04/26/2021, 17.05
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The Pope's special love for Lebanon, the 'message nation'

by Fady Noun

From John Paul II to Francis, Lebanon remains a model of dialogue and encounter to be preserved. The Holy See is closely following the political crisis and the "reawakening of identities”. Lebanese Christians have an historic role to play in a Middle East torn by conflicts and tensions.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – After Saad Hariri's visit to the Vatican, one may first wonder what the prime minister designate was able to gain from it in terms of support, then ask how the Holy See formulates its Mideast diplomacy and if Lebanon still occupies a pivotal position in it. A short retrospective will help answer these questions.

When, Pope John Paul II took the initiative of convening a synod for Lebanon in 1993, he reset the rules on two essential points. The consecration of a synod for Lebanon was quite unusual.

Traditionally, a synod was convened for the good of a continent (like Africa) or very important pastoral issues (like the family). The synod for Lebanon was the first in history to be organised for a single country.

A second major innovation was the invitation to Islamic religious authorities (Sunni, Shia and Druze) to attend, as participants, not just as observers.

For the record, Mohammad Sammak, Dar el-Fatwa's delegate to the Synod on Lebanon, noted that it was Rafic Hariri who persuaded Lebanese Islamic spiritual leaders of the need to respond to the Pope's call. The former, after consulting each other, had initially decided to turn down the invitation, sending a thank you message to the head of the Catholic Church and wishing success to the synod.

However, Rafik Hariri, who realised the significance of the event, saw it as the “spiritual counterpart” of the Taif Accord (1989) and the agreement on Islamic-Christian parity in Parliament. He eventually convinced Muslim religious leaders that the synod would not be a mere Christian religious meeting, but would promote a national plan to end the civil war, a project that would open new horizons.

Abbas Halabi, Saud Maoula and Mr Sammak himself were picked as the three Muslim delegates to the synod representing the Druze, Shia and Sunni communities respectively.

Invited to the Vatican after the synod for his major role in the success of the event, Rafik Hariri received words of deep gratitude from Pope John Paul II, Sammak said. On the day of the meeting, the Holy Father went so far as to tell him: “I entrust you with the Christians of Lebanon.” Rafik Hariri replied: “These are my family and my brothers. We are all one people.”

The Synod on Lebanon set a  precedent and was repeated at the Middle East Synod (2010), which had become necessary because of the region’s wars and upheavals. This indicated a shift in the Holy See’s focus from a small country like Lebanon to the entire Middle East region.

But Benedict XVI, who called the synod, still invited a Lebanese, Mohammad Sammak, to attend, like the bishops and patriarchs who came, and then chose to release the Apostolic Exhortation (summary of the synod's work) from Lebanon.

Tacitly, Mr Sammak noted, the Benedict followed Pope Paul VI, who, en route to Jerusalem (4-6 January 1964, before the Six-Day War), made a stopover in Beirut before landing in Amman, thus designating Lebanon as the Vatican's gateway to the Middle East.

But what is the secret behind the Vatican's preferential love for Lebanon, which Pope Francis' current statements seem to continue?

In the apostolic exhortation Une espérance pour le Liban  (A New Hope for Lebanon), John Paul II called on Christians in Lebanon to “continue and strengthen their cultural role in the Arab world of which they are a part.”

For the Vatican, it is important that the culture of encounter prevail in the Arab-Islamic world, seen as a laboratory of Islamic-Christian relations in a world where religious mixing is increasing, a view reiterated in recent years by Pope Francis with his trips to Cairo (2017), Abu Dhabi (2019), and Iraq (2021), as well as his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

When he was consulted about the trip to Iraq, Mr Sammak stressed the need that the meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani, the foremost guide of Shi'ism in the Arab world, be held in Najaf itself.

Given Lebanon's position in the Arab world and that of the Arab world in the Islamic world, it is also understandable why the Holy See still insists on Lebanon as a model and an example.

Notwithstanding other point of interest the Holy See may have, Lebanon and the coexistence of its constituent groups are still, in its view, nothing less than a “particular universal”, a model to follow for its pluralism and openness to others.

Indeed, in our troubled age of reawakening identities, living together to the extent imagined by the Vatican is, in terms of the Arab and Islamic world, the only model of civilisation that can oppose the alliance of minorities directed against the Sunni world, or the messianisms inspired by religion, like the one in Iran, or by religious ethnicity, like the derivative and disastrous search for the “rights of Christians” at work in Lebanon.

Faithful to a doctrine launched by John Paul II, the Vatican is now more than ever eager to see “Lebanon-as-the-messenger” match fittingly with “Lebanon-as-the-message”. This means that Lebanon’s Christians can courageously play the historical role required of them within the Arab world and not give in to the temptation of retreating into their own ethnic “comfort zone”.

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