Left, Wadih El-Khazen, Dean of the Maronite General Council, and right, Bishop Joseph Spiteri, the outgoing Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, during one of Spiteri’s last meetings in Lebanon as Nuncio, August 21, 2022 [Source: Lebanon National News Agency]
Apostolic Vicar of Beirut Bishop Essayan: “A Small Miracle in This Terrible Moment”
The majority of Catholics in Lebanon belong to the Maronite Church, but there is a group under the direct jurisdiction of Rome: the Vicariate Apostolic of Beirut, established in 1953 and using the Latin Rite, with 137 priests and roughly 18,000 faithful as of 2020.
The Vicar Apostolic of Beirut is Bishop César Essayan.
Born in Achrafiyeh (eastern Beirut) in 1962, Bishop Essayan studied in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood in 1993. He was given the title of Vicar Apostolic in 2016 – a title which signifies that he is a titular bishop in a region where (Latin Rite) dioceses or parishes have not been established.
Bishop Essayan recently gave an interview (in Italian) to Vatican News in which he discussed the situation in Lebanon and what the Catholic Church has done to help in the two years following the August 4 explosion.
Many of the Bishop’s answers to the interviewer’s questions give much-needed context for understanding why, exactly – despite all of the suffering – many in the Church still have hope for Lebanon.
The original interview with Bishop Essayan, published in Italian on the Vatican News website, can be found here.
Vatican News: Your Excellency, how are the Lebanese living today? Have the social wounds from the [August 4] blaze healed?
Bishop César Essayan: The balance is not so positive. There are many of us working to try to heal. Many of those who were wounded [in the explosion have since died. Many houses have been rebuilt but there is work still to be done, for many years. Many people are still waiting to undergo facial plastic surgery for the injuries they sustained. The biggest drama, however, is surrounding the facts, the truth about what occurred – it is getting further and further away.
The judge was initially interfered with. Whether he did a good job or not is not for me to say. In any case, this fact has gradually led the political parties involved to divide the parents of the victims in two: those in favor of the judge and those against. This further clouded the issue, and postponed the possibility of really understanding what happened. So today we have reached a state of profound division, which unfortunately coincides with a division between those who are Christians and those who are Muslims.
On another level, we realize that the consequences of the explosion will also have an effect on the economic crisis: there is little work, people are leaving, the ones who remain are not doing well. There is another division in the population: between those who are earning in dollars and those who are earning in Lebanese lire [pounds]. Those who work in public service are earning in lire and barely make it to the end of the month if they are not helped by relatives abroad. Others such as restaurant owners earn in dollars. Not many people are able to protest against this, because they no longer have the strength. Not to mention the rise in prices due to the war in Ukraine.
And then, again, we must not forget the presence of the Syrian [refugees]. Unfortunately, this is creating tensions with the Lebanese. It should be noted that the Lebanese are being given wrong information: many Lebanese say that the Syrians receive aid in dollars, and they get angry. But this is not true.
In fact, when you go to the bakery there are two lines, the Syrians on one side and the Lebanese on the other. With the Syrians, the whole family comes – if there are five, for example, they take five portions. Usually for the Lebanese it happens that only the father or mother goes, and they take only one portion. These are situations that feed resentment and division. Nothing is easy. It is not just about the explosion at the port of Beirut.
VN: You have spoken of this economic crisis, one of the worst in Lebanese history. In this regard, there have also been several interventions by ulema [Islamic scholars] from the Arab League. But how much space does the international community have to support the country and what are the priority needs of the population at this stage?
CE: They are the usual needs, in reality. In every case, maybe today it is about helping people meet their basic food needs. So we are giving the families some hot food. Then there are the medicines, the hospitals. We’re seeing a huge tragedy. Very few people are able to go there if they need to, because medical costs have increased dramatically, as if we were on the verge of a war. Then there is the area of education.
Today we need to survive. Eighty percent of the population now lives below the poverty line. And these are people who have now grown tired. And yet they go on.
There are problems that have arisen as a result of what happened at the port. We have opened a community center in Beirut where we have a social worker, psychologists (for adults and children). The number of people arriving there is constantly increasing. We used to give about seventy hot meals, now we are giving three hundred. This I say just to give an idea. Those who come to receive medications are increasing month by month: 25-27-29 percent. The lights are almost never on; it all depends on how the generators are working. The state is letting everything go; they think we can fend for ourselves. The population can no longer put up with the state; in short, we are seeing an oppression never before witnessed.
VN: We all remember the mobilization for the emergency in the aftermath of the incident in the port of Beirut, then there was silence in the media. How has the Church proceeded? How have you supported the people over these two years?
CE: It has to be said that the universal Church has never stopped lending a hand to the local Church. With the Ukrainian crisis, aid may have undergone a slight inflection, but the agencies that depend on the Catholic Church have remained always present in the territory of Lebanon and are doing very, very good work. We must thank both the Holy Father, the Secretariat of State, and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, who are pushing everyone to monitor the situation. There are always those who help, even with cash to support educational institutions, for example. The Oeuvre d’Orient in France, Aid to the Church in Need, the country of Hungary are helping a lot with regard to, for example, the supply of energy through solar technologies. This is helpful for schools, hospitals. Personally I can say that, although the Apostolic Vicariate of the Latins is not rich – indeed, it is poor – from the help we continue to receive we are able to help many many people in turn.
Over a thousand food packs a month, 300 hygiene kits, 300 meals a week in Beirut. We managed to get a mobile clinic that goes north and south, among the Syrian refugee camps, to visit mainly children. In short, there is a small miracle, called the Church. I tell everyone that I am very pessimistic but there is a small miracle that takes place with the outstretched hands of the Church in this terrible moment. It’s very beautiful. She tells us: “I will not leave you alone.” The Lord never leaves us alone, he precedes us, everywhere we go.
I must also add that Pope Francis, the great prophet of our times, with his call to this synodal journey opened up for us paths that allowed for a sharing that we did not experience before. He made us discover that, even though we have lost values on various levels, they are surfacing with those with whom we are close now. These are the values that make us grow: the Lebanese, before entering his home, opens the food package in front of his neighbor’s house and shares with him, because [the neighbor] is in need, like him. These are wonderful things. Perhaps the “great ones” have lost their way, but the poorest among us never have. It is a great lesson of our time.
VN: A few days ago, another fire seemed as though it might consume the destroyed silos that were at the port, whose remains have become a bit of a symbol of what happened two years ago: is there a risk that all traces will be erased, and that the country and the grave situation that it is in will be forgotten?
CE: Perhaps, because the big problem in Lebanon is that it is not possible to tell the truth, to assume one’s responsibilities, to say: okay, we made a mistake, and we ask for forgiveness. We can’t [continue to] always say: let’s act as if nothing had happened, amnesty for all, the corrupt remain in power. No. The independent parliamentarians, the new ones, wanted the silos to be safeguarded as a symbol not only of the explosion, but of all the violence in the world.
Wheat is the basic food for everyone. But there are people who understand nothing and want to destroy everything. Maybe it will happen, too, but one day the truth will reach us all.
[End, interview with Bishop Essayan]
The episcopal ordination of Msgr. César Essayan on October 8, 2016, in Beirut, in the Church of St. Louis of the Capuchins. Essayan was consecrated a bishop by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Eastern Churches [Source: Jean Marie Vaas/InfoCatho]
Among those who follow or write about current events in Lebanon, as well as among those who are simply experiencing them first-hand, one theme is often repeated: the country may be able to put its current struggles behind it and blossom once again, but it will require help from the international community.
Another common observation is that there are currently several “competing visions” for the future of Lebanon – as part of a Shia axis led by Hezbollah and Iran, or as part of the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni world, or as an example of a country where people of various faiths, Catholics and Muslims and Druze, can live in harmony.
As much as we may believe in a vision, or in a mission, however, there is often a point of exhaustion, when the circumstances of life prevent us from continuing to work towards it. This, more than anything, is what explains why so many people are now leaving Lebanon, despite their strong family ties and their love for their land and their culture, as well as their faith.
In our latest Unitas: Friends of Lebanon meeting, held on August 26, our colleague Aya Naimeh described the difficulty her family had experienced in trying to pay for an operation for her grandfather’s hip.
“People are sustaining themselves with money from relatives [living abroad],” she said. “My grandpa fell down and had a hip replacement. Relatives abroad paid for the hip operation. I saw a woman asking to remove her husband from the hospital because she didn’t have the 5000 USD to pay for his care.”
Aya also told us that in Lebanon, people above the age of 76 don’t have access to insurance anymore, as insurance companies have stopped insurance policies because of the crisis. Social security has also been stopped for the past 3 years. “If you don’t have somebody helping from abroad there are no solutions for you,” she said. “Nurses don’t get paid as much…they get paid at the official rate. Nurses wouldn’t enter the room because my grandfather had Covid. We had to switch him from one hospital to the other. These are the best hospitals in Lebanon.”
Aya noted that electricity is now costing some families around 10,000,000 Lebanese pounds per month (~6000 USD per month) due to the ongoing blackouts. The money crunch also means that students are now prioritizing work, rather than school. She told us that each university class is either 3 or 4 credits, which each cost 333 USD, money that most students do not have. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like,” she said, talking about the upcoming semester at the university where she works.
“People want to be back,” Aya said. “And they would be back in a second, but the salaries are too low. A good salary is 200 USD. People love their country; most of my friends [returning to Lebanon for summer vacation] postpone leaving Lebanon and going back to their other countries. One week, two weeks. But a basic salary today doesn’t allow you to go to the supermarket one time. It’s a choice between living in Lebanon and having insurance, starting a family… it’s better but it’s not how it was. Many services are now in dollars. This is why they need people from outside to help them.”