Statue of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, Lebanon. This shrine, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is visited by many Maronite Catholics and by many Orthodox, but it is also visited by many Muslims of good will who have a devotion to the Blessed Mother. It could become a place from which a new vision for a peaceful and prosperous Lebanon could spring. The statue of Mary was brought from France and installed in 1908
Patriarch Elias Hoyek (1843-1931), commonly regarded as “the father of modern Lebanon.” He dreamed of a country where Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths could live together in peace. That dream is now facing grave challenges. Christians have lived in Lebanon and the surrounding region since the mid-first century, when St. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, before he went to Rome
An explosion at a gas storage facility in Lebanon this morning, while hundreds of people were gathering to obtain gasoline, led to more than 20 people being burned to death and dozens more hospitalized with terrible burns (see below)
“#Lebanon wakes up to horrific news. At least 20 ppl killed & 79 injured, says Red Cross, in a fuel tanker explosion in Akkar in northern Lebanon. The country is struggling to keep hospitals open as fuel supplies dwindle & electricity cuts become the norm.” —A tweet earlier today from Arwa Ibrahim in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon just a few days ago recalled the anniversary of the terrible blast of August 4, 2020 when thousands of tons of fertilizer stored in the port of Beirut blew up (scroll down at this link to see terrifying video of that explosion). Now a terrible explosion of gasoline stored in a warehouse, where many Lebanese had gathered to collect the scarce fluid in small canisters, has killed more than 20 and injured dozens more. Many of the victims were burned so badly they were unrecognizable. The crisis in Lebanon worsens.
Note: To support our Friends of Lebanon project, click here. Your help is needed now more than ever before. Even small donations are very helpful. Thank you in advance for your generosity. We realize you have many other concerns and obligations, but Lebanon right now is clearly an important cause.—RM
“Both national feeling and religion make it an obligation for you to respect and love everybody whatever may be his belief. Reason leads you to fraternize with the person you live with under the same sky and on the same land.” —Patriarch Elias Peter Hoyek, 1843-1931, the 72nd Patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites, considered by many the founder of modern Lebanon. He adopted the middle name of “Peter” to signify that he was the successor of St. Peter, first bishop of Antioch. Peter was bishop of the church in Antioch before he went to Rome, sometime before his execution in Rome, generally dated to 64 A.D.
August 15, 2021, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Lebanon Report 2021: #7, Lebanon in Danger
Tragedy has again struck Lebanon.
Lebanese government forces this morning — Sunday, August 15 —were in the midst of distributing stored gasoline to local residents in Tleil in the north of the country when a terrible gas explosion occurred.
“There was a rush of people, and arguments between some of them led to gunfire which hit the tank of gasoline and so it exploded,” said one security source, while local Al-Jadeed TV reported via eyewitnesses that the explosion was caused by a person who ignited a lighter.
Around 200 people were nearby at the time of the explosion, according to Reuters.
“We need urgent help to evacuate some of the injured abroad… there are cases (of burns) that are more than the ability of Lebanese hospitals to handle,” Health Minister Hamad Hassan told the outlet.
Army and security forces were among the casualties, according to sources.
“There were hundreds gathered there, right next to the tank, and God only knows what happened to them,” said one man who was taken to Tripoli’s al-Salam hospital after standing in line to get gasoline.
Even more precarious
This tragedy makes this present situation of Lebanon even more precarious.
The country itself now seems in imminent danger of falling into the status of a “failed state,” where medicine is unavailable, the currency is depreciating daily in value, and the hopes of the people for a stable and prosperous future are diminishing.
This is why Pope Francis called all of the Christian leaders of Lebanon together for a day of prayer in Rome on July 1.
This is why the courageous Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church of Lebanon, Bechara Boutros Raï, has repeatedly called for an international conference to assist Lebanon to recover its stability in order to face the crisis. (Link)
And this is why many are beginning to worry that the crisis may spin further out of control, taking the health and hope of many poor and middle class Lebanese, and risking the fracturing of the country itself.
For all of these reasons — to help people today, right now; to help the country’s religious leaders develop a common effort to begin to face the crisis as a united country; and to give hope to young people that the country’s future will be better than its present — we are continuing our effort to report on the situation in the country, and to help through small but concrete steps to turn the situation around. —RM
(Note: Below is a more in-depth report on the present situation in Lebanon by my son, Christopher Hart-Moynihan, who is directing our new “Friends of Lebanon” project.)
Bishop Gregory Mansour, 65, head of the Brooklyn, New York eparchy of the Maronite Church in the United States. We interviewed Bishop Mansour here
Sunday, August 15, 2021
Lebanon: The Broader Picture
By Christopher Hart-Moynihan, Director, Friends of Lebanon Project
Last week, our interview with Bishop Gregory John Mansour (above) which we released on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, touched on a number of topics related to Lebanon. (Read the interview here.)
The bishop gave a compelling summary of his vision for Lebanon as a “model” or “fragile experiment” in building a society where different religious groups can live together in peace.
Some might wonder why this experiment is important, or why it should be given particular attention in a world facing a wide range of challenges, many of them closer to home. But as the path Lebanon will take in the future is being determined in these days, weeks, and months, more is at stake than meets the eye.
This article by Prof. Habib Malik of Lebanese American University gives the view of one expert on the geopolitical factors that are at play in the case of Lebanon. Though the article was written exactly one year ago, in the wake of the August 4, 2020 blast, the points it raises remain relevant, and possibly even more urgent than ever.
Prof. Malik believes that the country is a fulcrum point where the interests of multiple states and groups are converging, with the goal of destabilizing Lebanon so that it can be easily be detached from its “traditional Western and Arab strategic, political, and cultural moorings.”
The article is worth reading in its entirety, but the quote below argues that several powerful factions within Lebanon are not promoting stability and economic recovery in the nation, and in fact seeking to benefit from the chaos.
And Prof. Malik mentions one unexpected new player in the struggle for Lebanon’s future: China…
Prof. Malik on Lebanon and… China
“Hezbollah has persistently instructed its puppet government to ignore any calls for serious reforms, and of course the crooks have welcomed such a position to protect their illicit gains and rackets,” Prof. Malik writes.
“Meanwhile, the international community—in particular the Western governments along with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank—have been emphatic that not a single dollar would come to Lebanon’s rescue unless the government implemented real reforms.
“This recurring cycle of demands for reform met with authorities’ noncompliance, played out at the ordinary people’s expense, sent Lebanon hurtling toward the abyss of utter collapse, something Hezbollah welcomed exactly as a parasite feeds off its host’s misery.
“If the people of Lebanon were pushed up against a wall of destitution and despair, they would lose hope, so the diabolical reasoning goes.”
Prof. Malik continues (the emphasis in italics is added):
“Hopelessness would prepare them to accept anything, including a new overseer in the form of China offering a lifeline of billions of dollars in ‘aid’ and pledging to rebuild vital infrastructure like the hammered Beirut port.
“This would effectively sever ailing Lebanon from its traditional Western and Arab strategic, political, and cultural moorings, taking it eastward toward Iran and China.
“It is no secret that Hezbollah is the designated agent entrusted with engineering such a shift, premised on compounding the misery of the already exhausted Lebanese as a quick way to oust the West permanently from the Arab Levant.
“Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, even came on television several weeks ago to declare that he had secured a commitment from Beijing to ‘help,’ if only the Lebanese would jump on this opportunity.
“Among other hidden benefits, China would gain a naval foothold for the first time on the Mediterranean Sea, close to Israel, and decisive economic influence in a vital gateway linking Europe through the Levant to the rest of the Middle East.
“Lebanon would thus become another feather in the cap of China’s expanding Belt and Road scheme with its not-so-concealed military dimension.
“So far, alarmingly, this plan seems well advanced. It relies on reducing an innovative, successful, and bright Lebanese population to mere automatons who are preoccupied with worrying about basic survival, where their next meal is coming from, whether they have electricity, whether their kids can go to school, whether they can afford proper medical care, whether they can secure enough funds to begin to rebuild their shattered homes, and whether they can go through the day without suffering major injuries. When you force a population to be consumed by such primal needs, you get a boost on the broader plan you are steering them toward.
“The only sign of hope amidst this gloom is that a good majority of the people of Lebanon are on to this ploy and reject it out of hand.
“This majority is composed of most of the country’s Christians, nearly all its Sunnis, and a growing number of courageous Shiites fed up with Hezbollah’s reckless behavior that they feel is endangering their community.
“This majority constitutes a good 70 to 75 percent of Lebanon’s population.
“These people reject Hezbollah’s illegal arms, their stifling domination, their protection of the corrupt, their alien imported ideology, Iran’s imperial expansionism behind it, and the China gambit associated with all of these.
“Astounding, however, is the apparent Western nonchalance when it comes to this Chinese open bid for Middle Eastern influence that uses Lebanon as its conduit and Iran’s proxy as its facilitator.
[End excerpt from article]
Advocating for Religious Freedom
Bishop Mansour also mentioned to us that the crisis in Lebanon was a major topic of discussion at the International Religious Freedom Summit, held one month ago, July 13-15, in New York.
One religious leader who spoke at the summit, via video-call, was Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has been a collaborator with the Urbi et Orbi Foundation for many years.
A report on this conference can be found here.
The article says that “Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church called the situation for Christians in the Middle East ‘very chaotic’ and ‘very dramatic,’ before sounding the alarm that the situation for Christians in Africa continues to worsen.”
One interesting outcome of the conference was an increasing recognition of the Middle East as a place where Catholics and Orthodox can work together to achieve shared interests.
Sam Brownback, the former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, commented on the importance of building a deeper relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church — as our Urbi et Orbi Foundation is doing — and how such a relationship could help bring peace and stability to the Middle East.
From the article:
“Brownback acknowledged that prior to the summit, the U.S. hasn’t had a relationship with the Russian Orthodox church.
“Now Brownback said he views the situation differently, recognizing how prominent a voice the Russian Orthodox are in the Middle East.
“Religious freedom needs to be right there in that mainstream foreign policy discussion,” Brownback said. “If we don’t get there, you’re going to see further huge problems. You can go around the world and the hotspots are already either flaming or smoking now.”
Christianity Today also reported on the Summit. That report can be found here.
Working on a common project with the Russian Orthodox Church to keep Christians in Lebanon is an idea that should be gaining more traction among those of us who want to propose an “alternative vision” for Lebanon, one which does not involve Lebanon becoming a client or puppet state to foreign powers that seek to dominate it.
Beirut Blast Investigation Stalled, Sanctions Crippling Economy
We are now more than a year removed from the huge explosion that shook Beirut on August 4, 2020.
Watching the videos of the explosion is as shocking today as it was one year ago, and perhaps even more shocking when we realize that the official investigation into the explosion is now back at square one, as all of the high-level government officials charged claimed immunity from prosecution and the judge investigating the case has been replaced.
This article has more information about the investigation into the blast.
Instead of recovery, the past year has seen chaos, suffering and the dramatic worsening of Lebanon’s economic crisis.
But the reason why Lebanon is slowly running out of fuel reserves and struggling to import food and medical supplies has less to do with the blast or even the economic slowdown caused by the spread of Covid-19.
Rather, it is primarily due to the economic sanctions that the United States and European governments have placed on Lebanon, seemingly with the goal of punishing the government officials who are responsible for the crisis.
This article criticizes the sanctions as ineffective and advocates for a different kind of intervention.
Here are some quotes from the article:
Lebanese elite are “laughing”
“The entire Lebanese system needs fundamental change, Julien Barnes-Dacey, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. ‘But the Lebanese political elite would probably be willing to see the country deteriorate further [rather] than undertake steps that would threaten their own hold on political and economic power,’ he argued.
Joseph Bahout, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs based at the American University of Beirut, agreed. ‘Frankly, what would be more useful for Lebanese people than sanctions is better access to banking information from countries like France or Switzerland,” Bahout explained, adding that that is where many of the allegedly corrupt Lebanese are suspected to have shifted their money. ‘It’s a little bit hypocritical. Those places have evidence of what has been “stolen” from the Lebanese public. I think it would be better for the EU to say, “look we know what you did and we will help the Lebanese expose you.”‘
“At the same time though, the EU should also continue to provide support to the country’s most vulnerable as well as local advocates for change, the experts said. ‘I continue to believe that the best thing the EU can do is support domestic civil society and the youth organizations that are trying to change the political system from the bottom up,’ Vallee concluded.”
[End quotes from article]
“Power supply has been cut across Lebanese territories indefinitely”
Meanwhile, in mid-August, 2021, families in Beirut and across Lebanon are still dealing with day-to-day uncertainty about whether they will have basic necessities like food, water, and electricity.
Our own “Friends of Lebanon” project is continuing our assistance to families in Beirut that have been affected by the blast and the economic crisis. In the last two months, the situation in Lebanon has grown more difficult in several major ways.
First, electricity and water have been increasingly cut off as power plants across the country have run out of fuel. This article states that Electricité du Liban, Lebanon’s main electricity producer, is now only providing a few hours of power each day, and that water pumping and distribution stations are also being shut down.
Second, this summer the Lebanese pound, which at the beginning of June was already trading at almost nine times the official rate against the dollar on the black market, has lost almost another 50% of its value. In July and August, the pound went from ~13,000 per $1 USD on June 1 to ~20,000 per dollar as of August 14. This loss of purchasing power has put many foods and medicines definitively out of reach for Lebanese families.
In light of all this, we continue our initiative to provide food packages to the families who are struggling the most in Beirut. We have coordinated on this initiative with Aya Naimeh and Georges Assaf, who consulted with NGOs working on the ground to identify families in need who had not yet been assisted by other aid programs. In this way, we hope to be able to keep “filling the gaps” and helping in any way possible as the Lebanese people try to weather what have become the most challenging days of this crisis.
“People will not leave, if there is a glimmer of hope”
In this time of darkness, a literal darkness as the lights go out across the country, it seems difficult to find any spark of hope for Lebanon.
Rebuilding Lebanon from “the ground up” seems to be a daunting, if not impossible, task. As we have also seen, there are many international actors who are interested in rebuilding the country along very different lines, as a puppet state where religious freedom is not valued.
This is a tragedy, because there are, in fact, many young people who share this dream of rebuilding their country “from the ground up.” We are working with some of them. Prof. Malik also mentions this younger generation in this August 13 interview with Jonah McKeown of Catholic News Agency.
Here are some excerpts from the CNA article:
“Malik said despite the monumental rebuilding task ahead, it has been refreshing to see many young people taking to the streets to volunteer and help their neighbors.
“‘These volunteers are mostly of the new generation of youth. These people have come from all over the country and across the sectarian divides to help,’ he said. ‘And they’re very genuine about it. And the refreshing thing about these people is that they have no political ties, they are not beholden to any of the clan leaders or party leaders.'”
[End quote from article]
What the next generation of Lebanese needs from Western countries is not sanctions, but real “top-down” help to go along with their blood, sweat and tears as they undertake this massive challenge of rebuilding the country from the “bottom up” so that it can once again be a homeland for Christians, Muslims, Druze, and people of other faiths, all living side by side under the watchful gaze of Our Lady of Lebanon on the mountain of Harissa.
Some have proposed building a global movement for religious freedom. Lebanon may be a place to begin such a movement.
Fund for Future Lebanese Christian Generations
In another interview given more recently, Prof. Malik speaks of organizing a “Fund for Future Lebanese Christian Generations”:
“There is all this talk about how the Christians of the Middle East are dwindling. They are going to disappear. But if you don’t do anything concrete, exactly what you are saying will happen,” said Habib Malik, associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University.
He told Catholic News Service that he had spoken with Lebanese prelates who participated in the ecumenical day of prayer for the country led by Pope Francis in Rome July 1 about the urgent need for such a fund to ensure the future of Lebanon’s Christian community.
“Nothing gets translated into concrete action that quickly or decisively, but the situation is very dire,” Malik said. “What the Lebanese really need now is some degree of confidence, trust, notion of hope that there is a lifeline to them for the future.”
Malik would like to see Vatican involvement in what he called a “Fund for Future Christian Lebanese Generations,” suggesting it would fall “under the direct auspices and supervision of people who are ethically impeccable, who are known internationally.”
“Perhaps five or six persons, maybe the Holy Father himself or someone whom he would assign and approve,” Malik said.
“If such a fund is created, it is not intended for immediate humanitarian relief, but for the long term to instill confidence in the future,” Malik explained.
“To get some of these desperate families to say, ‘You know what, in a few years, this fund will have enough money. Maybe if I stay, I can see my children through a good education. Maybe we’ll have some degree of medical coverage and so on,’” he said.
“One of its quick positive results will be that the hemorrhaging of immigration will begin to taper off,” he added. “People will not necessarily take the step, plunge into the unknown, or basically pack, leave, and turn their back on Lebanon, if there is a glimmer of hope.”
[End excerpt from the CNS article]
A “Fund for Future Christian Generations of Lebanon,” supported and organized through the Holy See, would be just the kind of large-scale, “top-down” assistance to build on the tireless work that younger generations of Lebanese are doing, day and night, to rebuild their country.
While the humanitarian efforts continue to provide “short-term help,” it would bring “long-term hope” to many Lebanese if they could see a possibility that this “fragile experiment” might begin to thrive once again.
Lebanon in the Olympics
Georges Assaf has worked with “Friends of Lebanon” for over year to bring assistance to families in Beirut through the “Lebanese Young Talents” organization that he co-founded.
He recently traveled to Tokyo for the Olympics as the personal coach and trainer of the Lebanese national record-holder in the 100, 200 and 400 meter sprints, Noureddine Hadid. (He was the only Lebanese athlete selected to participate in the Olympic games.)
Hadid ran a time of 21.12 seconds in the 200 meters at the Olympics, the fastest 200 meters ever run by a Lebanese athlete, but did not win a medal.
Hadid overcame incredible obstacles just to reach the Olympics, as he tried to continue training while seeing his salary as a soldier in the Lebanese army dwindle to the equivalent of less than $150 per month.
After training for months in worn-out spikes that had developed huge holes, he received a gift from a woman who had read about his quest to qualify for the Olympics and represent Lebanon.
Here are excerpts from an article about this gift:
“She said that she was from Lebanon but living in the US. She felt terrible about the situation here, and wanted to help,” explained Hadid.
“At first, I thought she was just talking, a lot of people say they will help, but then don’t.”
Thinking that he had nothing to lose, he sent over links to a new pair of running spikes and a new speed suit that he wanted.
Within a few days, his follower replied with a photo of the receipts and asked for a delivery address.
“I realised she was serious,” said Hadid.
Because mail services are unreliable in Lebanon, particularly international delivery, Hadid took to social media to see if anyone he knew was travelling between the US and Lebanon, and would be willing to travel with his new gear.
Through the power of Instagram, he found some help, and his new speed suit and spikes arrived in Lebanon just in time, days before his departure to Tokyo flight.
Hadid was dumbfounded by the willingness of others to help, and for his special supporter in the USA.
“I really appreciate everything, it’s really amazing,” says Hadid, “Hopefully I can meet her in Lebanon someday.”
[End excerpt from article]
This was the message Hadid wrote on Instagram after his Olympic race:
Dreams do come true after all.
Earlier today I ran the race of my career where I represented Lebanon in the 200m at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I gave my all on the track; this track that cemented my title of officially being an Olympian.
Even though I fulfilled my dream, my journey is far from over, I am looking forward to all the championships and competitions that will be coming up next year and I will be working harder than ever to represent Lebanon in Paris 2024.
To my team- gratitude is an understatement!
@teamassaf thank you for being the backbone to my athletic and non-athletic career.
@performancefirst thank you for being my home and my family.
@lebanese_athletics thank you for believing in me and trusting me to represent out beloved country.
A huge thank you goes to the Lebanese Army because without them I would not have even discovered my talent.
And to everyone who supported me on this journey and sent me messages of encouragement, I appreciate every single one of you!
And on a final note, this race was dedicated to the lives of those we lost in the August 4th explosion- we will do everything to keep your memory alive.
Much love to everyone 🙏🏾
Hadid’s achievement mirrors, in some ways, the achievements of all Lebanese people as they continue to survive in the face of incredible odds.
“One can only wonder what Nour could be achieving had he the benefits of a manager, agent and sponsors along the way,” one article states.
One can only wonder what Lebanon could be achieving, and will achieve, when the international community begins to give it the support it needs.
At the same time, we can see that the generosity of one woman was enough to make a huge difference as Hadid made the jump from a sprinter running on a high school track in Beirut to an Olympian.
Your generosity can make a similar difference in the lives of students, children, mothers and fathers in Lebanon.
–Christopher Hart-Moynihan was born in Rome, Italy, in 1989. He speaks English, Italian, Spanish, Russian and some French and German. He is the Director of the “Friends of Lebanon” Project of Urbi et Orbi Communications, the non-profit publisher of Inside the Vatican magazine.