The plight and vulnerability of Lebanon, enwrapped by the chaos of Syria on its north and east and threatened by the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its south, were brought into sharp focus during a U.S. visit by Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church. During his cross-country pastoral visit, Cardinal Rai stopped in New York at the headquarters of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association on June 27 where he implored reporters to remain mindful of the precarious state of Lebanon as it grapples with the region’s various crises.
Perhaps most acutely, Lebanon—a multi-faith nation of just four million people—continues to shoulder the burden of more than two million refugees within its borders. More than 500,000 are Palestinians who have been resident in Lebanon for generations, but 1.5 million fled to Lebanon in recent years to escape to bloody and interminable civil war in Syria. Their presence has been an economic drain and a source of deep political and social instability—Lebanon has been unable to elect a new president for years and civic services in Beirut are struggling to cope. The cardinal added that increasingly destitute and desperate refugees have become a target for terrorist recruitment.
As if to punctuate the severity of that concern, reports emerged the same day of his presentation of suicide bombing attacks against Christian villagers in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. Two separate sets of four suicide bombers attacked the village of Qaa; the first attack killed five people in addition to the bombers. About 30 people were injured in the two incidents, the second of which occurred near St. Elias Melkite Catholic Church as people were preparing for the funerals of the people killed in the first bombing.
Archbishop Paul Sayah, vicar general of the patriarchate, attempted to put the nation’s crisis of destabilization into perspective. Pointing out that the United States is home to more than 300 million people, he asked how well it might fare with the sudden arrival within its borders of more than 150 million refugees.
"I don't know how Lebanon is surviving,” the archbishop said. “It's a miracle it's still functioning.” But beyond Lebanon’s trials, he adds, the refugees themselves are living in the most abject circumstances. “No human should be subjected to such misery," he said.
Cardinal Rai warned the continuing crisis is “making refugees of the Lebanese,” particularly its Christians, explaining Lebanese are leaving the country because of economic stress. He said Syrians will work for half the wages, their shops will sell goods for half the profit and they don't pay taxes. "Our cultural identity is threatened by the presence of the refugees," he said. The loss of Christians from the Middle East, he said, impoverishes both Christian and Muslim communities and “harms the culture of dialogue and co-existence so desperately needed in the world today.”
Cardinal Rai is the leader of the Lebanon-based Maronite Catholic Church, the largest of six Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches with more than 3 million members worldwide, approximately 85,000 of whom live in the United States.
In a prepared statement to the press, he said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the origin of the Middle Eastern problems and could be solved through "the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.” The patriarch warned, "You cannot really come to agreement or establish peace without justice.”
Now that the United States has made efforts to restore its relationship with Iran, Cardinal Rai urged the Obama administration to go further, to help establish a dialogue between its ally Saudi Arabia—a Sunni power—and Iran—the region’s Shiite power, suggesting that tensions between those regional neighbors were at the heart of conflict throughout the Middle East. The cardinal argued that the United States could play a role in propelling a reconciliation between those regional powers. “Saudi Arabia represents the Sunni Islam and Iran represents the Shiites and of course that conflict between Sunni and Shia is the conflict in the region, so if the war was to stop in Syria those two countries and the Sunni-Shia conflict ought to be resolved,” the cardinal said.
“We would like to ask the United States to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to separate the Lebanese political situation from the general conflict in the region and allow the election of a new president in Lebanon.” The conflict and regional intrigues that emanate from it have prevented normal political life in Lebanon for three years, according to the cardinal said.
Cardinal Rai further admonished Arab states to do more to condemn and resist Islamic extremism, indeed noting that according to some reports Saudi Arabia and Qatar had been active supporters of the ISIS network.
"The separation between religion and state for both Judaism and Islam is one of the basic conditions for a permanent political solution in the region," he said. When a country has an official religion, "you are in deep trouble because you are automatically excluding the citizens of that state who do not confess the religion that is the religion of the state," he said.
Cardinal Rai added that despite all its difficulties and dysfunction, the Lebanese system, “could be a model for the workable separation of church and state." It is the only country in the Middle East without either a state religion or requirement that the head of state must be a Muslim. Under an agreement forged in 1943, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon "live together on an equal basis" and share leadership of the government, he said.
Note:This post was updated on July 5 to include the location of the press conference, the headquarters of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York.