Bishop John Lebanon DiarySaturday 22nd January 2022
Bishop John has recently returned from an ecumenical visit to Lebanon. He has once again shared his experience with us through writing a daily diary.
In Preparation for the trip
I am travelling to Lebanon under the banner of Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East (FACE), an organisation which supports Eastern Christians through projects in education, healthcare, pastoral support and interreligious dialogue, under the patronage of the Eastern Catholic Churches. In times of peace as in times of war, it supports the work of bishops, priests, and religious congregations who, in turn, help everyone regardless of their religious faith.
The trip to Lebanon is much impacted by the collapse of the economy in recent years and the explosion in the harbour of Beirut in 2020 which destroyed substantial sections of the city, causing large numbers of casualties. As one article I read puts it: “Lebanon is facing an unprecedented political, economic and social crisis, tragically compounded by the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This trip has a strong ecumenical dimension and is part of a history of strengthening collaboration between churches and assisting in the impact that churches may make in combatting poverty, providing education, and promoting sustainable livelihood.
Day One – Tuesday 4th January
Just getting to Lebanon has its challenges, with needs for PCR checks both on departure and arrival.
The flight gave me an opportunity to read some reports, from Caritas, Knights of Columba, and other organizations engaged in relief work in Lebanon, which all describe a country in turmoil.
Arrival in Beirut. I met my two travel companions Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald and FACE chair of the board of trustees John Fox. We then made our way to the Patriarchate.
The Maronite Patriarchate is the Vatican of the Maronite Church. It is the home of several retired bishops and the Patriarch has his key staff here, with offices.
Tonight, we had a supper and, as we made our way back to our rooms, we met the Patriarch Bechara Rai. It was a very warm but brief greeting, and we will see more of him in the coming days.
Day Two – Wednesday 5th January
We met for Morning Prayer and Mass at 7.30am. Of course, it was all in Arabic and Aramaic, but I felt it was all very prayerful. The chief celebrant was the Maronite Patriarch. This was followed by breakfast, and I can see that hospitality and generosity is very important to our hosts. It is a little difficult to accept such kindness when it is very clear that large numbers of the Lebanese people are really suffering through inflated food prices and shortages. I read that food prices have increased tenfold since 2019. Alarmingly, the government have recently removed drug and medicine subsidies and now even a packet of paracetamol costs £45.
At 11am we met with the Syriac Catholic Patriarch. He has fewer members of his Church in Lebanon but more, particularly in Syria, and an increasing number in the diaspora. It was so interesting to hear about his governance of his Church. He has only twelve seminarians. This is not because of any abandonment of Faith by young people but the increasing problems of families moving to new countries. He was also very clear about the impact of inflation. The Syrian Lire had been fifty to the US dollar but it is now 3,500 to the US dollar. This collapse has caused many of the middle class and the professionally qualified in Syria and Lebanon to emigrate.
We were invited to the plenary meeting of the Lebanese Maronite bishops who were having their monthly meeting in the Patriarchate. Like our meeting of the English and Welsh bishops, they were all able to sit around the one table and there was a very easy atmosphere.
This afternoon we travelled the relatively short distance Harissa and to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon – high above Beirut. Harissa is a key Christian pilgrimage site with a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon. It is one of the most important shrines in the world honouring Mary, Mother of Jesus, and draws millions of faithful – Christians and Muslims – from all over the world. The shrine is highlighted by an enormous 15-ton bronze statue. It is 8.5 m high and has a diameter of five meters. The Virgin Mary stretches her hands towards Beirut.
The Rector showed us around the Shrine, including climbing to the foot of the statue and seeing the interior of the 5,000 seat basilica next door. About 2,000 young people gather every week for a 9pm Youth Mass and 5,000 people were expected for the eve of Epiphany Mass this evening.
We then made our way to the Papal Nunciature, less than a mile away. This was a very informative hour and a half, with the Nuncio, Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, a Maltese, who described the worst aspects of racing inflation and the exodus of the educated middle classes.
There was some good news. The collaboration between the different Christian communities has grown much stronger in these times of austerity, notable with combined work in establishing foodbanks. Collaboration particularly between young Christians and Muslims grew in response to the Port explosion and the clearing of the wreckage.
Tomorrow, the Feast of the Epiphany, promises to be a little quieter but there will be plenty to be learned.
Day Three – Thursday 6th January
The day began with a rather more solemn celebration of Mass, for the Feast of the Epiphany. It included the Blessing of Water, which was then to be distributed to people for the blessing of their houses.
This morning, I managed to have a good half hour with Archbishop Paul to learn about the structure of administration in the Maronite Church and how the various offices are divided. In fact, we saw quite a lot of similarities in the way we organise the Diocese of Salford. He has a great deal of energy!
We had some free time this morning and Archbishop Paul suddenly suggested that we should visit Byblos, only 20 minutes north of Beirut. What a place! What a privilege. It is acknowledged as the oldest city in the world, with continuous habitation since 8,000 B.C.
We were a little late for lunch and the Patriarch had some guests. One gentleman told of his story about the day of the Port explosion. They had a home in the Port area and two of his sons were at home when the two explosions occurred. After the first explosion the two sons came together from different rooms in the house. When the second explosion happened, the glass of the windows in every room in the house, except the room they were in, was shattered inwards. By chance, or miracle, the window glass was blow out from the room they were in. There is no explanation but they would have been severely injured (or most likely killed) had they been in any other room in the house.
In the afternoon, Archbishop Paul and I made our way towards Beirut to visit the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch in the city of Jounieh. The meeting was delightful. His Holiness Aman I could not have been more welcoming. We spoke at length about the difficulties in Lebanon and the efforts, initiated by Pope Francis, to promote dialogue and action with a meeting of all the Lebanese religious leaders in Rome. His Holiness gave me just two of his books. The language that I have seen on the back cover of the book is exactly like the language that I see in so many of the statements of Pope Francis.
Day Four – Friday 7th January
We were not able to join with the Patriarch for Mass this morning as we had an early breakfast and an 8am departure for the Palestinian Refugee Camp, at Dbayeh. Having visited the Rohingya refugees at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, I was expecting something of the same conditions, and it was entirely different. Most residents are Palestinian. There are twelve Palestinian Camps in Lebanon managed by UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency. This is the only one not overseen by the militia.
We went first to meet the three Little Sisters of Charles De Foucald who live and work in the camp. The sisters are obviously vital to the peaceful atmosphere among the Muslims and Christians in the camp. Exact numbers of residents in the camp is not known. They tend to register by families and Muslim families tend to have more children. The sisters have managed to organize a dispensary and have several doctors coming to the camp, and asking no fee for their work.
Our next stop was the Rosary Hospital. This is situated just about five hundred meters from the Port and suffered the full impact of the explosion on 4th August 2020. The Rosary Hospital lost only one nurse in the explosion, though many of the patients are injured. Over 200 people came to the hospital injured that day, but the staff could do nothing to help as there was no power and no facilities.
The hospital is suffering from the migration of doctors and nurses abroad, as the galloping inflation means that they are not earning a living wage. Who can blame them for going to places where they can earn a proper wage? The other crisis is the loss of government subsidies on medicines. Patients cannot afford the cost of hospitalization. But the whole tone of our conversation was the determination, in Faith, that they can recover and provide all that is needed by the people of central Beirut. Time and time again, the sisters spoke of Faith.
Our next stop was “La Cuisine de Marie”. This was remarkable. In the days after the explosion, a married Maronite priest, Fr Hami Tawk, took over a derelict building so that he could provide a soup kitche. His kitchen is now providing about 800 meals a day and is also a foodbank. He offers counselling (with his professionally qualified wife) for the families of the 230 victims of the explosion and has a dispensary. He has a place where he is growing vegetables for the kitchen.
Our final visit of the day was another hospital. The Sacred Heart Hospital lies a couple of miles from the Port but it was still extensively damaged by the explosion. It is run by The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul, and there is a community of five sisters in residence. So many patients cannot now pay for hospitalization and for medicines and 50% of the beds are closed. They have lost 20% of their nurses and 15% of their doctors due to inflation.
What a day. We returned to the Patriarchate in time for Mass and supper. Tomorrow promises to be very different but still very busy.
Day Five – Saturday 8th January
Another early start below another deep blue sky. We set out to our first destination which is a Carmelite Priory near Tripoli. We arrived at the convent of Carmelite friars, which was responsible for the running of a major school. Our reason for the visit was to learn about a new project, undertaken by the Carmelites, in the light of the economical crisis. They want to provide milk which is almost unobtainable and very expensive. The crisis has arisen in that all cow fodder is imported, as Lebanon does not have grasslands. With inflation, the cost of importing the fodder had become impossible. The Carmelites have entered into agreements with some very generous parishioners to farm the cattle required to provide the milk. A parishioner has provided a refrigerated van which keeps the milk cold during delivery. Over 800 families now have access to milk, as well as a large orphanage and a care home. The scope of the project has widened to include provision for the poor, for prisoners and for refugees. There does not seem to be any lack of need.
It was now late morning and we travelled on, at the invitation of our host the Patriarch Bechara Rai, to visit his summer residence and have lunch there. The residence is situated in the Kadisha Valley which is a place of exceptional beauty. The Kadisha has a long history of monastic foundations and has also been the home to numerous hermits who have made their homes in caves along the valley. It is extremely beautiful, even breath-taking.
We travelled further east, along the side of the valley, to Bekaakafra, the highest village in Lebanon, very close today to the snow line. This village has the shrine (and original home) if St Charbel. He is possibly the most popular Lebanese saint. A monk. He has many miracles attributed to him. The village was a delightful maze of cobbled streets and his home, now a museum, was very evidently a place of pilgrimage.
We then had two more monasteries to visit. We went first to the Monastery of St Elise, which is the monastic home of the present Patriarch, and our final stop was the Monastery of Kozhaya.
It has been an excellent, if rather exhausting, day.
Day Six – Sunday 9th January
Today we were collected and taken to the French Catholic Parish in Jounieh. The parish actually use the Armenian church building which is very useful to the Armenians who are very small in number. It was certainly a different liturgy. We used the Roman Missal but there were lots of additional prayers, respecting the different traditions of a very varied and cosmopolitan congregation. The Cardinal gave the homily but asked me to also say a few words on the Baptism of the Lord.
The Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Rai, who is our host, kindly granted us an hour this afternoon to give us his view of the state of the Maronite Church and its role in these very challenging times for Lebanon. There was certainly an urgency in what he had to say to us but also a calm tone that is devoid of any sense of panic. He reviewed the critical situation of which I have already written, inflation, migration of the middle classes and professionals, the poverty of 80% of the population, the apparent paralysis of the government and the feuds of various factions. But he also spoke of the creative initiatives that bode well for the future.
Something that is emerging for me is the difference between this trip and my trips with CAFOD. In almost every case, with the CAFOD trips, I have seen developments and improvements in some of the poorest countries. Lebanon is suffering a radical step backwards, both politically and socially, and suffering from the impact of the conflicts and interference of neighbouring nations. But it is difficult to see the poverty and distress of inflation, the disruption to schooling and the gaps in expertise caused by the migration of the professionals. The damage is heard in people’s stories and hidden. It is happening behind closed doors. In these few days I have become increasingly aware of the number of shops that have closed. Banks are shuttered. As we approached the port area this evening, there was the darkness of all the high-rise buildings that have not begun repairs after the explosion.
Day Seven – Monday 10th January
Morning Prayer and Mass at 7.30am this morning, before our hosts from Caritas Lebanon arrived. Caritas Lebanon had already been greatly involved with refugees, education, health provisions, protection of individuals against violence, and livelihood development but the port explosion and the economic crisis that has followed has required the organisation to adjust its priorities and its working.
We set out to see some of the projects and our first stop was a medical centre which offers free diagnosis and treatment to everyone who comes. Many were well-dressed and even affluent looking but they had come because medicines are now unaffordable, so many doctors have left the country and medical assistance is very hard to find. At this clinic, this morning, they would see between 350-500 visitors. They have been known to receive 1,000 in a day. Caritas provides funding for the doctors and the medicines.
Afterwards, we visited “Hope” a school for children with special educational needs. The 110 children are transported by private bus from their homes between there and Beirut. The building is a large house belonging to a religious order and rented to Caritas. There is a chronic lack of such educational facilities in Lebanon, even before the economic crisis.
The next stop was not far away, still high on the mountain side. It was called “The Oaks” and was a place of rescue for women. We met with staff and three of the residents about whom we learned much, whose stories were very upsetting.
We made our way back to the offices of Caritas Lebanon. There was a very helpful talk describing the present priorities of Caritas and its planning for 2022. Caritas Lebanon certainly has its challenges with a country where now 80% of the population are in poverty, there are 1.7 million refugees, some parts of the country are facing 22-hour electricity blackouts each day and where the economy was down 11% in 2021 after a decline of 25% in 2020. It is estimated that 40% of all health workers have emigrated in the present crisis.
The final stop of the day was to view a building project at one of the seminaries, which is being funded by FACE. The building work began four years ago but the costs and the impact of the Port explosion has meant that there is still a lot to do. The aim is to complete in the next eighteen months. It is the refurbishment of a building which will replace the present Maronite seminary, which is in the heart of a Muslim quarter of the city.
Day Eight- Tuesday 11th January
An early start with breakfast at 7.15am and departure at 8am. Today our concern is with schools and a university.
Our first stop was the school of the Sisters of Charity of Besancon. There are five religious sisters associated with the school, which has 780 students aged 4-17 years. There is a mix of Christian and Muslim and the school stands on the divide between Christian and Muslim quarters of the city of Beirut. All the staff are Christian. The staff members spoke very warmly about each other and that sense of determination that, even through these very difficult times, the school will survive. We were given a book whose title is (roughly) “Crumbs from the same loaf” which is written by the students and reflects the reality of different religious traditions living and working together.
Our next stop, in central Beirut, was at St Jospeh’s School run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. It was just a girls’ school but is now mixed, and remains with an entirely Christian intake. The school more or less overlooks the port area and was very severely damaged by the explosion. One sister, Sr Sophie, was killed in the explosion and we saw a memorial garden dedicated to her. It is a very substantial building and we had a very good view over the Port, and could see the capsized ships which still have not been floated and removed.
Our next stop was the University of St Joseph, which is a Jesuit foundation. Before the explosion, about 2,000 graduates of the various universities went abroad for employment or further studies. This has risen to 7,000, mainly leaving for France.) There are 12,500 students in the University, with 2,000 staff. There are the problems of financing the staff with realistic salaries, while recognising the need to increase the level of scholarships for those students facing financial difficulties. The University wants to promote a sense of determination to develop a new Lebanon with a sound and positive political future where the University is at the service of the community.
In the pandemic and post- explosion a good deal of effort has been put into developing a sense of mission among the students. Food has been distributed by a student group to 594 families on a regular basis. Medicines are being provided and there are various welfare projects which include the empowerment of women, engagement with the poor, youth work and developing the sense of caring for our common home. There is a specific project on the environment in the creation of an eco-village. But we also heard of the difficulties of a university which, before the explosion, had an income of about $102m which has shrunk to $28million. It was estimated that people have lost, through inflation, 90% of their purchasing power, with inflation now standing at 2,000%.
We also visited a world leading laboratory in the campus, which has made important contributions to the production of vaccines for the pandemic.
Day Nine – Return home and close.
I was back at Wardley by 11am on Wednesday morning. Looking back on the week, there are several very happy memories mixed with learning about the horrors of a country which some people are now calling a “failed state”. In the few days that I was there, the exchange rate went from 30,000 Lebanese Pounds to 33,000 Lebanese Pounds to $1. For those Lebanese who have jobs paid in foreign currency, their wealth is multiplying by the minute, while those with Lebanese pound wages, are no longer able to afford the basics. While I admired the determination of so many people that we met, no-one seemed to be able to see a pathway to economic and political recovery.
The more that we drove around Beirut, the more I got to identifying the economic decline and, in particular, the lasting damage of the Port explosion.
Food. I must admit that we have been completely spoiled by the food which has been offered. I have felt rather uncomfortable at times with the thought that so many people in Lebanon, and indeed the Middle East, are struggling to feed themselves while we are being treated to much more than enough. The grocery shops, where open, are stacked with food but I wonder if people are able to afford to buy it? Does it go to waste?
Christmas decorations. I was told the lavish displays of cribs, often crowded with figures, remain in place until 2nd February. And there are cribs everywhere, even in clearly Muslim surroundings.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to visit Lebanon and grateful to John Fox and Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald for the invitation to see something of the work of FACE. It was good to have time with Caritas and to meet the CAFOD representative in Lebanon. While much good work is being done, the country is in such a poor state and needs good political leadership and an economic and social policy that will bring some stability.