ZAHLÉ, Lebanon — Christian advocates in Lebanon are urging that a special fund be established to reverse the hemorrhaging of Christians from their crisis-stricken nation.
Such a fund, the advocates contend, would help support Christians struggling to maintain their culture by giving a reason to remain in their ancestral homeland during a time when the economy is in shambles and the country reels from catastrophes and political uncertainty.
“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.”
The country’s pressing needs are many and they are helping fuel the Christian exodus.
The national currency has lost more than 90% of its value in less than two years, plunging millions into poverty and posing the gravest threat to the tiny Mediterranean country’s stability since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990.
Further, unemployment is estimated at more than 40%. The United Nations has said the majority of Lebanese cannot afford to adequately feed themselves. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from the August 2020 Beirut port explosion have only worsened an already dire situation.
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.
Maronite Father Jad Chlouk, a priest at St. George Maronite Cathedral in Beirut, said Christians have been leaving Lebanon in droves, particularly since the Beirut port blast.
He cited statistics that showed more than 380,000 requests for immigration had been filed with European and North American countries, noting “that most of them were from Christians.”
“This is negatively affecting the whole Christian community, because it is losing most of its brightest and best, and especially its young people, who are supposed to be the future of the Christians here,” Chlouk told the Catholic international relief group Aid to the Church in Need earlier this year.
Among those fleeing are Christian doctors, teachers and other professionals and their absence is being felt in the health and education systems.
Maronite Father Boutros Azar, secretary general of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools, said parents at many of the 321 Catholic schools in Lebanon were struggling to pay annual fees. “But we have made a decision to continue and do whatever it takes to keep schools open,” he said.
Other Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch, are calling for immediate international aid to help people through this time of crisis. Despite such calls, Malik and others envision the fund as an anchor of hope to help ensure the Christian future in Lebanon.
“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.”