Patriarch Rai and the “Third Christian World”    

    “When we speak of the medieval Church, we are usually referring to conditions in western Europe, and not to the much wealthier and more sophisticated Eastern world centered in Constantinople. But there was, in addition, a third Christian world, a vast and complex realm that stretched deep into Asia.” — excerpt from The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died, by Prof. John Philip Jenkins, published in 2009 (link)

    “Bkerké is extremely vital. In fact, if Lebanon happens to fall into ruins while Bkerké remains safe, sound, and strong, embracing the mission to which it has long been entrusted with an ironclad fist, it can rebuild Lebanon. But, if God forbid, Bkerké happens to be devastated, weakened, or languished, Lebanon alone cannot rescue Bkerké and help it regain its strength and rebuild itself. If Lebanon lies in ruins, it might not be able to rebuild itself if Bkerké is also in ruins.”Charles Malik (1906-1987, link), a leading 20th century Greek Orthodox Lebanese philosopher and diplomat, writing about the significance of the Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch to Lebanon, and the importance of the Maronite Patriarchal See, located in the city of Bkerke

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, 82 (link) of Lebanon prays alongside other bishops in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy, during the “Mediterranean for Peace” meeting in February, a little more than one month ago. This photo was taken on February 24, shortly after the bishops had received news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The news led the bishops to suspend their work and spend half an hour in silent prayer beneath the 13th-century Giotto crucifix above the altar of the church. [Source: CNS/Italian bishops’ conference/Christian Gennari]

    Lebanon Report 2022, #4: Friday, April 1, 2022, Patriarch Rai

    Maronite Patriarch Rai on Refugee Crisis, Papal Visit to Lebanon

    By Christopher Hart-Moynihan, Director, Friends of Lebanon Project

    The Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon, Bechara Boutros al-Rai, 82, has grown increasingly outspoken in recent months about proposed solutions to the many grave issues affecting Lebanon.

    In a homily given on March 13 in Bkerke, the episcopal see of the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, north of Beirut, Patriarch Rai called for a resolution to the ongoing refugee crisis in Lebanon, stating that the time has come for refugees of the decade-long Syrian Civil War (estimated at more than 1 million people who have been for years now in camps along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria) to return to their country.

    Lebanese news service Libnanews quoted the Patriarch’s remarks:

    “‘In the name of neutrality, we demand the return of displaced Syrians to their country, so that they preserve the resources, culture, dignity and history of their land,” said the leader of the Maronite church, who emphasizes, however, that this return is linked to a Lebanese, Arab and international political decision.”

    Rai’s comments on this issue follow a recent pattern of the Patriarch calling on the international community to act together to “push” Lebanon towards the resolution of its many ongoing issues.

    The article cited above states that some 1.5 million Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon since the beginning of the Civil War in 2011 — a figure equivalent to roughly 35% of Lebanon’s population of 6.7 million (link) — and that more than 90% of them are living below the poverty line, while 82% of Lebanese are currently below the poverty line.

    This tragic situation has led to attempts by Syrian and Palestinian refugees — and even some Lebanese — to reach the territory of the European Union by boat. Many groups have attempted irregular crossings over the Mediterranean Sea from Lebanon to Cyprus on small boats in recent months.

    In other comments in recent days, the Maronite Patriarch welcomed the prospect of a papal visit while cautioning that the Pope would not come as a “political or economic savior,” but rather “as one man close to the people.”

    Pope Francis has intended to travel to Lebanon for several years but has held off on visiting due to the political situation. Patriarch Rai said that he was confident a papal visit would occur, but that “some political stability is necessary” before it could take place.

    “A visit of the Pope encourages the Lebanese,” Rai said. He added that a visit from Francis would show the Lebanese people that, even after years of hardship, “nevertheless they are not abandoned.”

    In the same interview, Rai underscored the work that the Church continues to do in Lebanon in the face of huge challenges. (Special Note: our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon project is, in a small way, supporting this work, and the continued presence of the Church in Lebanon through small scholarships and grants for students attending Catholic schools. Please consider supporting our work, even with just a small donation, here. You will be enrolled as a member of our “Friends of Lebanon” initiative.)

    “The Church maintains its institutions, schools, universities, social centers, development centers,” the Patriarch said. However, despite constant efforts on the part of the Church to help people find work, “people manage to leave.”    

Pope Francis in a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun at the Vatican on March 22, 2022, just one week ago [Source: Asharq al-Aswat/Dalati & Nohra]

    Francis: “Lebanon Remains a Model for the World”

    Pope Francis has spoken numerous times about the crises unfolding in Lebanon, but he is yet to visit the country, which is home to around two million Christians. That may soon change.

    In a meeting early last week at the Vatican with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Francis made clear that the situation in Lebanon was of central importance for him. According to a statement released by the office of the president, Francis said that Lebanon was “at the heart of my concerns.”

    During his meeting with Aoun, who invited him to Beirut, Francis affirmed that he would go to Lebanon, although a definite timeframe was not established. “Soon I will visit Lebanon,” the Pope said, according to the president’s office. “This is a decision I have taken, because this country remains, despite anything, a model for the world.”

    The Pope’s view on Lebanon — that, in spite of the challenges it is facing, it remains a country that can and should be rebuilt, so that it can continue to serve as a model of peace for the Middle East and the world as a whole — is shared by many, including our “Friends of Lebanon”, who have decided to take on this mission of supporting Lebanon in its hour of need.

    In addition to his audience with the Pontiff, President Aoun met with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States. 

    Patriarch Rai Outlines His Vision for Lebanon

    Patriarch Rai’s increasing outspokenness on the range of difficult issues facing Lebanon can be traced back in large part to a homily he gave on July 5, 2020 in Bkerke. In mid-2020, it had become increasingly evident that the street protests of October 2019 had failed in their goal of rooting out corruption in government; indeed, the collapse of the Lebanese economy and the devaluing of the Lebanese lira had merely accelerated in the intervening months.

    In response, the Patriarch called for a “national re-foundation” of Lebanon: in other words, a return to Lebanon’s traditional neutrality amidst the states of the Middle East and a retreat from entangling relationships with powerful neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    The homily kicked off a broader campaign on the part of the Patriarch for the “positive neutrality” of Lebanon, a concept which he explained in his August 2020 “Memorandum for Lebanon“. The Patriarch cited the platform of the first cabinet of independent Lebanon in 1943, which stated that “Lebanon adheres to neutrality between the East and the West,” as well as the 2012 Baabda Declaration, which stipulated that Lebanon should remain neutral within all international and regional conflicts, and should not enter regional alliances, axes or political movements.

    The Patriarch’s call for neutrality was accompanied by an address in August 2020 in the wake of the Beirut port explosion in which he urged government officials to “carry out raids on all weapons and explosives caches and warehouses spread illegally between residential neighborhoods in cities, towns, and villages.” This brought the Patriarch into conflict with Hezbollah, the Shia faction which maintains its own separate military force within much of southern Lebanon, including in southern Beirut.

    Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah responded to the Patriarch by saying that a neutral cabinet would be “a waste of time.” In contrast to Patriarch Rai’s vision of a neutral Lebanon, Hezbollah has pushed for the inclusion of references to “resistance” in the platforms of successive government cabinets and sees itself as part of an “Axis of Resistance”, a broader movement with ties to Iran that is participating actively in multiple conflicts across the Middle East and is marked by its staunch opposition to the state of Israel.

    Patriarch Rai then issued a “response to the response,” affirming that if Lebanon did not return to neutrality, “the Maronites will move towards France, the Sunnis toward Saudi Arabia and the Shiites toward Iran.” Speaking about his disagreements with Hezbollah, the Patriarch stated, “My position on neutrality is not against Hezbollah, but has the good of all Lebanese at heart, because today poverty affects everyone.”

    In October of 2020, one year after the October 2019 revolution, the Patriarch again issued a call for neutrality, stating, “Lebanon has always been open to all countries, east and west, except for Israel, which occupied our land; therefore, Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the east. Today, Lebanon has become isolated from the whole world, yet this contradicts with our identity, which is positive and constructive neutrality, not wars.”

    In February 2021, the Patriarch returned to the topic yet again at Bkerke:

    “You came from all over Lebanon… to support two things: neutrality and an international conference for Lebanon under the auspices of the United Nations. In one word, you came here to save Lebanon… Through an international conference we want to announce the neutrality of Lebanon so that it does not return to become a victim of conflicts and wars and divisions. There are no two states in one land and no two armies in one state.”

    Now, in March 2022, Patriarch Rai has spoken about the refugee crisis, stating that Syrians in Lebanon should begin to return to their homeland, and that their status should be resolved through an international process of dialogue.

    What is behind the head of the Maronite Church’s increasingly direct comments about the political situation in Lebanon?

    It seems that he feels that the moment has come to speak out, and that if he does not speak now, it will be too late: in this 2020 article, sources close to the Patriarch told the Arab daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, “We have reached a delicate phase that affects the fate of Lebanon.”

    The Patriarch, who is now 82 years old, is the spiritual head of more than 1 million Maronite Catholics in Lebanon (and about 3.5 million worldwide). This alone gives his words weight when speaking about how Lebanon should deal with various issues.

    But in addition to being a religious leaders of the Maronites, the Maronite Patriarchs have historically been afforded a certain level of respect at all levels and within all groups that make up Lebanese society.

    Lebanon itself was founded after Bl. Elias Peter Hoayek (1843-1931, link), a predecessor of Rai, traveled to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and advocated for the creation of a state that would include populations of Christians, Muslims, and Druze.

    So it could be said, in a certain sense, that the modern Lebanese nation was founded by a Maronite Patriarch of Antioch — and indeed many Lebanese of all religious persuasions recognize Hoayek as the father of the modern Lebanese state.

    Rai, for his part, is careful to claim that he speaks for all Lebanese, not just Christians, and counts many Muslim clerics among his political allies.

    Asharq al-Awsat quoted the sources close to the Patriarch as saying, “Rai does not break relations with anyone. The Patriarch is interested in reaching all Lebanese constituencies within the constants of respect for sovereignty and independence. Even the leadership of Hezbollah has been reluctant to directly attack Rai, claiming instead in early 2021 that “certain sides are using Bkerke as a cover to serve their own political agendas.”

Patriarch Rai speaks with the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, during an official visit to Cairo on March 20, 2022, just 10 days ago [Source: Arab News/Office of the President of Egypt]

    The “multi-sided” diplomacy in which the Maronite Patriarch is engaged was on full display during his recent visit to Egypt, during which he was welcomed warmly by President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

    President Sissi, who was formerly the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, is generally perceived as a pragmatic leader who brought relative stability to Egypt following the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, who represented the more “hard-line” Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (Sissi has nevertheless also received criticism for the use of violence against protesters by his government, among other things.)

    Patriarch Rai used his meeting with Sissi to continue his efforts to build a coalition that will back him as he works to bring about his vision for Lebanon, based on neutrality, non-alignment, and a “national re-foundation.”

    Rai has support from the Vatican, as well as from French President Emmanuel Macron, but it is unclear how other powers in the Middle East will react if Rai’s efforts truly begin to gain momentum.

    For this reason, the meeting with Sissi was of interest.

    For Sissi, supporting the Patriarch’s call for non-alignment represents an opportunity to lessen the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia — two of Egypt’s traditional rivals for pre-eminence within the Muslim world — within Lebanon’s politics.

    For Patriarch Rai, support from Sissi gives him credibility as a leader who is not merely “aligned with the West”, but rather one with broad-based support among Western and Muslim leaders alike.

    Following the meeting with Rai, President Sissi spoke about the “constructive and essential role the Cardinal had played in supporting Lebanon and restoring its stability.” He also affirmed that the upcoming elections “must take place,” and that electors “must participate massively, and make better choices.”

    Rai, for his part, said that the Egyptian President was “ready to support the Lebanese cause.”

    An article (in French) from Arab News gives more detailed comments from Rai following the meeting with Sisi (Rai is speaking):

    “Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi loves Lebanon and the Lebanese people. I thanked him for the airlift he put in place after the port explosion, which expresses this love. I also thanked him for opening the doors of Egypt to the Lebanese, for always taking a stand in favor of Lebanon and for mediating with the Gulf countries.

    “We discussed Lebanon’s internal issues, and Al-Sissi expressed his regret for the current situation in Lebanon. I told him that Lebanon is sick, that we must treat its illness, which is the non-application of the Taif agreement, and that the solution is to declare its neutrality.

    “We regret that Lebanon has isolated itself from the world, and the Egyptian president is ready to support the Lebanese cause, which he has confirmed. I told him that the implementation of solutions is not in the hands of the Lebanese alone, but that the Arabs and the international community have a role to play.”

    The Patriarch seems to believe that he can use his platform to mobilize an overwhelming majority of Lebanese society in support of his vision of a free and non-aligned Lebanon.

    His most direct criticism of Hezbollah came in a video of some of his remarks that went viral in Lebanon on March 31, 2021 (one year ago). In the video, which was taken from a videoconference of the Patriarch with the two parishes of St. Marone in Brooklyn, New York, and Our Lady of Lebanon in Los Angeles, California, Rai seems to be speaking directly to Hezbollah leadership:

    “Why are you against neutrality? Do you want to force us to go to war? Why do you reject an initiative of neutrality that is in your interest and that of all Lebanese and opens the path to prosperity? Why did you decide to drag the Lebanese into a war that you decided to wage without first asking for their opinion?

    “Did you ask for the advice and approval of the Lebanese before your involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen? Did you hear the government’s opinion before deciding on war or peace with Israel? ” continues the head of the Maronite Church [in the video], recalling that according to the Constitution these decisions must be taken “by the government with a two-thirds majority.”

    “What I do [advocating neutrality] I do in your interest, but you, you just ignore both our interest and that of your base,” the patriarch insisted. He then added that he had listened to some Hezbollah supporters who came to meet him in Bkerké and that they confided to him that the weapons of the Shiite party are “also directed against them,” that “they can no longer bear” this situation and “are hungry” like all the rest of the Lebanese people.

    Rai Following in His Predecessor’s Footsteps

    In criticizing powerful political and militia factions within the country and calling for neutrality, Patriarch Rai is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Nasrallah Boutros Sefir.

    Sefir spent several years calling for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, culminating with a speech in Bkerke on March 27, 2001, upon his return from a trip to the United States.

    Several months later, in August 2001, mass demonstrations against the Syrian occupation broke out in Beirut. The protests were merely the beginning of a multi-year struggle which ended in 2005, when, after 15 years of a Syrian military presence in Lebanon — which had dated back to the end of Lebanon’s Civil War in 1990 — the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” achieved the peaceful withdrawal of all Syrian troops in the country.

    In fact, when Patriarch Sefir passed away in 2019, his biographer, Antoine Saad stated that “His biggest struggle was to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which we all thought was impossible because of the divisions in Lebanon… But he worked on it steadily, objectively, meticulously and quietly.”

    In a similar way, through the appeals and statements that he has been making now for several years, Patriarch Rai is trying to achieve a similar goal.

    By emphasizing the need for Lebanon to be neutral, Rai is highlighting the fact that the continued existence of a separate Hezbollah military apparatus on Lebanese territory represents, in essence, a continuation of this military occupation of Lebanon by foreign powers.

    This article from the Euro-Gulf information center gives more background on the ongoing struggle for the future of Lebanon. The following excerpt, taken from the article, summarizes the importance of the Maronite Patriarchate as a force which holds Lebanese society and the Lebanese nation together:

    “The Maronites, an ethno-religious Christian group in Lebanon, have long enjoyed a unique position in the Middle East as the only Christian group with widespread autonomy throughout centuries of Islamic rule. They have been given Bkerké, the See of the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate and a unique spiritual center in the region.

    Charles Malik, the Greek orthodox Lebanese philosopher and diplomat, wrote in his (1980) letter to the Maronites about the importance of the Maronite patriarchate in Lebanon noting that: ‘Bkerké is extremely vital. In fact, if Lebanon happens to fall into ruins while Bkerké remains safe, sound, and strong, embracing the mission to which it has long been entrusted with an ironclad fist, it can rebuild Lebanon. But, if God forbid, Bkerké happens to be devastated, weakened, or languished, Lebanon alone cannot rescue Bkerké and help it regain its strength and rebuild itself. If Lebanon lies in ruins, it might not be able to rebuild itself if Bkerké is also in ruins.’”

    The words of Charles Malik may yet prove prophetic. It is significant that, right at this darkest of moments, when the combined political, social, and economic crises have truly brought Lebanon “to ruins,” that Bkerke and the Maronite Patriarch are once again embracing their mission of faith. And if, in Malik’s words, Bkerke can be kept “safe, sound, and strong,” perhaps there will once again be hope for the future of Lebanon.    

Students at a Catholic school in Lebanon [Asia News]. Please consider supporting our work to keep these children in the classroom.

    A Conversation with Fr. Youssef Nasr, General Secretary of Catholic Schools in Lebanon

    Our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon initiative has continued to support schoolchildren in Lebanon over the past several months through our partnership with Lebanese Young Talents, an organization that works with youth living in Beirut.

    This is part of our drive to bring “long-term hope” to Lebanon, helping to build a framework for the long-term stability of the country through the education and formation of those who will lead it into the future: the youth.

    In addition to bringing “short-term help” through the provision of food and water purifiers, we have committed to this longer-term project because we believe in the vision for Lebanon’s future that has been outlined by individuals like St. John Paul II and Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai. This is a future where Lebanon exists as, in the words of John Paul, “a message of peace,” a country where communities of multiple faiths exist side by side, enriching one another and growing together spiritually while also remaining true to their own traditions.

    We believe that, despite the great challenges in their path, the people of Lebanon, with the help of the world, can still come together to build this future, and that Lebanon will bring this “message of peace” to the world.

    One of the decisive issues affecting the future of Lebanon is the struggle of Catholic schools to continue operating in the midst of a financial crisis unparalleled in the country’s history. Around one-fifth of all students in Lebanon attend Catholic schools, which are open to all students, regardless of religious background, and serve as a unifying element within Lebanese society.

    The Asia News website (a news agency promoted by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) has begun to bring attention to this important issue. Last month, this report included an interview that Asia News had conducted with Gisèle Michel Ayoub, who is a mathematics and computer science teacher at the Collège des Saints Coeurs in Ain Najm, a suburb of Beirut.

    Several months ago, Asia News also published a more in-depth interview with the General Secretary of Catholic Schools in Lebanon, Fr. Youssef Nasr. In this interview, Fr. Nasr gives background on the history of the Catholic Church in Lebanon, as well as on the unique role that the Church plays in Lebanese social life. Here is the text of the interview:

    What is the situation of Catholic schools in Lebanon?

    We are in crisis. It started with the economic downturn, which began in October 2019, but the consequences are now investing the school system with two factors: the value of the Lebanese currency, the lira, which has plummeted compared to the dollar [today a dollar is worth 23 thousand liras, before the crisis 1500]. In addition, salaries have remained unchanged, but with the depreciation of the currency, purchasing power has plummeted. These factors have serious consequences for the school, because on the one hand, a teacher’s salary is worth nothing, and there are many requests for a raise in order to be able to live with dignity. On the other hand, there are the running costs: from heating to electricity, which we have to provide ourselves with generators. Before, 20 liters of fuel cost 20,000 lire, today it costs 320,000 and this has an enormous impact on our budgets.

    What value does Catholic education have in a nation that is so ethnically and denominationally complex?

    In Lebanon we have over 1 million students. This year, 250,000 are attending state schools, less than 30%. The other 800,000 or so go to private facilities (70%) and we, as Catholics, receive around 200,000 students in 330 institutes of various levels from primary through to college scattered throughout the country. Of these, 90 are semi-funded: The State pays one million liras per year to contribute to expenses, the remaining one million is paid as tuition by the parents. However, today two million is no longer enough… 10 million is needed and the funds are not enough. The quality of education is no in question, rather its the very survival of this system. On September 1, we were able to start the school year after the closures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The challenge is can we continue?

    The Lebanese Church places great emphasis on these institutions. Why are they so important?

    The Church’s mission in education began in 1736, with the great Lebanese council held in the convent of Louaizé. Since that time, several orders, Western and Eastern, from the Jesuits to the Franciscans have committed themselves to this educational mission. An effort that preceded the birth of the Lebanese State [independence came in 1943, ed] and continues today, thanks to the work of about 60 Catholic congregations active in the sector, including the Marianites, the Maronites, the Antonites.

    Over time, how have the institutes promoted dialogue and Islamic-Christian integration?

    Of course, Catholic schools are a common space for all Lebanese! Some 27% of our students are Muslims, so ours is also a social mission, not just an educational one, at the service of the entire country. To give an example: in a school in the south, run by the Maronite Anthonian Sisters in Nabatiye, 95% of the more than 2,000 students are Muslim. It offers a mission at the level of the State, because it encourages exchange between Christians and Muslims. In another in the Bekaa, of the Don Bosco Sisters, more than 70% are Muslims because it is an area with an Islamic majority. We have the task of safeguarding these structures, especially those on the border, because they ensure the Christian presence and are essential in counteracting the phenomenon of migration.

    How are families and students coping in this situation?

    The phenomenon of dropping out of school is strongly emerging because many young people have lost hope. They are looking for a job to help families in difficulty, they believe that studying is not useful… a new and strange feeling! Here the future of Lebanon is at stake: because of the coronavirus we stopped for almost two years, but now the return to presence has given new life. We have to face the economic crisis, the real obstacle and biggest challenge for the generations to come.

    Asia News is launching an aid campaign for Lebanese Catholic schools: Why would you appeal to people to support you with a donation?

    Education is a very important for the Lebanese people who attach great value to the institutions that we have acquired over time. We are asking anyone who is in a position to help us overcome this moment that will not last forever. Protecting our schools also means supporting our mission. We need funds for teachers’ salaries, to allow them to live in dignity, and resources to cover costs, from fuel to school supplies.

A view of the Melkite Greek Catholic Basilica of St. Paul at Harissa, north of Beirut, Lebanon

    War in Ukraine May Deepen Lebanese Crisis

    With each passing day, it becomes increasingly clearer that the continuing war in Ukraine is bringing with it repercussions that will be felt far beyond the borders of Ukraine itself.

    A recent article from Asia News claims that the war could result in food shortages in many Middle Eastern countries, which are major importers of grain from Ukraine and Russia.

    Lebanon has already experienced shortages of basic staples such as rice, flour, and chickpeas over the course of the financial and economic crisis of the past two years. While the upcoming election of a new government in May has given the Lebanese hope of light at the end of the tunnel, the food situation is still far from stable, and will now perhaps be further exacerbated by events in Ukraine.

    Our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon project has brought “short-term help” to more than 60 needy families in Beirut since the 2020 port explosion, in the form of food boxes containing pasta, oil, salt, rice, lentils and beans. All of these families have been heavily affected by both the explosion and the concurrent economic collapse in Lebanon.

    We are currently monitoring the situation on the ground in Beirut and evaluating the best way to make sure these people continue to receive the support they need.

    This Associated Press article goes into more detail about the looming food shortages and what they could mean for Lebanon and other countries.

    The article notes that “Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread and bargain noodles. They are also top exporters of other grans and sunflower seed oil used for cooking and food processing… The calculus leaves the world’s biggest wheat importers vulnerable, including Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as war-torn Yemen and cash-strapped Lebanon. They are countries with huge populations in poverty, relying on affordable wheat for their diets.”

The Church of the Sacred Heart in Bcharre, northern Lebanon. Bcharre is located near the Holy Valley of Kadishah, where the Cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible still grow today.

    Politics in Lebanon: “A Web of Dark Influences”

     Any understanding of the situation on the ground in Lebanon will necessarily be fragmentary, and it is often difficult to separate truth from mere rumors.

    One issue that people I have spoken with in Lebanon often return to is the “simplicity” of the solutions to help ordinary Lebanese people vs. the “complexity” of the political situation.

    I’m reminded in particular of an interview I conducted with David Elkins, the Director of Caritas Lebanon, last year for this Report.

    In the interview, Dr. Elkins laid out this paradox clearly. On the one hand, there is the utter chaos that geopolitical maneuvering has brought to Lebanon:

    “Israel has flown planes over Lebanon to Syria in the past few days… There are overtures from Iran, saber-rattling from Israel. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is bringing in new weapons in from Syria and building missiles in tunnels they are digging under south Beirut.”

    And then there is the obvious solution for the healing and rebuilding of Lebanon:

    “It’s in the genetics of Lebanese people to do business… If Lebanon were left alone, it would have a chance. [The country] could become rich again. This is what 90% of people want, just a normal economy and a better life for their kids. Instead, there seems to be this web of dark influences.”

    Others I have talked to in Lebanon say that turning the country around is a simple question of getting in “new leaders” who will eliminate corruption. This will, in turn, attract many young people in the worldwide Lebanese diaspora — most of whom are Lebanese Christians — back to Lebanon.

    Perhaps it is truly that simple. Nevertheless, whenever something so seemingly simple cannot be achieved — when, in fact, years go by without simple solutions being put in place — it becomes necessary to ask why.

    The answer seems to lie somewhere in the “web of dark influences” that Dr. Elkins speaks of. While is certainly difficult to characterize an entire country or political party as a “dark influence,” it is also important to have a realistic idea of which individuals and groups stand to benefit from continued chaos, instability, and violence in Lebanon. With that in mind, I share this article, which I recently came across, with readers of this Report. Published in 2017 by Politico magazine, authored by Josh eyer, and entitled “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook,” it is an interesting study of the political and financial crosscurrents affecting Lebanon. While it is a long read, it seems to be a detailed, well-researched report with a lot of information about the various organizations, factions and individuals operating today in Lebanon.

    Of course, I cannot personally vouch for everything that the author claims in the article. However, the picture it paints is one that corresponds to what many others working and living in Lebanon have told me.

    It is a picture of organizations, factions, and individuals (including elements within American intelligence and diplomatic circles) whose ways of thinking about and operating in Lebanon have become “entrenched” — which is why bringing about a “re-foundation” of Lebanon, as Patriarch Rai is calling for, may be much more complicated that it might appear at first sight.

    Lebanon: Part of the “Third Christian World”

    When Patriarch Rai speaks of a “positive neutrality” for Lebanon, he is perhaps not speaking merely in modern geopolitical terms. It is certainly true that many approaches to international politics tend to divide the world into a number of powerful nation-states and then attempt to delineate their “spheres of influence.” It is also certainly true that for a small country like Lebanon, freedom to develop culturally, economically, and spiritually is likely best served by being a “friend to all,” and by not taking part in the disputes between powerful neighbors such as Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which often seem to be interminable.

    However, it is also possible that Patriarch Rai’s vision for Lebanon is informed not just by modern geopolitical realities, but also in a spiritual and religious history that is little-known outside the Middle East.

    Lebanon, situated at the border of Asia and the Mediterranean world, can be seen as a surviving remnant of a “Third Christian World” that once stretched across Syria and Iraq, and through Iran and Central Asia into China.

    In his 2009 book The Lost History of Christianity, Prof. John Philip Jenkins positions this “third homeland” of Christianity as a complement to the two other homelands: a Catholic world centered on Western Europe and the papacy in Rome, and an Orthodox realm, stretching from Greece up through the Balkans and the Caucasus to Russia, with its spiritual center at Constantinople.

    Prof. Jenkins begins his discussion of the “Third Christian World” with a fact that is fairly well-known, but that, when understood fully, has staggering implications: “Much of what we today call the Islamic world was once Christian.” He continues:

    “The faith originated and took shape in Syria-Palestine and in Egypt, and these areas continued to have major Christian communities long after the Arab conquests. As late as the eleventh century, Asia was still home to at least a third of the world’s Christians, and perhaps a tenth of all Christians still lived in Africa—a figure that the continent would not reach again until the 1960s. Even in 1250, it still made sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the equator.”

    The spiritual descendants of these ancient Christian communities persist to this day: the Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria, the Church of the East in Iraq, the Syro-Malabar Church in India, the Coptic Church of Egypt, and the Oriental Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, among many others. These are Christian churches with deep roots in their homelands and leaders descended in direct spiritual succession from the apostles.

    Similarly, the Maronite Church of Lebanon has its roots in this “Third Christian World,” with the additional distinction of never have been subjected to dhimmi status under a Muslim ruling class, as most other Christian churches in the Middle East were, at different times throughout the past millennium.

    Prof. Jenkins believes that any understanding of the history of Christianity is incomplete without a knowledge of how the Church grew and developed on the territory of this vast space:

    To appreciate just how radically different this lost Eastern Christianity was, consider one individual who was closely contemporary with Charlemagne. About 780, the bishop Timothy became patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East, which was then based at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Seleucia. He was then aged about fifty-two, well past the average life expectancy for people of this era. Nevertheless, he lived on well into his nineties, dying in 823, and in that long life, Timothy devoted himself to spiritual conquests as enthusiastically as Charlemagne did to building his worldly empire. At every stage, Timothy’s career violates everything we think we know about the history of Christianity—about its geographical spread, its relationship with political state power, its cultural breadth, and its interaction with other religions. In terms of his prestige, and the geographical extent of his authority, Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on a par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Perhaps a quarter of the world’s Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head. At least as much as the Western pope, he could claim to head the successor of the ancient apostolic church.

    When they think about Christian history, most modern Westerners follow the book of Acts in concentrating on the church’s expansion west, through Greece and the Mediterranean world, and on to Rome. But while some early Christians were indeed moving west, many other believers—probably in greater numbers—journeyed east along the land routes, through what we today call Iraq and Iran, where they built great and enduring churches. Because of its location—close to the Roman frontier, but just far enough beyond it to avoid heavy-handed interference—Mesopotamia or Iraq retained a powerful Christian culture at least through the thirteenth century. In terms of the number and splendor of its churches and monasteries, its vast scholarship and dazzling spirituality, Iraq was through the late Middle Ages at least as much a cultural and spiritual heartland of Christianity as was France or Germany, or indeed Ireland.”

    Our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon project, which now has about 300 members, is a way to bring these Christian worlds, separated for so long, back into contact with one another, so that they can draw from each other, nurture each other, and grow together once again.

    Since the beginning of our project in 2022, we have given about $50,000 to assist the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.

    We believe that the closer unity of Christians from East and West will bring about a renewal within the Church, and that Lebanon has an important role to play within this process.

    Please consider becoming a “Friend of Lebanon,” and help us to bring “short-term help” and “long-term hope” to the land where Jesus Christ walked and performed miracles.

    As a “Friend of Lebanon”, you will be able to participate in our Zoom calls with the people we are working with in Rome, Beirut, and throughout Lebanon to support Christians in their ancient homeland.

    Please consider joining us.

    Christopher Hart-Moynihan

    Director of Programs
    Urbi et Orbi Communications   

    You can view all of our previous Lebanon Reports by clicking the button below. Please share with your friends and loved ones.

A Special and Very Important Note

    As a special thank you 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, April 29, 2022, at 11:00 a.m. Eastern by registering here.

    Please enjoy a complimentary digital edition of Inside the Vatican Magazine by clicking here.

    Christopher Hart-Moynihan

    Director, Friends of Lebanon Project
    Urbi et Orbi Communications