The plight and vulnerability of Lebanon, surrounded by the chaos of Syria on the north and east and threatened by the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the south, were brought into sharp focus during a visit to the United States by Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church. During his cross-country pastoral visit, Cardinal Rai stopped in New York 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 multifaith 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 residents in Lebanon for generations, but 1.5 million more fled into Lebanon in recent years to escape the bloody and interminable civil war in Syria. Their presence has been an economic drain and a source of deep political and social instability. The cardinal added that increasingly destitute and desperate refugees have become targets for terrorist recruitment. As if to punctuate the severity of that concern, reports emerged the day of his visit of suicide bombing attacks against Christian villagers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that left five people dead (in addition to the bombers themselves) and about 30 people wounded.
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 added, the refugees themselves are living in misery. “No human should be subjected to such misery,” he said.
Cardinal Rai warned that the continuing crisis is “making refugees of the Lebanese,” particularly its Christians, explaining that Lebanese are leaving the country because of economic stress. The loss of Christians from the Middle East, he said, impoverishes both Christian and Muslim communities and “harms the culture of dialogue and coexistence 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 three 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, the cardinal urged the Obama administration to go further, to help establish a dialogue between Saudi Arabia (a Sunni power) and Iran (the region’s Shiite power), suggesting that tensions between those regional neighbors was at the heart of conflict throughout the Middle East. He said regional Islamic powers were obligated to take a stronger rhetorical and practical hand against Muslim extremism.