BEIRUT — Pope Francis’ meeting with Lebanon’s Christian religious leaders will “at least give a sign of hope” to the beleaguered country, said the Vatican nuncio to Lebanon.
“The situation is becoming more dramatic,” Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the nuncio, or papal ambassador to Lebanon, told Catholic News Service in mid-June.
The July 1 summit at the Vatican will gather Lebanon’s Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church leaders for “a day of reflection on the troubling situation in the country and to pray together for the gift of peace and stability,” Pope Francis said in announcing the summit.
Pope Francis repeatedly has expressed his concern about Lebanon, particularly since the August 2020 Beirut port blasts. The nuncio said Pope Francis is “extremely sensitive” to the “mosaic makeup of Lebanon,” which has “always been a meeting place of different communities, different cultures, religiously affiliated groups.” About 35% of Lebanese citizens are Christian.
The nuncio stressed that, in Lebanon, “there is real religious freedom and freedom of expression, and at the same time sharing of responsibility.” The Lebanese system reserves the presidential office to a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the house to a Shiite Muslim.
Archbishop Spiteri pointed out that St. John Paul II had said: “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
Currently, however, Lebanon is crumbling under a multitude of socioeconomic, financial and political crises. Its currency has lost 90% of its value in the past 20 months. The economic crisis — labeled by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s — has pushed more than half the population into poverty.
The country has been without a fully functioning government for 10 months, since officials stepped down after the Beirut port explosion. Political leaders have failed to agree on a new Cabinet needed to implement reforms required to unlock desperately needed foreign aid. Reserves of the central bank have reached a critical threshold, causing fuel, electricity and medicine shortages.
Archbishop Spiteri said the middle class, “which was so strong and prosperous in Lebanon,” is disappearing.
“Lebanon wasn’t a poor country,” the papal representative stressed, noting that it is not as though Lebanon is a Third World country where, in order to help people, clinics, hospitals and schools must be built.
On the contrary, the nuncio said, Lebanon has been renowned for its “fantastic, high-level” institutions, many of which are Catholic, serving Christians and Muslims alike.
Now, with the crisis, Lebanon risks “the collapse of all these fantastic institutions. We’re heading toward a huge humanitarian crisis,” the nuncio warned.
“Unfortunately, there is an even greater lack of presence of the government now — maybe with the excuse that it’s a caretaker government. People are being left to themselves,” Archbishop Spiteri stressed.
Archbishop Spiteri also expressed concern about emigration, “one of the unfortunate results of all the crises.” While no emigration statistics are available, the exodus is mainly economically motivated due to lack of job opportunities.
“It affects all the communities and is taking away the young people from the country, which means it is limiting the future of Lebanon,” he told CNS. “Lebanese youth are well-educated and well-motivated.”
The summit format is expected to be similar to the pope’s February 2020 gathering of church leaders of the Mediterranean in Bari, Italy. It will open with a prayer in front of the tomb of St. Peter and involve two morning roundtable sessions, followed by lunch and one afternoon session. The meeting will conclude with prayer at 6 p.m. at St. Peter’s Basilica, open to the public and likely to be transmitted live, the nuncio said.
At the Vatican June 14, Lebanese Ambassador Farid El-Khazen told CNS the expectation for the meeting is that it will “provide momentum for Lebanon” as well as for the international community “to not lose interest and support” the country.
“This will be a kind of push, a kind of momentum, the kind of support that Lebanon needs now, (beyond) the political calculations of international politics or interests,” he said. “In Lebanon, they are hoping this will materialize in concrete actions.”
El-Khazen told CNS he, along with Armenian Catholicos Aram of Cilicia, were involved in preparations for the July meeting and that the day will focus “on the economic and social aspects of the crisis.”
“The concern of the Vatican is the people, the average person in Lebanon, Christians and Muslims who are collapsing, who are in dire need,” he said.
Noting the Vatican’s financial, medical and educational support to the country, El-Khazen said the meeting is the culmination of the pope’s concern, which “has no political agenda.”
“The goal to form a Cabinet in Lebanon is no longer political; it is a necessity, it is a matter of survival. It’s no longer a political issue,” he told CNS. “So, the Vatican has no political agenda in that sense. This reflects the genuine concern that the Holy Father has for Lebanon.”
Contributing to this story was Junno Arocho Esteves in Rome.