Maronite Patriarch says that Lebanon as a 'message' nation risks disappearing
by Fady Noun

For Cardinal Rahi, the model country praised by John Paul II risks dying under the weight of extremism and partisan interests. At the end of the Synod, he outlined the three pillars on which to base the nation: a civic-minded and democratic state, decentralisation, and the constitution and the Taif agreement. He warns against secret plans to destroy the Middle East and Islamic-Christian coexistence.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Holy Synod of the Maronite Church issued a statement at the end of its meeting last week (26-31 October). In it, the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Bechara al-Rahi, presented a plan for the future of Lebanon based on three pillars, namely “Building a civic-minded and democratic state, [based on] broad decentralisation of the administration for development purposes, and the implementation of the Constitution and the National Agreement (Taif Agreement of 1989) in accordance with their spirit and letter”. For him, the goal is to “prevent a domestic party from possibly drawing strength from a foreign power to carry out an agenda and policies that are incompatible with Lebanon’s interests and sovereignty.”

The Holy Synod also announced the election of two new bishops to replace those who reached their age limit. They are Mgrs Youssef Antoine Soueif, Maronite Archbishop of Cipro, who will take charge of the Archeparchy of Tripoli del Libano {Tarabulus), replacing Mgr Georges Bou Jaoudé, and Charbel Abdallah, who succeeds Mgr Chekrallah Nabil Hage, in the Archeparchy of Tyr. The Archeparchy of Antélias, which was left vacant by the death of Archbishop Camille Zaidan, was not mentioned. This suggests that further consultation is still necessary. Nothing was also said about the Archdiocese of Cipro, which is now vacant after Archbishop Soueif took over Tripoli.

The Holy Synod also examined the following points: liturgical reform, priestly training, religious courts, situation of Maronite dioceses in Lebanon and the world, social pastoral outreach, charity works, and private Catholic schools.

With regard to the dioceses in countries of immigration, the bishops noted the need for priests in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, as well as help for institution building in those countries. They also welcomed the planned opening in 2021 of a Maronite seminary in Sydney (Australia), which will serve Oceania, where the presence of Maronites is growing.

On social outreach, the patriarch reported the following results: distribution of 5,000 school grants, 25,000 food rations per month, 5,000 medical and hospital kits, participation in the rehabilitation of 3,000 homes in areas affected by the 4 August explosion, and training provided to hundreds of young people in the farming and professional sectors.

In his homily last Sunday, the Patriarch touched the main themes that he has defended since July, first of all Lebanon’s “active neutrality”, which he has already mentioned in the homily that ended the Holy Synod on Saturday. In it, the prelate vigorously condemned the crimes committed by Islamists in France, and pleaded for Lebanon to remain a link between East and West set on a well-understood neutrality.

Turning to domestic issues, the head of the Maronite Church said: "We face a historic deadline today, which consists of the formation of a new government. Political leaders must recognise that they have failed to represent citizens and win their favour to run the country. They should voluntarily give way, temporarily and in the interest of Lebanon, to a cohesive and united government team that can lift the country.”

"Secret regional plans"

Speaking about the geopolitical level, the Maronite patriarch warned against a reconfiguration of the Middle East imposed on Lebanon, mentioning certain “secret regional and international plans with unknown final objectives, which are being implemented day after day, year after year, gradually and in stages, independently of existing regimes and the will of peoples.

"This is why we are renewing our faith in the independent entity of Lebanon and in its internationally recognised borders, and in the unity of its people within the framework of a partnership centred on a pact based on decentralised pluralism, founded on absolute allegiance to Lebanon, capped by a democratic regime that respects freedoms and spiritual, national and human values.

“Our Church believes that the preservation of the Lebanese entity deserves making every sacrifice [. . .]. This is why, in light of all the dangers, we propose active neutrality as an umbrella to protect Lebanon in these troubled times. Lebanon’s value lies in reconciling neutrality and its active and lasting presence as a link between Lebanon and the world. In order to preserve its autonomy, historic Mount Lebanon was already engaged in dialogue with East and West even when no entity nor independent state existed. How much more valuable is it nowadays.”

“Radical Islamist elements”

Going back to the question of the publication in France of cartoons about the Prophet by the weekly Charlie Hebdo and the criminal acts by Islamists that followed, in particular the knife attack in which three people were killed on Thursday in Nice, the patriarch said: “The Maronite Church calls for strengthening the Islamic-Christian partnership in the world and for warding off the spirit of confrontation between religions, in particular after the current progress in dialogue between Christianity and Islam and the publication of the Document on human fraternity in Abu Dhabi on 5 February 2019 (signed by Pope Francis and Imam of Al-Azhar [Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb]).

“Our Church strongly condemns the attack on religious symbols and the republication of offensive cartoons under the guise of freedom and secularism. At the same time however, the Church strongly condemns the beheading by radical Islamist elements of a teacher outside his school and that of three believers inside a church in Nice. These acts have no human or religious justification and constitute a great offence against God, the sole master of life and death.

"We offer France our most sincere condolences and hope that the Ambassador to Lebanon will convey them to the President of the French Republic, to the government, and to the families of the victims. We pray for mutual respect between religions, the preservation of healthy relations and the strengthening of dialogue about life and the cultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims.”

Commenting the patriarch's warning against “secret plans” for the region, a ministerial source close to the Patriarchate said that the head of the Maronite Church has based his view on specific warnings from French President Emmanuel Macron and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian. The latter even warned of “Lebanon’s disappearance,” whilst President Macron spoke of a risk of "civil war," if the country’s current economic, financial and political deterioration continued.

According to this source, the patriarch fears that Lebanon may implode, “so that allegiance would be based on a sectarian logic filling the void left by the state’s disintegration,” to cite an idea formulated by Hamit Bozarslan, research director at EHESS Paris, PhD in economics and political science, in his Révolution et état de violence, Moyen-Orient 2011-2015 (Revolution and state of violence, Middle East 2010-2015).

For the patriarch, such a development would not mark the physical death not of Lebanon, but of Lebanon as a "model of freedom and pluralism for East and West,” which Pope John Paul II defined as being "more than a country, a message".

This interpretation is indirectly backed by an idea developed last August by President Macron before the Presidential Press Association in Paris. For the French president, Lebanon “is perhaps one of the last existing forms of what we believe in this region, that is to say the most peaceful possible coexistence of religions [. . .], a pluralist model based on education, culture, and the ability to trade in peace.”

Today such words have taken on a new force, in light of the tensions caused by the publication by Paris-based Charlie Hebdo, of caricatures of Islam’s prophet, and the series of retaliatory murders perpetrated by Islamist fanatics.

For Karim Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at the Université de Saint-Joseph, "the French statements, even if they may seem alarmist, emanate from a very sincere concern about the future of Lebanon.”

“Unlike individuals, nations never die,” the analyst explained. Therefore, Lebanon’s physical disappearance is not at stake. What is at stake, and this is much more serious, is the loss of Lebanon’s soul and its historical vocation, should insecurity and repeated crises come again and if Lebanon goes back to the years of community ghettos. The risk here is of losing John Paul II's “Lebanon as a message”. This would be much more worrying than the country’s physical disappearance.”