ROME – Pope Francis’s upcoming July 1 meeting with the Christian leaders of Lebanon was never intended to include politicians, according to the Vatican’s foreign minister.
“No,” said Archbishop Paul Gallagher when asked if there were ever any invitations issued to Lebanese politicians. “The original proposal which came from Lebanon was for the pope to convoke a meeting with religious leaders.”
The Liverpool-born archbishop also said that there’s hope that the upcoming religious gathering will help “in some way” when it comes to Lebanon forming a government in the future.
The archbishop also said Pope Francis might consider visiting Lebanon in the near future, though it’s “difficult to say” if such a visit might take place before the end of the year.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have each blamed the other for the political stalemate that has prevented the formation of a government. This has only worsened the country’s economic free-fall.
Lebanon has a unique power-sharing system, that stipulates that the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament has to be a Shia Muslim.
The day of prayer “Together for Lebanon” will take place next Thursday, when the leaders of the Middle Eastern country’s main Christian churches will be welcomed by Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Lebanon’s three main Christian churches are the Maronite Catholics, the Melchite Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox, but there are several other smaller Christian communities from Protestant, Oriental Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic denominations. An estimated 35 percent of the country is Christian, and Lebanon is the only nation in the region where Christians retain considerable political power.
“The Holy See is deeply concerned about the political, economic and social collapse of the country, which affects in a particular way the Christian community and the identity of Lebanon,” Gallagher said during a press conference on Friday. “The Christian community is weakened to the point that the balance of the Lebanese identity itself is at risk, further endangering the Christian presence in the Middle East.”
Thus, he said, it’s necessary for the international community to help Lebanon to remain outside of regional conflicts, since this country today is the “last bastion of Arab democracy that welcomes, recognizes and experiences on a daily basis the living together of a plurality of ethnic and religious communities that in various countries do not manage to live in peace.”
“In addition, it must be helped to maintain its unique identity, also to ensure a pluralistic, tolerant and diverse Middle East,” Gallagher said.
Answering a question regarding why the Holy See is doing so much when it comes to Lebanon but not in the case of another global crisis in Hong Kong, Gallagher said that “of course” it’s “the object of concern for us, but Lebanon is a place where we perceive we can make a positive contribution. We do not perceive that in Hong Kong.”
“One can say a lot of, shall we say, appropriate words that would be appreciated by the international press and by many parts of the world, but I — and, I think, many of my colleagues — have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever,” he said, adding that he hopes the newly appointed archbishop will be a positive influence.
Also present at the press conference on Friday was Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches. “The Christian community, in all its components, questions, reflects and prays” for Lebanon, he said.
The heads of the respective Churches and Ecclesial Communities who come to Rome, he said, will not only “bring themselves, but the cry of a people, which certainly accompanies them in prayer.”
Sandri also explained that the day of prayer will be a continuous “walking together” between the pope and the other Christian leaders. They will all gather at Santa Marta, the papal residence where the prelates will remain as guests from June 30 to July 2.
On Thursday morning, all will walk the short distance from Santa Marta to St. Peter’s Basilica, where they will share a moment of prayer and then meet behind closed doors in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace. The conversation will be moderated by the papal representative in Lebanon, Archbishop Joseph Spiteri.
The concluding prayer will be in St. Peter’s Basilica, and ambassadors accredited to the Holy See have been invited to take part, as well as the leaders of male and female communities with a presence in Lebanon, and any Lebanese citizens who might be living in Rome.
Participants are not expected to sign a declaration nor release a joint message. However, Sandri noted that Pope Francis will be delivering the closing remarks in the basilica, and his speech is expected to contain “indications, appeals, considerations and also the fruits of the reflection, that could be a framework for the future of Lebanon.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma