
So they meet to discuss that proposal which is so surreal, humanly impossible and unheard of. A blameless man taking upon himself the “sins” of another. The astonishment of that gesture is also accompanied by a certain emotion. So much so that the final verdict comes: “Your heart is really big, abuna. That is why we have decided to release you and your parishioner. You are free”.
That Christian was then placed under house arrest for ten days, so that the religious court would save face in front of the jihadists in the region. But a miracle had happened. A man had offered his life to save another. It is very reminiscent of the miracle of that child, who was born in Bethlehem for this very reason. To save one, a thousand, all. The one, true, great victory, which no one can ever steal. Not even in Syria.