ROME – After a deadly explosion in Beirut Tuesday left at least 100 dead, Lebanese Father Abdo Raad pins blame for the tragedy squarely on government corruption, saying the cumulative impact of the coronavirus, a dire financial situation and yesterday’s blast is enough to make Lebanon collapse unless immediate action is taken.
“COVID and the economic crisis, the corruption of politicians … if these weren’t enough, then comes this tragedy,” Raad said in an interview with Crux, calling Tuesday’s explosion “a small atomic bomb.”
At least 100 people were killed and 4,000 injured when massive explosion rocked the port of Beirut Tuesday evening. The whole city shook from the impact of the blast, and numerous videos taken showed a large mushroom cloud rising and spreading over the port area.
In the wake of the incident, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the explosion was caused by some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate which had been stored unsafely inside of a warehouse. The chemical is frequently used as a fertilizer and as an explosive.
Aoun has declared three days of national mourning, starting Wednesday. He has also called an emergency cabinet meeting for Wednesday, saying a two-week state of emergency ought to be declared.
Raad said that while it is still unclear who put the explosive materials that led to Tuesday’s explosion at the port in Beirut, the ultimate cause “is certainly the corruption of our government leaders.”
A Lebanese Greek Melkite priest currently based in Rome, Raad is founder of the Annas Linnas Association in Lebanon, dedicated to providing material assistance to the poor, refugees and the sick.
“Who put this there?” he said, speaking of the ammonium nitrate. “It’s not me, it’s you who put this explosive material,” he said, adding that in his view, “This is corruption, this is an infinite corruption.”
He accused Lebanon’s leaders of stealing millions from funds that should have gone into the country’s infrastructure, including electricity and employment.
“The Lebanese lira is no longer worth anything,” he said, noting that it has lost a significant portion of its value, asking satirically who’s responsible: “Me? You? The poor people of the country?”
With several countries pledging to send aid to Lebanon in light of yesterday’s blast, Raad said he’s afraid that if the money is given to the government, it will disappear.
“We are angry, we are an angry people, we can no longer bear it,” he said, noting that there are many people who want to leave and who wait in long lines to get a visa, which is increasingly difficult.
If someone wants to send assistance, “Don’t help this government, go to help the people in a personal way,” he pleaded. “If you want to rebuild Lebanon, send away these leaders. They don’t do anything.”
In his Aug. 5 general audience address, Pope Francis prayed for victims of the Beirut explosion and their families, and asked faithful to join him in praying for Lebanon, “So that with all of its social components, political and religious, it can face this tragic and painful moment, and with the help of the international community, overcome the serious crises it is undergoing.”
According to Raad, the first major impact of the blast will be poverty.
Due to both the country’s dire financial situation and the coronavirus, around one third of Lebanese are currently unemployed, Raad said, noting that this number will likely skyrocket as a result of the explosion, which destroyed nearly the entire port area, a bustling city hub where numerous businesses were located.
“People are looking for where they can eat, and what to eat,” Raad said, recalling how several weeks ago Pope Francis made an appeal for Lebanon in which he said that children in the country were starting to die of hunger.
“This was already three weeks ago, imagine what will happen now?” Raad said, noting that many grain factories were located in the port area that was destroyed.
Raad said that his association will continue to distribute food to needy families, but one the immediate task will be to help the handicapped. One task his volunteers on the ground are currently performing is to walk the streets near the area of the explosion to see who might need help getting to the hospital.
“It’s unimaginable, people have died on the street. They were in their cars and now it’s as if there was an accident with thousands of cars,” he said, noting that a number of his volunteers have come back in tears after seeing body parts and mutilated corpses line the streets.
“Lebanese people are a people of solidarity,” he said, but noted that even “the people who are trying to help have also become poor.”
Speaking of what role the Church can play, Raad said that as the national crisis continues to deepen in the wake of the explosion, one thing churches can do is make their own premises available to the poor, “Because right now there are thousands of people who can no longer live in their homes.”
Raad also urged Church leaders to go out onto the streets to protest corruption, insisting that “If they don’t go out and tell these corrupt leaders to go away, then they are also corrupt.”
Raad recalled a statement made by St. John Paul II, who during a visit to Lebanon in the 1980s said that “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West,”
If the country continues in the same direction that it’s been going, “Lebanon is no longer a message, it’s a hell,” he said, but said that despite the many difficulties, people still believe in God.
“There are many examples of people who continue to believe in the strength of God despite the difficulty,” he said.
“In the world, there is the presence of evil. To free ourselves, we must attach ourselves well to the good, which is God. And we Christians above all must continue to ask for the gift of salvation. Then we must also ask our friends for help,” Raad said, but insisted that “We can’t do this alone.”
“As a society, we can perhaps heal a wound, we can prolong the life of a person before they die, and we can also perhaps save a child until things get better,” he said, stressing the urgency of those who are corrupt to make some act of reparation.
“If I live with the devil, in the end I will be with the devil. What else can I say?”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen