Pope Francis Plans Visit to Lebanon in June    

    “In Lebanon, the message must be the looming possibility of global famine.”

    — a friend, summarizing to me the message of the Lebanese Global Conference, held on April 26 in Washington, D.C., as concern grows for the rising price of food and fertilizer in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, and beyond

    “The Holy Father should highlight regions in Lebanon that are functioning, that have the rule of law. Then call for a global conference for Lebanon. It’s not about money. It’s about an education for solidarity. We want to fast in solidarity with Lebanon. And send the food to Lebanon.”

    “Many of the Christian political leaders in Lebanon are for power. We don’t trust them. We don’t have true Christian leaders. Only Patriarch Raï. He should go to the United Nations [to advocate for Lebanon] with the Sunni and Druze. Only the Shia are happy with the present situation.” 

    — Lebanese participants on our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon video conference this past Friday, April 29    

    “When, in October 1978, after his election, [Pope John Paul II] went out to greet the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, at a time when posters and banners were not allowed, he saw one being raised that said, ‘Holy Father, Save Lebanon!’ just before it quickly disappeared. Like an arrow, that message struck his heart. At the end of the celebrations, after greeting everyone, he came back inside and went to kneel before the Almighty. He asked Jesus, present in the Eucharist, to let him live long enough to save Lebanon.”

    — excerpt from Dévastation and Rédemption: Récits d’Apparitions de la Vierge Marie au Liban (1960-2005), by Fady Noun, describing the origin of John Paul II’s devotion to Lebanon (link)

    “Even my husband is not [with me] in Lebanon because we need [financial] support. I want to be here. I want to fight the fight here. There will be a better Lebanon, through us. Not through anybody else.”

    –our friend and colleague, Aya Naimeh, on the video call with us on April 29

Pope Francis kisses the Lebanese flag in the Vatican (Source: Il Sismografo)

    Lebanon Report 2022, #5: Monday, May 2

    Lebanese President Affirms Upcoming Papal Visit to Lebanon

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

    After several years of anticipation, it has now been confirmed: a Pope will be traveling to Lebanon for the first time since 2012.

    The office of the President of Lebanon released a statement on Tuesday, April 5, announcing that Pope Francis will be visiting Lebanon in June (the proposed dates are June 12 and 13).

    According to the statement, news of the Pope’s visit had been confirmed by Msgr. Joseph Spiteri, the Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon.

    Nevertheless, multiple details surrounding the papal visit are still being ironed out, according to the statement. [Note: The Pope has recently been suffering from back pain (sciatica) and has been told by his doctors to rest; therefore, it may be that his health could make this trip impossible for him.]

    A visit from Pope Francis in June would come at a delicate time for Lebanon, as national elections in the country are currently set to be held on May 15. Nevertheless, in the words of Msgr. Michel Aoun, bishop of the (Maronite Catholic) Eparchy of Jbeil-Byblos (who, by the way, shares a first and last name with the President of Lebanon), the Pope’s visit “will give hope to the Lebanese people.” [link to article in Italian]

    Bishop Aoun added that a visit from Francis would help the country in its struggle to defend its identity and seek aid internationally.

    He also gave credit to Vatican officials for work that has already been done in this respect: “Vatican diplomacy is doing its job in this field, in particular in urging countries to lend a hand to Lebanon at all levels.” (The visit of Msgr. Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, was covered in this Lebanon Report in February of this year.)

    According to Bishop Aoun, the papal trip to Lebanon will likely include “a Mass in Beirut, a meeting with President Aoun and political officials in the Republican Palace, a meeting with the spiritual authorities and leaders of religious denominations, a meeting with young people and a Prayer in the Port [of Beirut].”

    The Port of Beirut is, of course, the site of the horrific explosion of August 4, 2020, which left hundreds dead and many thousands more injured, and destroyed a part of the city that, to this day, has not been fully rebuilt.    

Pope Benedict XVI meets with religious authorities in Beirut during his visit in September 2012 (Source: L’Osservatore Romano/AP)

    A Story of Three Popes

    As the leader of a Church with 1.3 billion members worldwide, Pope Francis has a unique ability among world leaders to focus attention on specific issues. At the same time, his multiple roles — as spiritual leader and apostolic successor to St. Peter, bishop of Rome, and head of state of the Vatican — mean that he has many different priorities at any given time. Additionally, the Pope has adopted a lighter travel schedule in recent years due to his advanced age (he is now 85), especially after recovering from a difficult colon surgery in July 2021.

    For this reason, his commitment to visiting Lebanon means that he, and the Vatican, view the situation in the country as being of profound importance — as something worthy of international attention even in the midst of many other extremely pressing issues.

    Why is the situation in Lebanon — home to a mere 6 million people, located at the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean, a country with no significant natural resources that is often overshadowed by its larger neighbors — so important that Francis has decided to make a personal visit?

    To understand the answer to this question, we must return to the words of three Popes: Francis and his two immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

    In their visits to Lebanon, Benedict and John Paul spoke of peace, unity, and coexistence. John Paul’s 1997 visit came two years after the Synod of Bishops that he had called in 1995 to discuss the precarious status of Christians in Lebanon, while Benedict’s 2012 trip took place in the wake of the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the devastating civil war in Syria, Lebanon’s northern neighbor.

    1997: John Paul II speaks of “a new hope for Lebanon”

    During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II’s great interest in Lebanon was well-known. His words about Lebanon in a 1989 letter to the Lebanese Catholic bishops remain a popular refrain for Lebanese of all faiths to this day: “Lebanon is more than a country… it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East as for the West.”

    John Paul’s 1997 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, A New Hope for Lebanon, was the result of many years of dialogue between the Vatican, representatives of the Catholic Church in Lebanon, and John Paul himself. This process culminated in the meeting of the Special Assembly for Lebanon of the Synod of Bishops in November and December 1995.

    After a planned visit in 1995 was delayed due to the bombing of a church in Beirut, John Paul was able to travel to Lebanon in May of 1997 for the official signing of the Apostolic Exhortation.

    The Apostolic Exhortation begins with a moving reflection on the history of Lebanon, its unique place within the Christian world, and the unique challenges that arise from the presence of many different faiths in one country [N.B.: this document is only available in French and Italian on the Vatican website; the translation is my own]:

    Lebanon is a country towards which eyes often turn. We cannot forget that it is the cradle of an ancient culture and one of the lighthouses of the Mediterranean. Nobody can ignore the name of Byblos, which recalls the origins of writing. It is in this region of the Middle East that God sent his Son to fulfill the plan of salvation for all men; in this region, for the first time, Christ’s disciples received the name of Christians (cf. Acts 11: 19-26).

    Thus Christianity quickly became an essential element of the culture of this geographical area and, in particular, of the Lebanese land, which today is rich in multiple religious traditions. It is home to Catholics who are members of different patriarchal Churches, as well as of the Latin Apostolic Vicariate. Because of this fact, right from the time he begins to reason, the young baptized Lebanese Catholic recognizes himself as a Maronite, or Greek-Melkite, or Armenian Catholic, or Syriac Catholic, or Chaldean, or Latin. It is therefore through this path that he opens himself to the Christian life and that he is called to discover the universality of the Church.

    Christians from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities also live in Lebanon. The other important part of the population is made up of Muslims and Druze. For the country, these different communities constitute at the same time a wealth, an originality and a difficulty. But bringing Lebanon to life is a common task of all its inhabitants.

    John Paul continues by acknowledging his own deep and abiding interest in Lebanon:

    You know the bonds of affection that unite me to this “beloved land,” as I have been able to mention them in many circumstances, and in particular since the beginning of my Pontificate. All the Catholic faithful feel a strong attachment to their brothers in this country, which is dear to their hearts as disciples of the Lord, and to the land that our Lord has walked and made holy.

    Later on, there is an assessment of the difficulties Lebanon faces. These words, written between 1995 and 1997, would not seem out of place today, in 2022:

    It is evident that the Christians of Lebanon, like all their fellow citizens, hope to enjoy the conditions necessary for the development of the person, and of the family, while respecting their own cultural and spiritual traditions.

    In particular, they aspire to tranquility, prosperity, a real recognition of fundamental freedoms, those which protect every human dignity and which allow the practice of faith; they aspire to sincere respect for their rights and those of others; finally, they count on a justice that consecrates the equality of all before the law and allows everyone to assume their share of responsibility in social life.

    They are well aware that this project is largely conditioned by the years spent in war and by the serious situation that hangs over this region of the Middle East. I am aware of the current major difficulties: the threatening occupation of southern Lebanon, the country’s economic situation, the presence of non-Lebanese armed forces on the territory, the fact that the refugee problem has not yet been fully resolved, as well as the danger of extremism and the impression of some that they are frustrated in their rights. All this feeds the passions, as well as the fear that the values ​​of democracy and civilization represented by this country could be compromised. From this, the temptation to leave insinuates itself more and more among the Lebanese, especially among the young.

    In order for a more serene future to materialize, I know that many sacrifices are necessary, a constant personal ascetic practice by virtue of which each demands of himself before demanding of others, an active, courageous and persevering presence in the affairs of society; but we must also trust in the grace of the Most High, who transforms hearts and wills, orienting them towards good. The past and present experience that the faithful of Christ have of themselves and of others, around them and everywhere, is sufficient to convince them of the power of the forces of evil, always present and capable of obscuring intelligences, hardening feelings and posing a threat to the future.

    But despite everything, hope remains alive in them. They have not lost their faith in themselves, nor their attachment to their country and its democratic tradition. The enthusiasm for life that characterizes them, and the spirit of fraternity among all people that manifests itself above all in difficult times, which they so often must endure, relentlessly revive their will to collaborate actively in the building up of their country on the basis of the human values ​​that form the wealth of their national heritage.

    John Paul’s visit to Lebanon was, in some ways, a culmination of several decades of intense efforts to prevent the country from splintering. In his book Dévastation et Rédemption, Fady Noun, a journalist for the Lebanese daily newspaper L’Oriente-Le Jour, offers a little-known account of how the Polish pontiff’s dedication to Lebanon originated.

    As this story provides a fascinating window into an important chapter of the shared history of Lebanon, the Vatican, and the Catholic Church, I thought it worth quoting from at length (the selection that I am sharing can be found in this article from Asia News):

    It is a fact that after his election in 1978, John Paul II became closely involved in Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). The extraordinary attention he paid to us led him to organise a special assembly Synod of Bishops about our country. All this has an explanation. Remembering this can help us see how the work of providence weaves itself into our daily actions, almost without our knowledge.

    Some historians have said that the Lebanon set up in 1943 under the national pact agreed by Christian and Muslim communities could have simply disappeared from the map under external pressures or circumstances, or that it might have disintegrated under the weight of internal factors and the heterogeneous nature of its society. Many factors explain why this explosion did not happen.

    If we actually gave John Paul II and Vatican diplomacy their due, we would have to devote more than an article to their role in Lebanese affairs.[…] No one has stressed more the Lebanese vocation to unity than the great Pope. He did so repeatedly and insistently, addressing message after message to Lebanon, going so far as to oppose the aspirations of some of Lebanon’s Christian political parties, who were tempted by partition.

    However, for those wondering who might have encouraged John Paul II to be so involved in Lebanese affairs, there is a surprising story, one that might be anecdotal but also quite revealing. The story begins with Gilberte Doummar, a woman member of the Focolari movement, who for many years was Lebanon’s representative on the Pontifical Council for the Laity. As such, she visited the Vatican on several occasions where she met the Pope and his closest aides.

    Here is what she said. “It was 1984, during the first assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. We met in the Sala Clementina. Card Pironio, then president of the Council, introduced me to the Pope. I thanked him for what he was doing for Lebanon. He answered me saying, ‘Yes, Lebanon is at the centre of my concerns and prayers.’ The same night, I met one of the Pope’s old friends, writer Stephane Vilkanovitch, and I told him, ‘The Pope has a special love for Lebanon. But why?’ ‘I am meeting him tonight; I’ll ask him,’ he told me.

    “‘I have the answer,’ he said when we met the next day. ‘Here it is. When in October 1978, after his election, he went out to greet the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square, at a time when posters and banners were not allowed, he saw one being raised that said, “Holy Father, Save Lebanon!’ just before it quickly disappeared. Like an arrow, that message struck his heart. At the end of the celebrations, after greeting everyone, he came back inside and went to kneel before the Almighty. He asked Jesus, present in the Eucharist, to let him live long enough to save Lebanon.'”

    Such a simple deed can influence the course of events. In 1978, John Paul II had already decided that Vatican diplomacy would focus on preventing Lebanon from breaking up. Not only did God allow John Paul II to live long enough to “save Lebanon,” but he also saved him, the Pope thought, in the assassination attempt against him on 13 May 1981 so that he could fulfill his mission, which, of course, is part and parcel of a broader design for the world.

    “What mattered the most to the Pope,” Gilberte Doummar said, “was the country’s unity. He wanted Christians to work for Lebanon’s unity.

    “On his urging, the Holy See in March 1986 launched a plan to end the civil war. Card Achille Silvestrini, one of the foremost Vatican diplomats during his pontificate, was charged with the task. He tried in particular to organise a Muslim-Christian summit; however, he was not however to breach the wall that divided the Lebanese. Previously, the Vatican had tried many times to stop Christian militias from arming themselves but to no avail, insisting that the paths of peace were better than those of violence. He chided officials in some monastic orders for forgetting their vocation when they supplied weapons to Christians.”

    “In 1987,” Gilberte Doummar noted, “after the failure of the Silvestrini mission, a sad Pope, gesturing with his hand, told me, ‘Pray and make others pray for Lebanon.’ When he called Lebanon a ‘message-country,’ he prophetically saw what Lebanon could offer, how far its influence could go and what a great mission it could have. Lebanon was made for unity, and the Pope had a gift to see what we could not see.”

    The Pope saw in Lebanon many commonalities with his home country of Poland, and he believed that sustained dialogue and diplomacy could achieve a dramatic breakthrough for Lebanon, similar to the cascade of events that had followed his 1979 visit to Poland — which included the founding of the “Solidarnosc” Trade Union in 1980 and the eventual fall of the Iron Curtain.

    In Bring Down the Walls: Lebanon’s Post-War Challenge, Lebanese journalist and author Carole H. Dagher describes the sky-high expectations that preceded John Paul’s visit:

    In Lebanon, Christian expectations of John Paul II’s historic trip were high. The parallel with Karol Wojtyla’s first trip to Poland was irresistible. People had in mind the changes it brought about and the demise of the Soviet empire a few years later.

    Once again, prominent figures such as former Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros preached a realistic outlook: “Lebanon is not Poland,” he observed,“even if the Pope told me in 1979 when I met him: ‘Your country reminds me of Poland.’ In Poland, the Americans and the CIA were involved in the transformation process and the Pope’s visit was a catalyst that accelerated the process at the popular level. This is not the case in Lebanon.”

    Still, at the minimum, John Paul II’s visit was expected to reinvigorate the Christians and invite them to remain attached to their land. It would be, at least,“a blast of fresh air,” as many a journalist wrote.

    Despite the pontiff’s vision for Lebanon, progress in Lebanon was not destined to take the form of sweeping, dramatic changes like glasnost, perestroika, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather slow, incremental advances like the signing of the 1989 Taif Agreement and the disarmament of various militias.

        The 2005 Cedar Revolution and the peaceful withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon — a year after John Paul’s death — seemed to validate the Vatican’s “long game” diplomatic approach. However, enormous sectarian tensions remained, especially around the question of Hezbollah. Then the 2011 “Arab Spring” upended the Middle East and brought a fresh wave of challenges to Lebanon.

    2012: Pope Benedict speaks of maintaining peace between Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims

    John Paul’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, arrived in Lebanon in 2012 at a time when the entire region of the Middle East stood once again at the brink of violence.

    In neighboring Syria, a civil war had begun in 2011 — a war that would plunge the country into more than a decade of bloodshed, and result in more than 1.5 million Syrians — many of them Syrian Christians — fleeing into Lebanon as refugees.

    On arriving in Lebanon, Benedict acknowledged the shadow of the war, saying, “I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men.”

    He also offered Lebanon as an example for Syria and other countries in the region where sectarian violence was erupting: “The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that within a nation there can exist cooperation between the various churches and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions.”

    While the years following the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 had been punctuated by wars between Israel and Hezbollah and political struggles and assassinations within Lebanon, the Arab Spring was seen as an even more pivotal moment, one in which tensions between Christians, Muslims, and other sectarian communities such as Alawites and Druze had the potential to boil over into a wider war, and ultimately even threaten the continued survival of Christians in the Middle East.

    An article written at the time of Benedict’s visit in 2012 reinforces this sense of a shifting balance of power, and of events building towards an imminent catastrophe:

    “The Christians of Syria are looking for someone to get them some peace,” said Mariana, a 26-year-old Christian from Aleppo who moved to Beirut a month ago and asked that only her first name be used because of concerns for her safety. “Overall they are happy with the pope’s visit because they want someone to support them. They’re scared of the Islamic rise to power.”

    Benedict, like many others in the Vatican, was observing the situation in Syria deteriorate into chaos, and likely saw the disastrous consequences for the Christian community that this chaos would bring — including the genocide of Christians in Iraq that would come about several years later after the rise of ISIS in Syria.

    In this sense, his visit to Lebanon was an attempt to reinforce the country, allowing it to stand as a kind of “stronghold” that would remain stable and at peace, no matter how much the rest of the region spun out of control.

    The article from the time of Benedict’s visit gives some context on the situation that Lebanon was facing at that time:

    Christians in Lebanon are wedged between the Shiite militia and political party of Hezbollah on one side and Sunni conservatives who have felt empowered by the rise of the Sunni opposition in Syria on the other.

    “Christians in Lebanon are, politically, what is keeping the peace between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

    Many Lebanese, regardless of their religious background, have welcomed the pope.

    “The pope’s visit is to confirm that the Christian presence in the Middle East is important,” said Mustafa Dylani, a 55-year-old teacher who is Sunni. “He is using love as a weapon before a civil war starts between Christians and Muslims. Those who burn churches and make films about the prophet Muhammad are seeking to encourage this bloodshed.”

    Like John Paul before him, Benedict released an Apostolic Exhortation on the occasion of his visit to Lebanon: Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (The Church in the Middle East). In it, he spoke of the impact of “two new realities”: the “opposing trends” of “secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences,” and “a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion.”

    Both of these trends, Benedict believed, ran counter to (and could be countered by) what he termed “religious freedom” and “healthy secularity”:

    There is a need to move beyond tolerance to religious freedom. Taking this step does not open the door to relativism, as some would maintain. It does not compromise belief, but rather calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between man, religion and God. It is not an attack on the “foundational truths” of belief, since, despite human and religious divergences, a ray of truth shines on all men and women.

    We know very well that truth, apart from God, does not exist as an autonomous reality. If it did, it would be an idol. The truth cannot unfold except in an otherness open to God, who wishes to reveal his own otherness in and through my human brothers and sisters.

    Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: “I possess the truth”. The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love. […]

    A healthy secularity… frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.

    No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds.

    The basis of a constructive relationship between politics and religion is, first and foremost, human nature – a sound understanding of man – and full respect for inalienable human rights.

    A sense of this correct relationship should lead to the realization that relations between the spiritual (religious) and the temporal (political) spheres should be marked by a kind of unity in distinction, inasmuch as both are called, while remaining distinct, to cooperate harmoniously in the service of the common good. […]

    The challenges raised by the relationship of politics and religion can be met patiently and courageously through a sound human and religious formation.

    Constant emphasis needs to be put on the place of God in personal, family and civic life, and on the proper place of men and women in God’s plan.

    Above all, greater prayer is required for this intention.

    2022: Francis brings “in my prayer the desire for peace”

    Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has sought a solution to the ongoing and increasing flight of Christians from their communities in the Middle East.

    “Pope Francis has been committed to trying to talk to Muslims in various places,” Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine told me, “even to the point of receiving criticism from some within the Catholic Church.”

    Francis emphasized this commitment to dialogue during a Mass in Cyprus on December 2, 2021, at which many Christians from Lebanon were present (Cyprus, just a 50-minute flight from Beirut, has a large Lebanese diaspora community).

    “I look at you and see the richness of your diversity. It is true, a beautiful ‘fruit salad’ [Italian: ‘una bella macedonia’]. All different. I greet the Maronite Church, which over the centuries has landed on the island several times and, often undergoing many trials, has persevered in the faith. When I think of Lebanon I feel so much concern for the crisis which it is facing and I feel the suffering of a people tired and tested by violence and pain.

    “I carry in my prayer the desire for peace that rises from the heart of that country. I thank you for what you are doing in the Church, for Cyprus.

    “The cedars of Lebanon are cited many times in Scripture as models of beauty and grandeur. But even a great cedar starts from the roots and slowly sprouts. You are these roots, transplanted to Cyprus to spread the fragrance and beauty of the Gospel. Thank you!”

    Many have speculated that Francis originally sought to tie his visit to Lebanon into a larger itinerary that might also include a meeting in Jerusalem with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. In recent days, however, it has become clear that no meeting between Francis and Kirill is on the imminent horizon, with the Pope himself saying that such a meeting “could lead to much confusion.”

    An article last week by long-time Vatican journalist John Allen on the website Crux gave an overview of the complex issues surrounding a potential meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch.

    In addition to voices in the Curia questioning such a meeting, Allen writes, it is likely that Francis has realized the backlash that it would cause within the 5.5 million-member Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, as well as with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has denounced the war in Ukraine as an “atrocious invasion” and called for solidarity with Ukrainians.

    “The war in Ukraine has accentuated a long-running struggle between Constantinople and Moscow for the soul of global Orthodoxy,” Allen writes, “and doubtless Bartholomew wouldn’t be anxious for the pontiff to do anything that might be perceived as lending Kirill additional credibility.”

    Whatever the reason behind it, the scrapping of a proposed meeting with Kirill means that the ambitions for Francis’ trip are now more limited. In a certain sense, Francis is following a similar path as his predecessors with respect to Lebanon.

    Just as John Paul and Benedict before him, Francis can see the hope that Lebanon symbolizes — a hope for peace, acceptance, and the possibility for people of different faiths to live side by side. Just as they did, he has sought to draw attention to this model — this ‘fruit salad’ of different faiths, managing to vibrantly coexist — with a larger goal in mind.

    For John Paul, this larger goal was peace between the Arab world, Israel and Christianity, especially in the Middle East.

    For Benedict, it was the ending of the disastrous conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the preservation of Christian communities throughout the Middle East.

    For Francis, it seems to be a resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, which has become a wedge deepening the conflict between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

    In the case of all three popes, the larger goal has proved to be difficult to achieve.

    Rather than using Lebanon as a path towards peace-making in a broader conflict, John Paul and Benedict both shifted their course, in the end seeking simply to protect and preserve Lebanon, so that the broader conflicts that surrounded it would not themselves change Lebanon beyond all recognition.

Jocelyne Khoueiry and Pope John Paul II (Source: Christianity Today/Courtesy of Shiraz Awad)

    Jocelyne Khoueiry: From Bullets to Bibles        

    During the writing of this report, as I was looking at pictures of John Paul II‘s visit to Lebanon, I came across one photo that I found very striking.

    In it, John Paul is sharing a quiet moment with a woman on a tree-lined street.

    The two of them appear to be praying; John Paul’s eyes are closed, and his mouth is open as if he is speaking.

    The woman seems to be overcome by emotion; her face tells a story of great suffering, but also of having at last found peace and joy.

    In the background of the photo, a man contemplates the scene, looking on appreciatively as the powerful encounter unfolds.

    As I began to search for more information on the woman in the photo and to read about the story of her life, I myself began to appreciate what this meeting meant to the woman, and to John Paul.

    I read that her name was Jocelyne Khoueiry, and that she was born in 1955, in Beirut.

    Her family was Maronite Catholic, but the strongest influence in their life was the Kataeb Party, also known as the Phalanges, a Christian political party with a paramilitary arm, which had its office across the street from their house.

    Jocelyne and her brothers joined the Phalange militia in the early 1970s, just before the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. Her life changed after a vision that she had while on a patrol in 1976 (the following quotes are taken from an article in Christianity Today, written after her death on July 31, 2020):

    Jocelyne was not a practicing Christian; she preferred the Beirut nightlife. But on May 7, 1976, on a routine patrol on the roof of the Regent Hotel, she had a vision.

    She said the Virgin Mary appeared to her, and she saw herself kneeling in veneration. But she was also overcome with a sense of dread, and prayed that God would protect the six other female fighters stationed there with her.

    On the way down from the roof, she saw advancing Palestinian militants.

    The Regent sat on a dividing line between mixed and wholly Christian neighborhoods of Beirut, and Jocelyne’s squad was completely alone. While the Phalange militia’s men had anticipated defending a different hotel encampment, a 300-strong regiment of Palestinians attacked the female outpost instead.

    The battle lasted six hours. Eventually, Jocelyne risked exposure by climbing back to the roof, and threw down a hand grenade that miraculously killed the Palestinian commander. The militia scattered, and the line was held.

    Jocelyne became a legend.

    But in the years that followed, she contemplated becoming a nun.


    For her courage, Khoueiry became famous as a symbol of the “Christian resistance” in Lebanon.

    Many Lebanese Christians — including women like here — were taking up arms and joining groups like the Phalanges, which fought, at various points, against Sunni- and Shia-dominated militias for territory in Lebanon.

    Khoueiry felt that she was fighting to defend her homeland. In one interview, she later said that she had felt that “choosing Lebanon was choosing Jesus.”

    However, as the years passed, she began to wonder if her Christian faith was truly compatible with the violence that she and those who fought alongside her were engaged in.

    During a period of truce, from 1977-79, Khoueiry attempted to join several religious orders as a nun:

    “Nothing was enough for me,” Jocelyne said in a 2012 interview with Zenit. “I wanted to belong to God, and to belong to him totally.”

    Various convents, however, turned her down, saying her place was in the world. She began studying theology at the Holy Spirit University to the north of Beirut. But when the fighting intensified in 1980, Bashir Gemayel, the charismatic leader of the Lebanese Forces which united the Phalange and other Christian militias, came recruiting.

    After rejoining the Lebanese Forces in 1980, Khoueiry still sought to share her faith with the women under her command.

    She saw herself as responding to a voice from God, which had told her, “These young soldiers are wandering without a guide. Give them the Gospel, and teach them the true faith.”

    According to the Christianity Today article, “Jocelyne eventually commanded 1,500 women during the war, serving in different capacities, including the front lines. She trained them during the day, and led Bible studies at night. And she set up a team of 30 priests and 12 female spiritual guides, who traveled with the fighters wherever they went.”

    Jocelyne Khoueiry’s remarkable journey culminated with her renouncing violence and entering a two-year-long spiritual retreat, from which she emerged with a commitment to fight for Lebanon through living the teachings of her Christian faith.

    She founded the organization “La Libanaise 31 mai” (May 31st Movement for Lebanese Women), which helped families of fighters who had died in the conflict, as well as orphans, the needy, and the disabled.

    In a way, Khoueiry’s path, and her life, mirrored what many hope and pray will be the path of Lebanon as a whole — from the fateful decision to take up arms to defend her community and her country, to the decades of conflict and war, to a final re-commitment to peace, and to the faith of her youth.

    An article on the “Asia News” website shares a final remarkable story from Khoueiry’s life — the story of how, in death, she was “spiritually consecrated” to the Carmelite order, the order which she had sought to join more than 40 years before:

    Upon their request, after the lay faithful left the chapel before the arrival of the funeral directors, the Carmelites of Harissa, contemplated her face in peace, and were inspired to place their own habit on Jocelyne’s body and to officially count her as one of them.

    This was a “spiritual consecration,” said someone who witnessed the prayer vigil.

    Jocelyne was crowned with flowers, embalmed, praised, the ceremony symbolically responding to a deep desire that had accompanied her for more than 40 years.

    The article also shares the words spoken at Khoueiry’s funeral by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Raï, and those of Souraya Bechaalani, her long-time friend:

    The patriarch spoke of a “radical conversion of life”, marked by an unwavering attachment to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary.

    He briefly mentioned Jocelyne Khoueiry’s works, in particular her main foundation, La Libanaise 31 mai (Lebanese Woman 31 May), the date of the Marian feast of the Visitation, and the John Paul II Centre for Cultural Dialogue.

    The families of fallen fighters, orphans, the needy, and the disabled were the focus of her apostolic action.

    With the ‘Oui à la vie’ (“Yes to Life”) movement, she fought against the trivialisation of abortion.

    She was also interested in interfaith dialogue and the process of purification of memories, which defuses violence in the very hearts of former enemies.

    The Patriarch noted that John Paul II and Benedict XVI chose her to attend the Synod on Lebanon and Synod on the Family. Pope John Paul II also appointed her to the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

    Speaking at the ceremony, Souraya Bechaalani, president of the Ecumenical Council for the Middle East and a long-time friend, summed up Jocelyne Khoueiry in three words: she was a woman, with all the dignity the word carries, born on 15 August, feast day of the Assumption; she gave herself completely to the Virgin, Queen of Peace, to whom she dedicated her life: and she was Lebanese, with all the commitment one may have for one’s homeland.

    Unitas: Friends of Lebanon: Our Path Forward

    Two days ago, on the 29th of April, our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon group had its second videoconference of the year (the first was held on February 25).

    We are planning to have another meeting next month, on the last Friday of June (Friday, June 24, at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time).

    Most of all, these meetings are a journey of dialogue and fellowship, where “Friends of Lebanon” from all over of the world — Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Costa Rica, various states in the U.S.A., and, of course, Lebanon itself — join together in friendship and prayer to discuss how the situation is developing in Lebanon and the best way to provide support.

    During the meeting this past Friday, we were delighted to receive confirmation that 50 water purifiers have arrived in Lebanon and will be distributed to needy families by our partners in Beirut.

    Clean drinking water is often difficult to come by these days in Beirut, as the industrial water purification systems are often turned off during power outages in the city.

    For this reason, we identified water purifiers as one way that Unitas: Friends of Lebanon could bring “short-term help” to the community in Beirut, and especially to many Christian families affected by the August 2020 explosion.

    The H2gO water purifiers that we have provided are extremely easy to operate: after water and table salt have been mixed, each device can produce enough chlorine to disinfect up to 20 liters of water at a time, in alignment with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Safe Water System requirements. Each device has a lifetime capacity of 124,000 liters, with no replacement parts needed.

    We believe that these water purifiers will make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of people in Lebanon, and we would like to thank all those who made it possible for them to arrive safely.

    We are especially grateful for the support of the charitable organization”Make Water Safe for the World”, who donated the water purifiers to Unitas: Friends of Lebanon. Thank you!

Georges Assaf, who has been one of the partners of our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon initiative for nearly two years, appeared on Lebanese channel “Mariam TV” to discuss his work with Lebanese youth

    Unitas: Friends of Lebanon was also recently mentioned on a television program in Lebanon.

    The show “Mariam TV Lebanon” recently interviewed Aya Naimeh and Georges Assaf about their work supporting Lebanese youth.

    Aya and Georges have worked with Unitas: Friends of Lebanon for almost two years now.     

    It is in large part thanks to their expertise and tireless labor that we have been able to implement various projects, including food boxes and scholarships, on the ground in Beirut.

    Although the interview is in Arabic, English-speaking watchers can enjoy the video (in English) from 3:20 that presents the work that Georges and Aya’s organization, “Lebanese Young Talents”, has done to support education in Lebanon. (The video was made with the participation of the elite athletes of the Lebanese National Team who Georges coaches in his work as an athletic trainer.)

    Through our partnership with this organization, Unitas: Friends of Lebanon has been able to reach 1,385 students across Lebanon, providing funding for scholarships to help keep them in school during this difficult time.

    The Lebanese dialect of Arabic is famous for being interspersed with words from French and English. In a way, this “Lebanese Arabic” is also a symbol of national identity in Lebanon.

    Because both Aya and Georges are speaking in the Lebanese dialect, those who do not understand Arabic can nevertheless hear, at around the 6:00 mark of the video, when Aya mentions “emergency funds relief” and “water filters” — two of the ways that Unitas: Friends of Lebanon has been providing “short-term hope” in Lebanon — as well as when, at 11:40, she mentions “Urbi et Orbi” (Unitas: Friends of Lebanon is an initiative of Urbi et Orbi Communications).

    We are grateful to Aya and Georges for all the work they have done for youth in Lebanon and we look forward to continuing to work with them as they and others build the country’s future.

    The fact that more media attention is now being given to the impact that they have had certainly bodes well for their — and our — continued work.

Maronite Father Hani Tawk and volunteers working to prepare a meal at Mary’s Kitchen in Beirut, November 2020 (Source: CNS photo/Doreen Abi Raad)

    Religious faith in Lebanon for 2,000 years…

    Lebanon is a country where the Church has thrived since the lives of the first apostles.

    It is known from the New Testament that Jesus preached at Tyre and Sidon during his life, and many also believe that his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, was at the village of Qana in southern Lebanon.

    The Maronite Catholic Church, which is the Eastern Rite Church that developed over the centuries on the territory of modern-day Lebanon, has a strong monastic tradition, and today there are 14 religious orders within the Maronite Church (5 male orders and 9 female orders), with a total of 719 monks and 812 nuns (more information about the religious orders of the Maronite Church can be found at the “Maronite Heritage” website).

    The economic and humanitarian crises that have hit Lebanon over the last several years have not spared religious orders. Many people in religious life have faced great challenges as they follow their vocation and seek to draw closer to God in the midst of the suffering and chaos that surrounds them.

    The stories of Lebanese religious who have held true to their vocations and to the charisms of their orders in these times of extreme trial are nothing short of astonishing. Two recent articles, one in L’Osservatore Romano and the other in the National Catholic Register, give us a window into the difficulties they are facing, and how they are growing in their faith.

    The Osservatore Romano article, titled “Being a Sister in Lebanon,” tells the story of a community of nuns from the Congregation of the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family living in the village of Fatka, 30 kilometers north of Beirut:

    As the intrepid and restless Sister Jocelyne Chahwane pronounces, “We don’t know if we’ll make it to the end of winter.” The Notre-Dame du Mont Center is a large white building, surmounted by a cross, which looks down on the splendor of the Mediterranean.

    Sister Jocelyne directs the guesthouse, which was once the financial heart of the community and of the congregation itself. A mighty structure with 100 rooms, capable of accommodating 275 people. There is also a restaurant and a theater with hundreds of seats that hosts spiritual retreats, conventions, conferences, and seminars. The Centre was tasked with supporting the rest home for the elderly religious from the generated income.

    Today, however, the Country of the Cedars, the Lebanon that — in the memory of the refined intellect of Lebanese Amin Malouf, who has lived for years in France — “has often been defined as the Switzerland of the Near East” is on the brink of the abyss.

    “Economic crisis and pandemic have kept tourists away. Foreigners, nobody comes anymore. We are in immense isolation,” explains Sister Jocelyne. In the meantime, the rest home has decided to take in elderly women from the surrounding area, and houses 70 religious and laywomen there, cared for by 30 employees, who are “women too: mothers, divorced spouses, with problems. We have to feed them all every day, which is a challenge.”

    Sister Jocelyne is 49 years old; she was consecrated 21 years ago. A Lebanese, born in Beirut, who during a spiritual retreat when she was 28 years old and working as a manager in a large pharmaceutical company, SmithKline Beecham, found herself confronted with a great inner crisis.

    It was the year 2000, and her company was about to merge with another pharmaceutical giant, Glaxo. “I was reminded of the pages in the Bible, of Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, who wanted to follow him. When Jesus tells him, sell everything you have, give it to the poor and come with me, the rich man becomes sad. Then, he gives up. That sadness touched me. I felt that I was called to serve. After eight months I said my big YES to Christ.”


    Through our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon initiative, we will be leading a pilgrimage to Lebanon in September of this year, to talk with people like Sister Jocelyne and visit places like Fatka, where “nobody comes anymore,” in order to bring a simple message: that they are not alone. (To receive more information about this pilgrimage, sign up to become a “Friend of Lebanon,” or simply respond to this Lebanon Report via email.)

    Sister Jocelyne concludes, “All our neighbors are Muslim countries; here, however, traditionally, there is a diversity of rites: the Maronites, the Orthodox. However, these Christians are those who suffer the most; the Shiite Muslims have help from Iran, the Sunnis from Saudi Arabia. What about the Christians? Yet Pope Francis, praying for us, said we are the last bastion of Christianity in the Middle East. Today, the big question is: will Lebanon remain a Christian country or not?”

    The National Catholic Register article interviews members of the informal group “Church for Lebanon,” a group of 15 priests and one nun — of the Maronite, Latin, and Melkite rites — who have been meeting since 2019 to provide hot meals, food boxes, and health services to people in need in their community in Beirut.

    Maronite Father Hani Tawk summarizes the group’s motivation in this way: “We cannot be a real priest, a real presence of Jesus Christ, without helping the people. Otherwise we are just a functionary of the Church.”

    “People feel that the Church is the place where they can be helped and where they can share their pain,” said Maronite Father Tony Lattouf, a group member and pastor of Our Lady of Assumption Church in Rabweh, a formerly middle-class area north of Beirut.

    “Sometimes we feel that we can’t handle everything. But we always believe the presence of God is with us, that he will take care of things,” Father Lattouf told CNS. […]

    Following the blast, Father Tawk established Mary’s Kitchen in a small garage in a neighborhood about 500 feet away from the port. As more people slip into poverty, the initiative has grown and currently prepares 900 hot meals daily for four distribution areas in Beirut.

    The walls of Mary’s Kitchen are graced with photos of those who lost their lives in the blast. “It’s not just a kitchen,” Father Tawk said. “It’s a center of conviviality, fraternity, a home for listening.” […]

    Despite the different religious traditions of their Catholic rites and different political views, the group is united by a common goal of helping Lebanon’s suffering population.

    “We are passing through a very miserable situation. But we believe there is light at the end of this tunnel. We believe in the Resurrection,” Father Tawk said.    

    Lebanese Global Conference: “‘Famine’ became the key word”

    Also attending our “Friends of Lebanon” video conference on April 29 were several individuals who had been present at the Lebanese Global Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. on April 26.

    The conference featured talks from experts, analysts, and prominent figures like Samy Gamael, the current leader of the Kataeb Party in Lebanon, as well as American Congressmen Darrell Issa and Darin LaHood, who are both of Lebanese descent.

    A major theme of the conference was the effect that food shortages will have on Lebanon (as well as other Middle Eastern countries) in the coming months and years.

    “‘Famine’ became the key word over the course of the session,” one person who had attended the conference told me. “One full year of crisis in the Ukraine will equal four years in the countries that depend on them [for food and agricultural products].”

    One “Friend of Lebanon” in our meeting noted that, due to the war in Ukraine, economic sanctions and trade embargoes are now being imposed by NATO-affiliated countries against Russia and Belarus, who are responding with their own reciprocal sanctions and embargoes. One result of this will be a breakdown in the supply chain of agricultural fertilizer, of which Russia and Belarus are major producers (according to some estimates, 20% of phosphates used in agricultural fertilizer worldwide come from Belarus).

    Another, more immediate result of the war is that the production of staple foods in Ukraine such as wheat — staples on which much of the Middle East depends — is expected to be greatly diminished this year. Some estimates place the number of people who will affected by food shortages as a result of the war as high as 500,000,000.

    “In Lebanon, the message must be the global famine,” the conference attendee told me. “Lebanon [and other Middle Eastern countries] get 60% of their food supplies from Eastern Europe. [The food shortages] will affect 60% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa.”

    Many in our “Friends of Lebanon” meeting saw the upcoming papal visit as a way to bring attention to this issue.

    Voices of Unitas: Friends of Lebanon

    I wanted to end this report by sharing a few more of the thoughts of the people who came to our “Friends of Lebanon” video call on April 29.

    In the end, our meeting covered many topics and there was a vibrant back-and-forth between the people who are currently on the ground in Lebanon and those who are watching the situation unfold from abroad.

    First, some thoughts on the upcoming papal visit:

    “The Holy Father should highlight regions in Lebanon that are functioning, that have the rule of law. Then we have a global conference for Lebanon. It’s not about money. It’s about an education for solidarity. We want to do fasting in solidarity with Lebanon. And send the food to Lebanon.”

    All of us in the call agreed that we would make an effort to fast every week, on Thursday, in solidarity with Lebanon.

    Then, some opinions on the upcoming elections in Lebanon on May 15:

    “Everybody is afraid…there are some independent parties that are coming in. To say the situation is going to get better or worse..we don’t know. You never know in Lebanon. We need the support of the community that is outside of Lebanon, who believes in the cause that we are working for.”

    “The Central Bank is trying to hold the economy stable until the election, but we know that after the election on the 15th, there will be no limit for the dollar in Lebanon. In 2019 it was at 1,500 [Lebanese pounds] per dollar, now it’s 30,000.”

    “Even if the elections happen the way we want, we don’t know the damage that has been done.”

    “128 deputies in Parliament… more than half are Hezbollah and their allies… instead of coexistence of Christians and Muslims, we have an image of extremism with Christians supporting Hezbollah.”

    And some criticism of Hezbollah:

    “They are promoting the culture of death. They are changing the identity of Lebanon. They want to turn it into a smaller province of Iran.”

    “100,000 [combatants in the Hezbollah forces] vs. 7,000 [in the Lebanese Army] Nobody can compete with this power. We need peace. We need political stability in Lebanon.”

    “I am reviewing sports curriculum… they said, out of 21 instructors, you only have four Muslim Shia. This [exerting control over the school curriculum] is a way to implement a different image, an Iranian image, where physical health and education is tied into being strong for jihadism.”

    “There are 4- and 5-year-olds doing the salute to Hezbollah.” (The speaker referred me to this video, where very young schoolboys are seen trampling on the Israeli and American flags after completing an obstacle course.)

    On the response of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to efforts to make Lebanon adhere to neutrality, and how a resolution could possibly be reached:

    “‘You want to get me out of the way? I am the one with bombs and missiles…’ [one person’s view of Nasrallah’s position and importance]. We’re stuck. We need prayers. I believe in miracles because I am a Christian…[we need] intervention of the United States more boldly in Lebanon. An agreement with Iran. To keep Lebanon impartial from all of the struggles around it. Right away Hezbollah would vanish.”

    On the broader political situation in Lebanon, and criticism of Lebanon’s Christian political leaders:

    “Many of the Christian political leaders in Lebanon are for power. We don’t trust them. We don’t have true Christian leaders. Only Patriarch Raï. He should go to the United Nations [to advocate for Lebanon] with the Sunni and Druze. Only the Shia are happy with the situation.” 

    “A Christian leadership which tries to benefit from the next 5 years by making short-term agreements… they are getting richer and at any time they can leave. They play the card of Christianity but they don’t care. They will do anything to get anything they want… power, money, and then their money is invested elsewhere.”

    “The problem is that even Christians are divided. The Shia, when it comes to politics, are united. Christians are united with them [i.e., some Christian political parties ally with Hezbollah] because they are after power, they are after their own interests.” 

    “For Iran to have control over Lebanon, you can kiss the Christians goodbye. You can kiss their culture goodbye. In this land where Christ walked, they will not live under Iran.”

    And two final thoughts:

    “You have to look for the truth where it is. Find it, grab on to it. As soon as God is thrown out, evil comes in.”

    “Even my husband is not [with me] in Lebanon because we need [financial] support. I want to be here. I want to fight the fight here. There will be a better Lebanon, through us. Not through anybody else.”

    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, June 24, 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