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What are the chances of Pope Francis visiting Lebanon?

The once Christian-majority state in the Middle East is facing a daunting future, caught between poverty and a proxy war

What are the chances of Pope Francis visiting Lebanon?

Lebanese people celebrate with flags as Iranian fuel transported by the Shia Hezbollah movement arrived from Syria at al-Ain in Hermel in east Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on Sept. 16. (Photo: AFP)

Christianity has much at stake in Lebanon, the only Arab nation with a non-Muslim head of state. With a sense of legitimacy secured under the colonial mandate, the Maronite Church has been actively involved in Lebanese politics.

Hailed as a shining example of Christian-Muslim unity, the turbulent Mediterranean nation has been caught in endless political deadlock due to its sectarian political system with a Maronite Christian as the president, a Sunni Muslim as prime minister and a Shia Muslim as the speaker of the National Assembly.

Four other prominent religious communities — Antiochian Orthodox, Druze, Melkite Greek Catholics and Armenians — are assured of their due share of cabinet berths under a “gentleman’s agreement” known as the National Pact 1943.

But it is the president who enjoys wide-ranging powers in the country of 6.83 million people where Maronite Christians make up 22 percent.

It took immense pressure on President Michel Aoun from the western world led by the United States and France, Lebanon's former colonial master, to end the 13-month political paralysis on Sept. 10.

The resultant formation of a government under Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, came as the political and humanitarian crisis was worsening in the West Asian nation bordered by war-torn Syria to the north and east and an expansionist Israel to the south.

Now that a government is functioning, the chances of a papal visit to the land of cedars have increased

On Aug. 4, 2020, the Lebanon government headed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab had quit following the Beirut Port explosion which claimed the lives of more than 210 people and left much of the capital city in ruins. The World Bank pegged the material damage at US$3.84 billion, making it the largest non-nuclear blast in history.

Since then, two government formation attempts failed — one by Mustafa Adib, ambassador to Germany, and the other by former PM Saad Hariri.

It was expected that Hariri would form a government. However, after a 20-minute meeting with President Aoun on July 15, Hariri announced his inability to cobble together a government as he could not rise above the sectarian affiliations that cover every aspect of social, political and economic life in Lebanon.

Now that a government is functioning, the chances of a papal visit to the land of cedars have increased.

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“His Holiness the pope will visit Lebanon but after a government is formed,” Hariri said after a private meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican on April 22.

Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, the largest Christian group that is in communion with Rome, has also hinted at a papal visit on many occasions.

Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to visit Lebanon “when conditions allow” and has tied his visit to Lebanon to the formation of a government.

The Vatican, however, had worked behind the scenes by hosting a day of prayer for Lebanon in July, a first of its kind with the pope dedicating a day of prayer for the misfortune of one country.

The Vatican-sponsored prayer session came at the behest of Cardinal Rai following a string of failed attempts to set up a government.

Lebanon has been at the forefront of the Vatican’s plans to curb the flight of Christians from the troubled Middle East. Pope John Paul II visited it in 1997 and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2012.

Patriarch Rai was in the Hungarian capital Budapest to attend the International Eucharistic Congress when a new government was announced on Sept. 10. The cardinal had been asking political leaders to maintain neutrality.

Stop using Lebanon and the Middle East for outside interests and profits

The patriarch’s idea of a neutral Lebanon on the pattern of Belgium or Switzerland has many takers for good reason.  

According to the Maronite Church’s definition of a neutral Lebanon, no group or party will owe their allegiances to any other country apart from Lebanon. “There are no two states in one land and no two armies in one state,” the 81-year-old patriarch, made a cardinal by the Vatican in 2012, had stated earlier.

But it is vehemently opposed by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Islamic organization and political party that controls much of the country, including the volatile southern border with Israel.

Lebanon, once a Christian-majority state, is facing a daunting future as the country is caught in a proxy war being waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

With a fighting force much bigger and better trained than Lebanon’s national army, Hezbollah is often called a "state within a state." Its commitment to the destruction of Israel has earned it a terrorism tag from the US State Department.

Foreign intervention in Lebanon was decried by the pope on the day of prayer on July 1. “Stop using Lebanon and the Middle East for outside interests and profits,” he observed.

Lebanon’s new government faces another uphill task as three-quarters of the population live in poverty. The World Bank has described Lebanon’s situation as among the “most severe crisis episodes globally since the mid-19th century.”

It is true that we don't have a magic wand. The situation is very difficult

It is estimated that the country’s GDP slowed by more than 20 percent in 2020, while inflation and high unemployment damaged people’s lives after the country’s currency lost more than 90 percent of its value against the dollar.

Mikati hinted at plans to tide over the scarcity of fuel and medicine, supplies of which dried up as the country’s currency reserves ran out.

“It is true that we don't have a magic wand. The situation is very difficult,” Mikati said on Sept. 10 after the first meeting of the new government.

The new government is under massive western pressure to usher in economic reforms to hold 2022 parliamentary elections and to restart negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Western governments, led by France and the United States, have supported the new cabinet while urging it to implement reforms to secure loans from international lenders.

Mikati, 65, has served as the country’s prime minister twice. That makes him part of the political elite and an unlikely figure to spearhead wide-reaching reforms.

Though the western world has managed to put in place a government in Lebanon, where 35 percent of the population are Christian, it is plagued with the internal contradictions of the colonial consociational framework, witnessing three civil wars (1958, 1975 and 1983) since it gained independence in 1943.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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