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.
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Urbi et Orbi Communications