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ROME – After making a quick trip to South Sudan just before Christmas, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, will be on the road again shortly, this time to Lebanon, which has long been a place of interest for Pope Francis.
Plans for Gallagher’s visit are still in the “embryonic stage,” according to Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, the Vatican’s nuncio to Lebanon, who told Crux that details such as the trip dates and Gallagher’s official program are still being determined, but the Vatican’s embassy to Lebanon is coordinating with the Lebanese Foreign Ministry.
News of Gallagher’s intention to visit Lebanon next month comes after a whirlwind trip he made to South Sudan Dec. 21-23, where he met with various civil and ecclesial leaders, including non-Catholic Christian leaders partnering with the Catholic Church in promoting the country’s fragile peace process.
At the end of that visit, Gallagher said it is possible that Pope Francis himself could visit South Sudan this year, depending on how efforts to implement the national peace process develop.
If Gallagher’s visit to South Sudan, then, was a down payment on a possible future papal visit to the country, the same can easily be said of his planned visit to Lebanon.
Since late 2019 Lebanon has been in the throes of a crippling financial nosedive which has rapidly worsened, and which has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020.
In just two years, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value in a crisis largely rooted in decades of mismanagement and corruption. Poverty rates have soared, and social unrest has grown amid the government’s inability to resolve the issue due to disputes and lengthy stalemates.
As Lebanese politicians continue to go in circles, a 15-year alliance between Lebanon’s influential Shiite Hezbollah group and the Free Patriotic Movement, which is Lebanon’s largest Christian party appears to be at risk.
Struck in 2006, the alliance has widely been credited with helping to maintain peace in the small, yet ethnically and religiously diverse nation.
The alliance has been lauded as a sign that Lebanon was becoming a more democratic country capable of transcending traditional Christian-Muslim tensions, however, with that alliance now at risk, the future of Lebanon’s Christian minority has become another concern in Lebanon’s ongoing downward spiral.
Pope Francis after the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 called for a universal day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon, and shortly after, he sent Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to visit the troubled nation as a sign of the pope’s attention and support.
In November Francis met with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Vatican for a conversation that focused largely on Lebanon’s national crisis and ways secure international support.
According to the Associated Press, on that occasion Pope Francis told Mikati that he was praying that God would help Lebanon to “get up” and recover from its current woes, referring to a biblical passage in which Jesus heals a young girl who is dying by taking her hand and commanding her to “get up!”
At the end of their meeting, the pope asked Mikati and the Lebanese delegation to observe a minute of silence and prayer for Lebanon’s intentions, according to a Vatican statement.
Gallagher’s visit in February will undoubtedly be a chance to get an update on the current situation in Lebanon, as well as the status of Lebanese Christians who continue to navigate the country’s political and social woes.
He will likely visit the area impacted by the Beirut port explosion and hold meetings with top civil and ecclesial leaders, including Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib and Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, head of the Maronite Catholic Church.
Given Pope Francis’s interest in Lebanon and his repeated statements voicing his desire to visit when possible, it is likely that part of Gallagher’s trip to Lebanon could be laying the groundwork for a possible future papal visit.
Even if that papal visit doesn’t happen this year, Gallagher’s presence in Lebanon is, much like his visit to South Sudan, a concrete sign of the pope’s concern for the country and his investment not only in its people, but in its national stability given Lebanon’s role as a regional power-player where interreligious tolerance, so far, has been possible.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen