03/17/2021, 17.01
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Nuncio to Lebanon on the Pope and the 'existential crisis' of a message-nation

by Fady Noun

The positions between Aoun and Hariri are irreconcilable. The legacy of the civil war has never been remedied. The alliance with Hezbollah is a problem: a confrontation between a democratic society and an incompatible totalitarian project. The Pope's visit to Iraq carries great significance for the Lebanese.


Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon is going through an existential crisis due to unreconciled differences. This quick diagnosis by the head of the Catholic Church after returning from his trip to Baghdad, on the flight back to Rome on 8 March, deserves a comment. It clearly shows that the Pope is closely following developments in Lebanon’s crisis.

“Lebanon is a message [. . . ]. It has the weakness of differences, some of which are still not reconciled [. . .] Lebanon is in crisis, but in crisis – here I wish not to offend – in a crisis of life,” said quite correctly the leader of 1.5 billion Catholics.

The Pope's words can be interpreted several ways, but the head of the Maronite Church, who did everything to get the head of state, Michel Aoun, and the prime minister designate, Saad Hariri, to agree on a government, summed it up very well just recently. The head of state and the prime minister “are not in a position to sit down together to address the points of contention that have accumulated”, he said on Sunday, to justify his call for a special international conference under the auspices of the United Nations. “They don't talk to each other. They do not look each other in the eye,” he said several times in front of visitors and in public.

Lebanon is poles apart from its “message”

The Patriarch’s words are serious because they give the impression that Lebanon today is far apart from the Lebanon of Saint Pope John Paul II. In 1989, the Pope had said that “Lebanon is more than a country: it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East and for the West”.

“Can we continue to talk about Lebanon-as-a-message if for the Lebanese living together is beginning to be their main difficulty?” said the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, commenting on the current situation. After more than thirty years, a new phase in the political life of Lebanon seems to have started. Today, the head of state, Michel Aoun, as well as the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, claim to act in order to “reclaim the rights of Christians”, which they believe were taken away or seized by the Sunni establishment under the governance of the assassinated head of government Rafic Hariri.

“Popes John Paul II (1997) and Benedict XVI (2012) have already visited Lebanon,” noted the nuncio, while Pope Francis let it be known in late December 2020 that he intended to come to Lebanon “as soon as possible “. However, “historical contexts have changed. The message that Francis will address to the Lebanese, when he will have the opportunity to keep his promise to visit them, will undoubtedly not be that of John Paul II,” added the nuncio.

For Professor Antoine Messarra, who holds the UNESCO Chair of Comparative Study of Religions at the Université Saint Joseph, “living together is a break with current changes in the world: hyper-individualism, emergence of deadly identities, fanaticism of ideologised religions, populism at the expense of watchful citizenship and cross-community public affairs, extension of proxy wars in fragile or weakened states, regression of state authority, terrorism by trans-national organisations supported and fuelled by rogue states that practice the diplomacy of blackmail.”

The Free Patriotic Movement has unfortunately seized some of the issues specific to the political doctrine of the alliance of minorities, and the Lebanese have entered into this new age without any self-examination after a war (1975-1990) that some still refuse to admit was a civil war. The Lebanese whitewashed the atrocities they committed without cleansing their memories and consciences nor fully assumed responsibility for the suffering inflicted and received. They have not asked or received the forgiveness that comes with a confession, nor sought to repair the broken bonds, as real social life demands, or as other countries have done, like South Africa, the Rainbow Nation.

The ways of dialogue are blocked and “in crisis” for other reasons as well. The Free Patriotic Movement has decided to defend the “rights of Christians” by allying itself with ... Hezbollah, without really knowing what Hezbollah is. With the latter, we don’t have only a political party, but a societal project, indeed plans for an Islamic State, even if its leaders said at one time that Lebanon’s communitarian structure is incompatible with the establishment of an Islamic republic, as they envision it.

It is obvious however that with Hezbollah, there is a problem of existential, cultural, anthropological adjustment. We are also in the presence of “unreconciled differences”, to cite the Pope. But if these differences remain cultural, their reconciliation in the extraordinary melting pot of living together that is Lebanon is still possible. Only if these differences are political do they become problematic, insofar as they lead to a confrontation between a democratic society and a totalitarian project incompatible with pluralism and freedom of expression, a totalitarian project that must adapt to Lebanon’s reality; otherwise, Lebanon will pay the price in terms of its freedoms, affiliations and alliances, as it is doing today.

A visit that comes too late?

“Pope Francis presented himself as a pilgrim and a penitent,” said the apostolic nuncio. He asked forgiveness in the name of humanity, to both Christians and Yazidis, for the suffering, the theft of property, the exodus, human cruelty and ideological intolerance they endured.”

However, feelings of bitterness, even resentment, were still expressed on the occasion of the Pope's visit. Some believe that his visit to Iraq “came too late” and that the damage has already been done. In fact, Iraqi Christians have gone from 6 per cent of the population to 1 per cent in 20 years. What is more, some say out loud that after the Pope left, nothing has changed.

Responding to the latter, the nuncio cites the episode of the Gospel in which Jesus chases the merchants out of the Temple. Speaking about this spectacular account, Archbishop Spiteri said: “You cannot force people to change their mindset overnight. A few hours or a few days after the holy wrath of Jesus, the livestock traders and the overturned tables of the money changers were probably back in business. Yet Christ's prophetic gesture took on once and for all its permanent and definitive meaning: one must not exploit religion for business or political purposes and turn God's house into a cave of thieves.” “Jesus changes hearts, but structures take much longer to evolve,” said the nuncio.

The same is true for Lebanon, Archbishop Spiteri explained. “One has to give time to time, as they say. Between staying and leaving, the hearts of young people hesitate. The Pope's visit to Iraq and his appeals are prophetic words and gestures that establish a pattern of conduct that can instil new hope in young people, encouraging them to remain in their homeland, even if they are not accompanied by immediately visible effects. They touch hearts. Changes take time, but they will eventually come.”

The pledge to visit Lebanon

Finally, with respect to the Pope’s pledge to make a pastoral visit to Lebanon, the nuncio said that he will certainly do it. “But what the Pope wishes is one thing, organising a trip is quite another,” he said. “A pastoral visit by the Pope is known months in advance. Its preparation is thorough and it depends, like it or not, on the internal situation of the country.”

The nuncio is outraged by what was done in Lebanon to the French initiative and the “personal commitment” of President Emmanuel Macron, after the explosion of August 2020 at the port of Beirut. “The pope knows what Lebanon means in itself and to the Christians of the Middle East; he will do everything to strengthen it so that it may have, as he said, the strength of cedar trees, that of a great, reconciled people.”

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