On Wednesday, Pope Francis announced he was sending Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, to Beirut on Sep. 4 to mark the one-month anniversary of the blast in the Lebanese capital’s port that killed at least 180 people and injured 6,000 others.
The pontiff also said Friday would be a day of prayer by the entire Church for the people of Lebanon.
The Beirut-based head of the Jesuit Refugee Service for the Middle East and North Africa, Father Daniel Corrou, welcomed the visit by Parolin, noting that Francis quoted his predecessor Pope St. John Paul when he announced he was sending a representative to the city.
“Pope St. John Paul II would often use a line that is regularly quoted here: Lebanon is the message,” Corrou told Crux. “Lebanon is a place where peoples, minorities, can all live together and when they’re at their best, do so in harmony.”
“The idea of the global Church standing with the people of Lebanon is a way to acknowledge that minorities, whoever they are, all groups, can in did live together, deal with the inadequacies of one another and savor the goodness of one another,” Corrou said.
According to the American Jesuit, at a time when human kind is “driven apart” by so many forces “into little enclaves of identity politics,” the story of Lebanon is a deeply needed reminder that “we can in fact all live together.”
“And I think that why Pope Francis, and the Church, makes such a big point of the presence [of Christians] in Lebanon,” Corrou said. “I remember when Benedict XVI came for a visit in 2012 and signed a document on the Churches in the Middle East: His visit was a very clear reaffirmation of John Paul II and that there is something about Lebanon as an example.”
The priest added, “And I think this is something that would be resonant with Pope Francis’s message to Lebanon when Parolin gets here on Friday.”
The Jesuit first spoke with Crux on Sunday, ahead of Friday’s anniversary, but agreed to talk again on Wednesday, after the pope had issued his appeal for a day of prayer for the troubled country.
Corrou said that his staff at JRS all escaped serious injury the day of the devastating explosion. The blast left some 300,000 people temporarily homeless and caused $10-15 billion in damage, according to Beirut’s Governor Marwan Aboud.
“Our windows were all shattered, our doors were blown off, furniture was banged against the walls,” Corrou said. “We put plastic over most of the windows, the doors are pretty much up and locked, though if anyone wants to burst in, they could. But there’s a sense of this being an office again.”
Lebanon is a relatively small nation, with a population estimated at around 6 million. According to the United Nations migrants and refugees’ office, there are close to one million Syrian refugees in the country.
Tending to these people, Corrou said, is the number one priority of JRS in Lebanon. Three refugees being supported by the organization died in the blast.
In helping refugees, Corrou said JRS has in particular been trying to address the long-term psychological scars left by the war and escape to Lebanon.
“These are people who left Syria because there were random explosions destroying homes and killing family members. There’s that trauma, that of being a refugee fleeing war, and the trauma of being in a country with an economic turmoil. And then, on top of that, this huge explosion,” the priest explained.
“Providing them with mental health support, is key,” Corrou said, particularly in this “atrocious calendar year” for the people of Lebanon.
The Jesuit noted that in October and November of last year, demonstrators hit the streets to protest the corruption and instability in the country. Non-Lebanese felt threatened during these protests, so rarely left home, stunting efforts to integrate them into society.
By the time things were getting better, “March happened, and we’re globally shut down,” and the Syrian refugees are once again locked in tiny apartments that they often share with 10 or 12 people.
“It’s understandable, good science tells us we shouldn’t be in large groups,” Corrou said. “Yet it starts tearing us apart. This is where our social workers and psychologists have been great in the past few months: In creating community through social media, Facebook groups and WhatsApp.”
“We don’t know what the future is going to be,” he said. “And this is a classic Jesuit thing, but we have to start with reality. We don’t start with what we wished was reality: That COVID didn’t exist, that the explosion hadn’t happened, that there was no economic crisis. It’s useless to start with that, and this is the foundation of a good mental health strategy – and of a good spirituality! From that reality, at the end of the day, we’re not sure what the future is going to be. But what we’re telling- and showing – these people is that no matter what, they won’t be alone.”
Christianity cannot just be an “identity category”
For decades now, there’s been a sense that Christianity could soon disappear from the Middle East. In the 21st century, Syria and Iraq have seen their Christian populations shrink drastically after being targeted by the Islamic State group.
Lebanon has long been perceived as a last “Christian stronghold,” because though still a minority, the Christian population in this country has been historically larger than in neighboring countries. In addition, it was a safe haven for Christians fleeing the Armenian genocide in 1915.
There is a general sense that Christianity is central to the identity to the country, Corrou said: “We see the impact of Christian leaders in politically influencing roles, and this is very important. And in recent history, we can see, for instance in Iraq, the history of American intervention there has been the worst thing to happen to Christians in Iraq.”
“There’s a fear of what that would mean in terms of Christian population in the Middle East as a whole,” he acknowledged.
However, he said the Jesuits from Lebanon, Egypt and Syria that he lives have a unique perspective on the situation.
“What I hear from them is a caution about this: By some accounts, Christians must continue to exist in the Middle East at all costs. However, there’s a sense among Jesuits that if Christians continue to stay here as an ‘identity category,’ like people with red hair, there’s no reason for that. But if Christians indeed lived the Gospel, lived up to the highest of ideals that God set for us, if we can be the example of the Gospel well lived, then there’s every reason for Christians to remain here, thrive here, and be a great influence in Lebanon and the Middle East.”
Corrou noted that Jesuit seminarians joined other university students in going door to door after the Beirut blast to help people clean up after the disaster.
“This is an essential role of the Church: To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and build homes for the homeless,” he said. “But they soon realized that what the person really wanted was just to talk, have someone listen to them. So they made pots of coffee, walked around the neighborhood, sat down next to a person and listened to them.”
Christianity, he said, is a “both/and” faith: “We need to build homes and feed the hungry, but we also need to listen to people, sit with them in their brokenness and vulnerability. This is good mental health and good spirituality: To provide these spaces where the Church can really live the Gospel.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma