Lebanon’s greatest Catholic leader: Pope’s visit will keep country ‘hope’ alive

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Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch, arrives to celebrate a mass on the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2021. The explosion killed more than 200 people, injured 7,000 and left left 300,000 homeless. (CNS/Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)

Florence, Italy – Lebanon’s top Catholic leader says a much-anticipated visit by Pope Francis would help “keep hope alive” after years of political and economic upheaval that have brought the once bustling Middle Eastern country to the brink of turmoil. collapse.

But when Pope Francis arrives in the country – perhaps even later this year – he will not come as a “political or economic savior”, says Maronite Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai, but “as a close man People”.

“He knows that sometimes the human being needs someone close, someone who listens to him, someone who can understand his problems,” Rai said in a Feb. 26 interview. “Lebanese on the margins count on it a lot because they feel abandoned.”

Rai spoke to NCR during his visit to the Italian city of Florence, where he joined mayors and religious leaders from 20 countries around the Mediterranean gathered for a five-day meeting to discuss collaboration on a series issues facing the region, including migration, climate change and education.

And the problems facing Lebanon, which has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East, are particularly severe: rising poverty rates and economic collapse, widespread fuel shortages, and schools and hospitals facing an uncertain future, to name a few.

Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite Patriarch, center, and other bishops present at the "Mediterranean for Peace" meeting participate in prayers for peace and against war at the Church of Santa Maria Novella on February 24 in Florence, Italy.  (CNS)

Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite Patriarch, center, and other bishops attending the ‘Mediterranean for Peace’ meeting take part in prayers for peace and against war at the church of Santa Maria Novella on February 24 in Florence , in Italy. The shock of the invasion in Ukraine led the bishops gathered in Florence to suspend their work early and spend half an hour in silent prayer under Giotto’s 13th-century crucifix. (CNS/Italian Episcopal Conference/Cristian Gennari)

“The best doctors and the best university professors and the best bankers and the best nurses have gone elsewhere so that they can have a salary that they can live on,” Rai said, adding that the country’s currency has lost a large part of its currency. its value and its trade opportunities with other countries have “haemorrhaged”.

Rai, 82, who has led the Lebanese church since 2011, says the church has been on the front line in responding to growing crises.

“The church maintains its institutions, its schools, its universities, its social centers, its development centers”, but despite everything it can to help people find work, he lamented, “the people manage to leave”.

In February, the Vatican’s foreign minister visited the country, where he offered a stark assessment of the situation on the ground: “The Lebanese people continue to suffer greatly,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher said. “Everyone can see it.”

He went on to express concern over the deep divisions within the country, which faces a major general election on May 15, the first since the country descended into chaos following mass protests and resignations from the government. government in 2019.

The situation has only worsened since an explosion in August 2020 in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people, injured 7,000 people, left 300,000 homeless and severely damaged its port, which supplies a major part of the capital’s economic activity. Since then, an investigation has been underway to determine who was responsible, which has led to new charges and a transfer of responsibility.

Caritas Youth volunteers are pictured in an undated photo handing out clothes following the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut.  (CNS/Caritas Lebanon)

Caritas Youth volunteers are pictured in an undated photo handing out clothes following the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut. As the Lebanese economy began to deteriorate, individual and collective awareness initiatives began; the port explosion made matters worse. (CNS/Caritas Lebanon)

Strong, anti-corruption leaders are needed, says the Lebanese patriarch, who says the long-delayed democratic elections must take place.

“We denounce every attempt to postpone the elections,” Rai said, while noting that this is a difficult situation because citizens are “fed up with the authorities”.

The country’s diversity – with Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Protestants and Maronite Catholics – means the church does not want to influence or support particular candidates, but instead wants to remind people to “exercise your vote”.

In recent years, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah has wielded considerable influence in the country’s political and commercial life. Meanwhile, Lebanese President Michel Aoun is a Maronite Catholic who is also a Hezbollah ally.

While political and religious coexistence has helped anchor the country historically, its long tradition of pluralism is threatened by growing divisions. The Vatican, as Gallagher reiterated during his recent visit, has offered to help facilitate a national dialogue among the country’s political leaders if its leaders want such mediation.

“The Vatican is always ready to do so,” confirmed Rai.

Cardinal Bechara Rai greets Pope Francis as the Pope arrives to lead a meeting with priests, religious, deacons, catechists and members of religious groups and movements at the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace on December 2, 2021 in Nicosia, Cyprus.  (CNS)

Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite Patriarch, greets Pope Francis as the pontiff arrives to lead a meeting with priests, religious, deacons, catechists and members of religious groups and movements at the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace in Nicosia, Cyprus, on December 2. , 2021. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Meanwhile, tentative plans are underway for a possible papal visit, a visit that Francis has promised for several years but long delayed due to political instability.

Last month, Gallagher said Francis “wants to come to Lebanon, very soon”, but added “we still have to define the meaning of the word ‘soon’.”

Rai also resisted commenting on the exact timing, saying, “I think some political stability is needed,” but said confidently that a papal visit to Lebanon will take place.

“A visit from the Pope encourages the Lebanese,” he said, and reminds them that despite the difficulties of recent years, “however, they are not abandoned.”

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