Lebanon and Ukraine
“Our country, like yours, is there to make people understand, to testify, that a false sense of security, acquired for too long in countries like France, and other countries which lived in peace after the Second World War, should not conceal — should not prevent us from seeing — that which is tragic in history: the tragedy of men and women, lived in the flesh.” — Dr. Konstantin Sigov, Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla University in Ukraine, in an interview with a Lebanese news agency, Ici Beyrouth, on February 27
“Kyiv and Beirut are on the same meridian and the same wavelength.” –Dr. Sigov, sharing the interview on his personal page
Pope Francis and Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, at a meeting in the Vatican in February 2020
Lebanon Report 2022, #3: Tuesday, March 1, Lebanon and Ukraine
Pope Francis, Maronite Patriarch Rai, Speak Out on Lebanese Crisis
By Christopher Hart-Moynihan, Director, Friends of Lebanon Project
In a world racked by multiple grave crises, Pope Francis gave special attention to Lebanon in recent days. In remarks made on February 19, at the Vatican, Francis stated that “the misery continues in Lebanon… leaving many people without food.”
The occasion of Francis’ remarks was a February 16-18 conference of Eastern Rite Catholic Churches at the Vatican, to discuss the liturgical prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches. Also attending the conference was Patriarch Rai of the Maronite Catholic Church, the largest of the Christian Churches in Lebanon.
During his visit to Rome, Patriarch Rai celebrated a Mass on February 20, at the Maronite Patriarchal Pontifical Institute in Rome. His homily included a clear call for accountability from government officials in Lebanon:
I allow myself to address an appeal from here, from Rome, to the officials in Lebanon, in light of today’s Gospel, the Gospel of faith and love, to say: We cannot continue in Lebanon the way we are heading…You who are entrusted with the capabilities of the country, public money, ports and utilities, relations with states, and the national value that exists for the service of our people; therefore, you cannot continue to squander and disrupt it, continuing with the collapse of the country and the displacement of the Lebanese people from their land.
Patriarch Rai also called for more support for children and people in need in Lebanon:
The word of God calls us on this blessed Sunday to unite faith with love, and by this we mean translating love and faith to serve the needy and the underprivileged. The main problem in the Gospel of the rich and the poor is not the issue of wealth in itself, because it can be a blessing when we realize how to use it in the service of man and the preservation of human dignity… The main problem is that the rich man today has hardened his heart and closed his hand and door in the face of his fellow human being in need… More importantly, the poor man of today is a vivid image of a large number of our needy children living under all these dire circumstances.
Indeed, children continue to be gravely affected by the crisis in Lebanon, as many have now gone more than two years without being in school. In addition to funds providing “short-term help” our “Unitas: Friends of Lebanon” initiative has provided funds for “long-term hope,” keeping more than 30 students in school over the past year, and we will be able to give even more support for education in 2022.
Supporters of Sunni former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at a recent political rally in Beirut, Lebanon
Upcoming Election in Lebanon — Hope and Controversy
For many months now, Lebanese citizens have looked to the upcoming May Parliamentary elections with optimism. Originally scheduled for March 27 after a Parliamentary vote in October 2021, the elections were moved to May 15 by Lebanese President Michel Aoun after an appeal from the Strong Lebanon bloc.
Now, however, many are beginning to doubt whether elections will even be held; and if so, whether they will be free and fair. This article from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlines some of the issues, concluding that Lebanon “will likely experience one of its most chaotic, corrupt and illegitimate elections since its independence in 1943.”
Between the corruption of Lebanon’s elites, the boycotts of the election by several key leaders including Sunni leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and a lack of reliable internet and electricity at polling centers — meaning that many votes will be literally counted in the dark — there are a host of factors that will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election results.
Additionally, the article states, the urgency of Western powers such as the United States and the European Union to have the elections be held on time “at all costs” while at the same time refusing to fund the Supervisory Committee for Elections (the budget for the 2022 election is $18 million, one-third of what was budgeted for the 2018 election) suggests that there is no real desire to see substantive political change in Lebanon on the part of the West.
This article from United Arab Emirates-based news outlet The National goes into more detail on the political maneuvering of the various blocs but similarly concludes on a dispiriting note: “No one really expects the elections to radically redraw the Lebanese political landscape. Sectarian leaders remain strong, while Hezbollah dispenses considerable patronage.”
Students in class in Lebanon (Asia News). Note: your support could help keep these children in their classrooms, learning…
“Long-Term Hope“: Catholic Schools the Key to Lebanon’s Future
Some hopeful news for Lebanon recently in France: on February 1, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the French government will double its funding of Christian schools in the Middle East.
According to a press release, President Macron “received 150 guests from associations and groups committed to supporting Christian communities in the Middle East at the Elysée Palace.”
In France, there is support across the political spectrum for Middle Eastern Christians. Support for these communities was a priority for previous French Presidents such as François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy, regardless of their political orientation. In his remarks announcing the decision, President Macron stated, “Supporting Eastern Christians is a secular commitment of France, a historic mission, which responds to the need never to give up the fight for culture, education and dialogue in this troubled region.” The French fund for Christian Schools in the Middle East, created in January 2020, has now supported 129 schools in Lebanon.
It would be refreshing to see similar bi-partisan support – on both the right and the left – in the United States for the cause of Christians in Lebanon and the greater Middle East. Readers of this report might wish to consider reaching out to their elected representatives to begin building such a coalition.
A recent interview with a teacher working in Lebanon posted on the “Asia News” site (a news agency promoted by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) provides more details on the current crisis of education in Lebanon. The interview can be read in its entirety here but I include two quotes below that summarize the situation:
Professor Ayoub, what is the situation of schools in Lebanon?
The education system is one of the fundamental pillars of Lebanese society and the pandemic has exposed its limitations. A whole year of lockdowns, in which schools switched to online learning. This revealed the extent of the problem: power cuts, unstable connections, lack of technological devices, parents at work and children alone at home, the economic and financial crisis… factors that have exacerbated the situation. Teachers have tried to reshape curricula and pedagogical approaches, adapting them, to find new ways of teaching between classes in the school, or online or a hybrid of both. Salaries barely cover 30% of essential expenses (food, transport, medicine) and teachers live with the fear of not being able to guarantee care for children or parents in case of Covid-19 or other. The education system is in danger and Lebanon risks seeing qualified teachers and students with wealthy parents flee abroad.
In conclusion, why are Catholic schools important in Lebanese education?
Catholic schools have always shown excellence in education. Their mission has been going on for decades. Sowing hope among young people and preparing them for a better future has always been their aim. Moreover, they have always welcomed students of different religious denominations and worked to form good citizens of tomorrow, loyal and faithful to the country, with Christian and human principles and values. Capable of accepting others, in a nation characterised by denominational divisions, men and women open to the world and prepared in the various disciplines.
Our “Friends of Lebanon” project has provided funds for 30 students in Beirut throughout 2021, and we hope to support hundreds more in 2022. Please consider supporting us.
Prof. Constantin Sigov with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, in June 2021
A Personal Note on Lebanon and Ukraine
Our “Friends of Lebanon,” like many other observers worldwide, have been shocked, horrified, and greatly moved by the events unfolding in Ukraine over the past week.
As we read and watch the news about Ukraine, the urgency of the crisis feels immediate. The images of residents of Kiev and Kharkiv huddling in the subway stations while bombs explode above them have moved people worldwide to support in any way they can. These are people who will soon be facing shortages of food, water, and basic essentials as they try first simply to survive this war, and then to recover from the destruction of their homes and their lives.
As somebody who has made multiple visits to Ukraine (and Russia) over the last decade, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to develop personal relationships with people there, learn about their lives, and have my outlook on history, current events, and faith informed by their experiences as a nation. (Urbi et Orbi will be holding Live Zoom Conversations with people in Ukraine and Russia in the coming weeks. If you would like to join these conversations, click here to receive a personal invitation.)
One of the individuals who I have come to know and respect during these visits, and to whose essays I have often turned to understand the events unfolding in Ukraine over the years, is Constantin Sigov, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla University. So I find it significant that, in this extremely difficult moment for his country, he has taken the time to speak with a Lebanese journalist, Antoine Courban, to mention Lebanon, and to draw a connection between the ongoing crisis in Lebanon and the nascent one in Ukraine.
In the interview, Prof. Sigov cautions — as he has done many times — against forgetting the past, against allowing ourselves to believe that tragedy cannot visit us in our own place, in our own time. As he says, Ukraine, and Lebanon, are countries that testify to “that which is tragic in history” — not just abstract tragedy, read about in textbooks, but “tragedy of men and women, lived in the flesh.”
Here is Prof. Sigov’s quote in the original French (he speaks several languages fluently, including Ukrainian, Russian, French, and English), and reads several more):
“Notre pays, comme la vôtre, sont là pour faire comprendre, pour témoigner, qu’une fausse sentiment de sécurité, trop longtemps acquise dans le pays comme la France et d’autres pays qui vivaient en paix aprés la seconde guerre mondiale, ne doit pas faire l’écran, ne doit pas empêcher de voir le tragique de l’histoire, ça veut dire, le tragédie des hommes et des femmes en chair et en os.”
And here is the English translation, which is also given at the beginning of this report:
“Our country, like yours, is there to make people understand, to testify, that a false sense of security, acquired for too long in countries like France, and other countries which lived in peace after the Second World War, should not conceal — should not prevent us from seeing — that which is tragic in history: the tragedy of men and women, lived in the flesh.”
This observation shows us why Lebanon, like Ukraine, is so important in a world where many have lived too long with a sense of “false security” — it shows us the tragedy that can befall ordinary people when leaders are corrupt, or incompetent, or resort to violence to solve their problems. It is tragedy that has a human cost in the here and now, like the victims of the Beirut explosion in 2020 and the Lebanese students who have not gone to school in almost two years.
The fact that these tragedies are being lived in the here and now means that we also have an opportunity. Unlike the tragedies of the past, which are already written in history, the stories that are being written now can have a different ending. What is happening in Lebanon (and in Ukraine) is an occasion for us to come together as Christians — Maronite and Roman, Catholic and Orthodox — and demonstrate our faith to the world: one meal at a time, one notebook at a time, one classroom at a time.
We have been doing this through our “Friends of Lebanon” project, which now has about 300 members and has given about $50,000 to assist the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.
Please consider becoming a “Friend of Lebanon.” Even a small donation will help.
As a “Friend of Lebanon,” you will receive this “Lebanon Report” and be up-to-date on what is happening in Lebanon today. You will also be able to participate in our Zoom calls with our partners on the ground in Lebanon and gain a first-hand view into the challenges they are facing.
Most of all, you will be helping to preserve the ancient Christian community of Lebanon, and laying the basis for peace throughout the Middle East.
Please consider joining us.
Director of Programs
Urbi et Orbi Communications
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A Special and Very Important Note
As a special thank to all of our Friends of Lebanon, we will host a bimonthly Friends of Lebanon Meet & Greet on the last Friday of every other month. This event will be held on Zoom. This will give you an opportunity to hear about our latest efforts as well as to speak with those who are on the ground in Lebanon. You can join us on Friday, March 4, 2022, at 11:00 a.m. Eastern by registering here.
Please enjoy a complimentary digital edition of Inside the Vatican Magazine by clicking here.
Director, Friends of Lebanon Project
Urbi et Orbi Communications