ROME – Pope Francis concluded the day of prayer and reflection for Lebanon by urging the Lebanese people and the international community to come together so that the country can remain “a project of peace” and not a land for “outside interests and profits.”
“May the night of conflicts recede before a new dawn of hope,” he said on Thursday. “May hostilities cease, disagreements fade away, and Lebanon once more radiate the light of peace.”
It is essential, Francis said, that those in power – both in and outside Lebanon – choose to “work for true peace and not for their own interests. Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many! No more letting half-truths continue to frustrate people’s aspirations!”
“Stop using Lebanon and the Middle East for outside interests and profits!” Francis said. “The Lebanese people must be given the opportunity to be the architects of a better future in their land, without undue interference.”
The pope’s words came during an ecumenical prayer service held in St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday afternoon, after spending the day together with nine of Lebanon’s most important Christian leaders, where they prayed for the country and reflected on how to help alleviate the ongoing crisis.
According to a report released on Tuesday by the World Bank, Lebanon’s economic collapse is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century. Lebanon defaulted on its debt last year, the currency lost around 90 percent of its value and poverty is devastating a country once seen as a beacon of prosperity in the region.
The complete meltdown of Lebanon’s economy over the past 18 months is widely blamed on corruption and mismanagement by the country’s political elite. The country has been unable to form a government after the previous one resigned following the August 4 2020 explosion in the Beirut port that killed at least 220 people.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have each blamed the other for the political stalemate.
The latest report from the World Bank sees “no clear turning point in the horizon” and the statistics it shared, together with those of UNICEF, also released this week, are grim: 30 percent of children go to bed hungry and don’t receive the primary healthcare they need; most people in the country only have access to three hours of electricity a day; 10 percent of children are working to help the family; and 40 percent of children are living in families where no one has a job. In addition, Lebanon is home to an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and 99 percent of these families don’t have enough money to buy food.
In the words of Marwan Sehnaoui, President of the Foundation of the Order of Malta in Lebanon, the country today is “in intensive care,” and despite experiencing wars, conflicts and political crisis before, “never has the situation been so dramatic.”
Lebanon, the pope said during his remarks, is called to be a land of “tolerance and pluralism, an oasis of fraternity where different religions and confessions meet, where different communities live together, putting the common good before their individual interests.”
Those who met in Rome include Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch of Lebanon; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan; Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch; Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Aram of Cilicia; and Rev. Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon.
“As Christians, today we wish to renew our commitment to building a future together,” Francis said, adding that human relations can’t be rooted on the pursuit of “partisan interests, privileges and advantages.”
“Christians are called to be sowers of peace and builders of fraternity, not nursing past grudges and regrets, not shirking the responsibilities of the present, but looking instead with hope to the future,” he said. “Let us therefore assure our Muslim brothers and sisters, and those of other religions, of our openness and readiness to work together in building fraternity and promoting peace.”
Towards the end of his remarks Francis highlighted the role young people and women have in the rebirth of Lebanon, asking for the voices of the first be heeded and for women to be included in decision-making processes.
“Let us not desist, let us not tire of imploring heaven for that peace which men and women find so difficult to build on earth,” he said. “Lebanon cannot be left prey to the course of events or those who pursue their own unscrupulous interests. It is a small yet great country, but even more, it is a universal message of peace and fraternity arising from the Middle East.”
The Vatican has long seen Lebanon as a key player when it comes to securing the survival of Christianity in the Middle East, as a third of the population in this country is Christian. Ever since the end of the civil war in 1990, Christians and Muslims have mostly coexisted peacefully, a rarity in the region.
Earlier in the day, the pope and his guests had prayed the Our Father in Arabic in St. Peter’s Basilica, before heading to the Clementine Hall in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace for a series of behind-closed-doors meetings.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, told reporters that for Christians, the most important element of the day of reflection for Lebanon was “to begin with faith. In Lebanon there are many problems, many difficulties, much suffering. It’s superfluous for me to go into details about this.”
“Who can intervene? God, our father,” he said, which is why Pope Francis invited the leaders for a day of prayer and reflection “in the light of God’s grace.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma