The apostolic visit by Benedict XVI to Lebanon in September was an opportunity to focus on a land and a people that, by virtue of their political arrangements and the dramas of their recent history, constitute in their very essence a challenge – for good or ill – both to their neighbours and to others further afield.

This article was published in Oasis 16. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:05

The land of the cedars is unique in the Middle East on account of the nature of the state of coexistence there between Christians and Muslims. Power is proportionally distributed among the main confessional communities. A combination that guarantees a delicate equilibrium that has to be reworked and consolidated every day, since the unexpected constantly lurks just round the corner. ‘Religious freedom is the basic right on which many other rights depend. The freedom to profess and practice one’s religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone. What nowadays passes for tolerance does not eliminate cases of discrimination, and at times it even reinforces them. Without openness to transcendence, which makes it possible to find answers to their deepest questions about the meaning of life and morally upright conduct, men and women become incapable of acting justly and working for peace’. These words spoken by Benedict XVI in his address to the members of the government and the institutions of the Republic, to the diplomatic corps, to the religious leaders, and to the representatives of the world of culture, in Beirut, in the course of his visit to Lebanon, sound – even after some time has elapsed – like a an effective summary of what made this visit an event at once ideally suited to the local reality and at the same time transcending the confines of the Middle East with something to say to everyone. The Pope, pilgrim of peace coming to deliver the document Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, the Apostolic Exhortation that is the fruit of the work of the Extraordinary Synod for the Middle East of 2010, worked through the question of freedom in all its breadth. A theme of contemporary relevance not only in countries in which Christians and other minorities have to live in a situation of discrimination and of restricted freedom, but also in the West, challenged by its multicultural demography to explore into depth words like ‘tolerance’ or ‘coexistence’, words that have often been reduced to threadbare clichés, and to reflect on the personal but also the social dimension of freedom. The Pope repeatedly stated in no uncertain terms in the land of the cedars: freedom can be used for evil or for good since always ‘evil, the devil, works in and through human freedom, through the use of our freedom. It seeks an ally in man’. With his physical presence in Beirut, in Harissa, in Bzommar, in Bkerke and in Charfet, in the very same week in which certain groups of Islamic extremists reacted so violently against a film judged offensive towards Muhammad, Benedict XVI bore witness to a way of exercising freedom that has the potential to keep fear at bay and help us to open up to the other. The Lebanese people responded magnificently to this gesture. The impressive presence of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Lebanon and the neighbouring countries at the solemn mass on the Waterfront, a mere stonesthrow from the financial centre of the Lebanese capital, had the effect of changing (at least for one day) the face of one of the most congested cities of the Middle East, transforming it into a kilometre-wide pedestrian area. In front of the altar in the form of a cedar, constructed with patriotic pride in a style that cocked a snook at architectural minimalism, the faithful seemed to be saying: we are so many and we are so different, we are Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, Philippinos,… We are here because you are here, in defiance of all the pessimism of those who went around murmuring that the trip would be cancelled because of the war in Syria. ‘No one advised me to cancel this journey, and for my part I never considered doing so – Benedict XVI told the journalists on the flight with him from Rome to Beirut. Because if the situation becomes more complex, it is all the more necessary to offer this sign of fraternal encouragement and solidarity’. Unstable equilibrium A composite people it was then that flocked to see the Pope, protagonist of the ‘Lebanese model’, an expression that on the one hand is complimentary about the uniqueness of the country and its richness for all, while on the other hand it tends to over-simplify the complexity of a past and a present full of anguish, pigeon-holing it all too neatly. It is surely no accident that Benedict XVI was very prudent in his use of the expression “model”: ‘The celebrated Lebanese equilibrium – observed the Pope – which wishes to continue to be a reality, will continue through the good will and commitment of all Lebanese. Only then will it serve as a model to the inhabitants of the whole region and of the entire world’. So there is work still to be done and a task to be completed: ‘This is not just a human task – added Benedict XVI – but a gift of God which should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs, and consolidated with determination’. But which Lebanon did the Pope encounter? Central Beirut continues to give the impression of a country proudly on the development path, it is an open building site where new skyscrapers point boldly towards the sky, a mere stonesthrow from the sea. But one has only to leave the centre and go into the poorer areas, often divided by the trajectories of streets in which the inhabitants still see the battle lines of the civil war. If we then leave the capital to go into the interior of the country, the countryside changes again, it becomes greener, even though property speculation has been targeting the hillsides too, transforming them in the space of a few months into cement agglomerations. The presence of extraordinary woodland is not enough to deter the excavators. Travelling east we are confronted with villages and families whose destiny it has been, all down their history, to find ways of handling the uncomfortable neighbour Syria. Those Syrians who until a few years ago were the ‘occupiers’ are here today as ‘refugees’ fleeing from a desperate and endless war. You can read it on the faces of the persons being put up in Lebanese villages, you can hear it in their stories. Hundreds of thousands of people have been running away for months from bombardments, from roundups, and from kidnappings carried out by both sides, sometimes by the regular army, sometimes by the rebel forces. They cross the border in search of a respite. The Lebanese government does not allow official refugee camps – the issue is too controversial for the fragile equilibrium between the communities – but in fact such reception camps do exist. Every day in Taalabaya, in the Beqaa, a Lebanese Caritas centre welcomes newly-arrived Syrian familes who ask to register to get a minimum of assistance, a food parcel, a blanket... Not far away a piece of land has been made available to families who have put up huts made of cardboard, rag, and sheets. For the one hundred and fifty children aged between two and ten years old who run around at will on the bare earth, this camp is a poor place certainly, but it can be fun as well. It does not matter to them too much if they cannot change their clothes or wash, they are quite happy to roam around with their companions. Their eyes are as bright with the desire to live as those of their mothers’ eyes are dull and lost-looking in the sea of desolation that surrounds them. The greater part of the two hundred families present come from the outskirts of Homs, they have escaped from an inferno to find themselves in huts where their only thought – that they will have to spend an entire winter there – is unbearable. For a young mother, 26 years old, time has simply ground to a halt. The past has swallowed up her husband, killed in Syria, and her home, destroyed by bombs; the future remains impenetrable. Only the present so emptied of hope weighs on her and on her two children. Their stay in this world in suspense is shared with hundreds of other people. Every refugee who has crossed the border carries with him a unique burden that cannot be assimilated to the others. In an elementary school building in the village of Dayr Zanoun, also in the Beqaa, twenty families from Damascus have been accommodated. They have at least found a proper roof over their heads, running water, and light for two hours a day. But they are completely thrown when the Caritas social assistant explains that when the school year begins they will have to leave. While distributing supplies of food the volunteers are overwhelmed by the protests of the refugees: they cannot accept to be sent away like so many packages from this school, they are asking for their rights to be respected. Above all, as Sunnis, they are afraid of being transferred to the Baalbek area with its Shia majority. The head teacher of the school moves anxiously around the premises, assessing the damage caused by these intrusive guests: the classrooms have become bedrooms and kitchens all at once, the blackboards hold hairbrushes and soap, while the garden is used as a toilet. A young father of three children, a carpenter by trade, left Syria because he was in danger of disappearing like his brother. He has had no news of his brother and indeed has no idea what is really happening in his homeland. But at least he has saved the life of his wife and his three children. There are also more fortunate refugees in the villages and cities who can pay a rent of 200 or 250 dollars per month. They can afford this because at least some member of the family has found work. There are often several households sharing the same apartment and a common suffering. They don’t have any furniture, they live more or less on the floor. In the midst of the general misery, there are stories with a thread of long-lasting gratitude running through them: a Syrian family, in which the mother has lost touch with her husband, the father of her four children, has found a welcome with a Lebanese family that she herself had put up years before in her home in Syria, at a time when Lebanon was engulfed in violence. But if history presses with its occurrence and recurrences, geography impresses by the short distance, an hour by car at the most, between the abyss of desperation of these refugees from Syria and the gathering of the Catholic faithful around the Pope to ask him to be confirmed in the faith and to be helped to be able to hope. The Truce Not one word of criticism was heard during the visit, apart from an isolated Salafi sheikh who focused on the apologies of Benedict XVI for his address in Regensburg, and all the communities expressed their anticipation of an event capable of guaranteeing a sort of ‘truce’. And truce there was, with the exception of a few demonstrations at the time in Tripoli against the film Innocence of Muslims, tragically leading to one dead and almost thirty wounded. “The Pope’s visit met with a hugely positive welcome – explains Georges Corm, Lebanese economist and historian – since it was seen as a happy interval for our people. Folk are at the end of their tether, their nerves are constantly on edge. On top of the political tension there is a marked increase in criminality. There are some areas of the country that may go more than twelve or even eighteen hours without electricity. In many places there is no water in the taps. Socio-economic output is at a very low level. Even the briefest moment of happiness makes a great deal of difference in the difficult life we have been living for 40 or 50 years”. Even if, Corm then adds, “this cannot go on for ever”. The visit to Lebanon of John Paul II in 1997 was for him another fantastic moment in the national history, the history of a land that was chosen as a privileged place from where to proclaim a new ‘message’ to all of the Middle East and the West, though he views this as an isolated page. His reading of the situation was sadly confirmed by the assassination of the head of the Secret Services in the Christian quarter of Achrafieh, right in the heart of Beirut, only one month after the departure of the Pope. Safeguarding Pluralism There are many reasons for the weakness of Lebanon in Corm’s view. Among them are the lack of an education that would include an appreciation of the tradition of Lebanese Christians and the communitarian identity system, which prevents the emergence of a true citizenship, since it reduces the identity of a person to his membership of one of the 18 confessional groups recognised by the state. “As for education – explains Corm – you will not find anywhere in our secondary schools a textbook about the history of the Church of Antioch, and yet pupils learn the history of France or the United States by heart and they even get to thinking that Christianity was born in Rome. Write a book on the suffering and persecuted Christians in the Middle East and it will be a bestseller. Write a book on the complexity of the situation here, and you won’t sell too many copies…”. “We support the appeal addressed to the Christians of the Mashreq to maintain their presence in the Arab world and we also support the Exhortation that was directed to them to fulfill their role in the framework of a national common action, in the belief that this will preserve the unity of the social fabric in this part of the world”: the words that Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, a Sunni, Mufti of the Republic, addressed to the Pope have been interpreted by many as an admission on the Muslim side of the ‘need’ for Christians not to abandon the Middle East, since their presence is a guarantee of social unity. These words are important for Antoine Messarra, a Maronite Catholic who is a member of the Constitutional Court: “Arab Islam is in the process of liberating itself, and we need to help it to do so. The really regrettable thing is that the Christians of the Arab world have taken a step backwards. The Lebanese Muslims need the Christians as a support in the tradition of freedom. I believe this is the meaning and the basic content of what the Mufti was saying. What a pity it is that where faith is concerned, religions allow themselves to divide into frightening religions and frightened religions. Imagine if, for example, I were to begin to be frightened of Islam. But Islam is in my culture, it is in my everyday relationships!”. What needs to be defended in Messarra’s view is Arab pluralism: “The great problem on the ground is not safeguarding the presence of the Christians in the region nor is it Islamism. The central problem is the protection of the Arab pluralist social fabric. And the central principle in a pluralist reality is religious freedom. Islam must take time to rethink this question”. For Messarra the challenge also has to do with education: “One of the problems with the division of the city into different quarters is that many young people, born during and since the war, never lived through the earlier time of conviviality, so they never learnt it through experience. Which means that today in this sense we have a great educational emergency”. While for the Christian Messarra, Islam is part of his DNA, the Sunni Hisham Nashabe, President of the Institute for Islamic Studies at Makassed University, offering a personal view, observes that for Muslims “the Christians among us are like a mirror in which we see ourselves”. Nashabe is convinced that the Papal visit will increase the desire for a more accurate knowledge of Christianity among Muslims: “Just as in the West Oriental studies have developed, ‘Occidentalist’ studies ought to develop and especially in the Middle East. This is a cultural challenge that the Pope, perhaps unconsciously, has put before Lebanon”. Killer Concepts Of course some people were expecting a Pope waving a magic wand that would solve the country’s problems at a stroke. However, as is noted by Mgr. Paul Rouhana, Patriarchal Vicar of Sarba and Jounieh, Benedict presented as a pastor concerned to guide his flock, to focus on the value of human dignity on which – as the Apostolic Exhortation states – all believers and men of good will are at one even in difficult historical moments like the war in Syria. “The events in Syria and the position of the Christians, who are in danger of coming under fire from both sides in the war – remarks Mgr. Rouhana – challenge us deeply from so many points of view. Finding a solution that will safeguard the unity of the country is an urgent matter. There will never be a solution ‘for the Christians’ alone, just as in Lebanon there has never been any possibility of a solution exclusively for them. Christians and Muslims share a common destiny in the two countries. What we hope for is that Syria too can find the way to a happy coexistence between Muslims and Christians like what we have today in Lebanon. Does the community identity approach tend to create divisions in society? It is certainly not the best solution, but it can provide a starting-point for the construction of a real shared citizenship”. According to Mgr. Rouhana, the “reasonable and moderate” voice of the Pope, who at 85 came to say that faith is not a rêverie but something that involves all of reality, can be universal. For him the Muslims too recognise themselves in some of the ‘battles’ of the Pope: “Islam is not a monolith”. Further evidence of this may be found in the profile of an intellectual like Ibrahim Shamseddine, Lecturer in Political Science at the American University of Beirut, a Shi’ite, for whom the contributions of the Pope have made it possible to reexamine the ‘Lebanese formula’. What is special about this formula is not the Christian-Muslim duality of the state, but a triangle: “The democracy-Islam-Christianity trio makes Lebanon unique. If it were not for the ‘democracy’ factor, it would not be possible to have a Christian-Muslim partnership at all. The formula would collapse. There are so many difficulties, not least the ones arising from the geographical context in which Lebanon finds itself, and there is a poison circulating in the country in the form of the presence of armed militias and confessional groups which in fact unsettle and weaken the state from within. The government does not decide because the institutions are paralysed”. For Shamseddine the crucial thing is to abandon recourse to the category of ‘minority’, which is a real ‘killer’ concept: “The Shias are not a minority. I refuse to be called a minority. The Christians make up a part of the great Arab majority, and the Shias are a part of the Muslim majority”. There is a chemical formula that in his view summarizes Lebanon’s situation well, that of water,: “We have need of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen. It’s as simple as that. God created things to be this way. The Christians are the oxygen of our democracy”.