2) The visit of our Friends of Lebanon delegation to Lebanon in September 2022
This visit was the culmination of two years of work supporting the (primarily Christian) communities devastated by the August 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion. Our group sought to better understand the ongoing situation — especially the hopes and needs of the Christian communities in Lebanon — as well as experience Lebanon’s world-renowned religious pilgrimage sites.
Over nine days in Lebanon, from Beirut to the Qadisha (“Holy”) Valley, passing through the lovely towns of Byblos, Harissa, and Annaya, our group of 10 pilgrims was able to experience this “Land of Ancient Faith” in the flesh.
During meetings with religious leaders, such as Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi and the Guardians of the Holy Fire (a group of Orthodox Christian leaders in Lebanon) we began to concretize plans to hold a “Day of Unity” conference this September (see Point 3 below), with the goal of mobilizing support in order to help Christians stay in Lebanon, and in this way to support Lebanon’s special role as a stable country with a large Christian population.
Meetings with prominent intellectuals such as Dr. Habib Malik gave us invaluable perspective and insight into Lebanon’s history and current crisis. Dr. Malik in particular spoke about how Lebanon’s Christians are unique in that, throughout their history, they have struggled continuously against being subjected to the “dhimmi” status that other Christians in the Middle East experienced: broadly speaking, while Christians in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt were reduced to second-class citizens, Lebanon’s Christians sought to live on equal terms with their Muslim neighbors.
This struggle eventually bore fruit in the form of the modern Lebanese state, which today is home one of the last significant populations of Christians in the Middle East — the original homeland of Christianity.
Finally, our meetings with recipients of our “short-term help” — in the form of food boxes and water purifiers — and “long-term hope” — in the form of financial aid for education — confirmed for us that the support from our donors has made a huge difference for blast-affected families in Beirut.
Now we must continue to help as they rebuild in the midst of an economic and financial crisis.
3) A “Day for Lebanon” in September 2023, centered around St. Charbel
During a January trip to the United Kingdom, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi of the Maronite Catholic Church gave a speech to a group called Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East. In it, he revealed that he had submitted a formal request to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, asking for a UN conference to be held on Lebanon.
The conference, the Patriarch stated, ought to focus on establishing a roadmap for the repatriation of Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, as well as drafting a Security Council resolution confirming Lebanon’s political neutrality.
As a group of concerned “Friends of Lebanon,” we would like to see the United Nations follow up on this request from Lebanon’s spiritual leader and begin organizing such a conference.
While the two issues mentioned by Patriarch Rai are complicated, they must be addressed through a process of dialogue between Lebanon’s factions before it is too late.
A certain degree of unity is necessary for such a dialogue to take place. This is why we have proposed a one-day conference, to be held this September, focusing on great spiritual and cultural figures in Lebanon.
One individual who has the capacity to unite Lebanese of all religions is St. Charbel.
The more we have learned about this remarkable saint over the past several years, the more we have become convinced that his life and miracles can be a source of hope as Lebanon and the greater Middle East traverse a period of great suffering.
A bust of St. Charbel in the Maronite Patriarchate Museum in Bkerke, Lebanon, which we visited during our pilgrimage in September 2022.
One of the most beloved figures in Lebanon is St. Charbel, the Maronite monk who was born in 1828 in Bekaa Kafra, high above the Qadisha Valley (Kahlil Gibran was born 55 years later in Bsharri, the town that faces Bekaa Kafra across the valley).
St. Charbel was born into a Maronite family and given the name Youssef Antoun Makhlouf. His parents were Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Makhlouf.
When Charbel was just 3 years old, his father, Antoun Makhlouf, was taken to perform forced labor for the army of the Ottoman sultan, who at them time ruled over all of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Greece. Antoun passed away shortly afterwards.
After the death of his father, Charbel was raised by his mother and later his stepfather, a man who took Holy Orders and became the parish priest of Bekaa Kafra.
Charbel was a quiet and thoughtful young man who felt called to the spiritual life from a young age.
At age 21, he left his family and went to live with the monks of the Lebanese Maronite Order in Mayfouq, near the city of Byblos.
Some time afterwards, he transferred to the Monastery of St. Maroun in Annaya, a small town in the mountains east of Byblos.
It was here that Youssef Antoun Makhlouf was given the name Charbel, which, according to several sources, means “Story of God” in the Syriac language.
In 1853, he took his final monastic vows and joined the order in Annaya, where he would spend most of the rest of his life.
Charbel’s fame for holiness and miracles grew during his life, and even more after his death.
Many years after his death, his body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt.
To this day, he has been credited with more than 29,000 miracles, for people from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist religious backgrounds, and even people of no religious background…
A father and daughter at the tomb of St. Charbel in Annaya, Lebanon. This photo was taken during our Friends of Lebanonpilgrimage in September 2022