Arriving in the small town of Douma, in the mountains of Lebanon, and wandering around the charming souk, just one street in a town famous for its red roof tiles, it is impossible not to think that—if circumstances were different—this place would be teeming with tourists, most certainly from the United States. Yet there are no tourists, just as there are no tourists in Beirut and all the towns and villages in the beautiful country of cedars, spices, and wine. Tourists, unless they are a particular kind of adventure-seeker, do not come to a country that has collapsed.
The use of the phrase, ‘a Catch-22 situation,’ might have become something of a cliche, yet it is most apt when describing what has happened, and is happening, to Lebanon, which is actually the world’s first Catch-22 country.
Visiting a short time ago to see some of the family businesses which my small charity helps mini micro-finance so that families can stay in their homelands and build a future, it was heart-warming to witness the resilience of so many people struggling to survive against difficult odds. Yet at the same time, that Catch-22 situation was everywhere to be seen: no power for twenty-two hours a day, but not enough money to pay for fuel for generators; businesses starting, like a small juice and salad dressing firm, unable to transport, or store, because of the lack of power. Pharmacies are either empty, or people are unable to pay for the medicines. Restaurants do not have the prices of meals on the menu, because those prices change every day. Credit cards are usually not accepted, cash is required, the very opposite of the global elite’s desire for a cashless world.
Infrastructure, like water and sewerage in Beirut, is in total disrepair, with little likelihood for any improvement. Following the economic collapse in the autumn of 2019, thousands of ordinary Lebanese found themselves unable to access their savings, with many losing everything. The list of despair continues: a corrupt and corrupted political system, on all sides, with the malign influence of the ‘state within a state,’ Hezbollah, and its Iranian overlords, making effective government almost impossible. Add to that, an almost unbearable blow to a suffering country, the terrible explosion in the port of Beirut, on August 4, 2021, which killed so many and destroyed so much, one can truly, but sadly say, Lebanon is a failed state.
Yet, for those who love the country and its people, and still believe that Lebanon can be, as Pope St. John Paul II said, “more than a country, it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West,” the apparent indifference of the West towards this unique nation and its struggles, and the widespread ignorance of what is happening, especially in the Western Church, causes consternation and incomprehension, particularly when the geo-political importance of the country is considered.
It was said, certainly during the last U.S. administration, and nothing seems to have changed, that there were two schools of thought about how to engage the Lebanese situation. The first, I am told, was the ‘crash and burn’ strategy, quite literally to let the country collapse and then start from scratch. The other view, was robust intervention, including the necessary confrontation with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. It is fairly clear which strategy seems to be in the ascendent.
Apart from its cynicism and lack of charity, the ‘crash and burn’ strategy is extremely shortsighted and dangerous for the entire Middle East. If, for example, the U.S. gives in to Iran on the nuclear deal, Hezbollah will only be strengthened, and the ‘Shia crescent,’ Iran’s long-term strategy, extending its power from Teheran to the Mediterranean, will have succeeded.
For Christians especially, not only should Lebanon and all its people be helped and supported, but there is another reason why the ‘crash and burn’ strategy should be actively and loudly opposed, and ignorance and indifference about the “land of hospitality,” as John Paul called it, be countered and corrected.
Lebanon was an “example of pluralism,” as the late Pope said, precisely because of the presence of Christians in this biblical land, from the very beginning. Living at peace with their neighbors, but willing to fight when necessary, has been the story of the Christian population, centered on the quasi-mystical imagery of Mount Lebanon. Fighting and pluralism are not incompatible, because the fight has been to keep Christians in their homeland; peace is possible when that imperative is acknowledged, respected, and equality and opportunity honored.
This unique land, “more than a country,” with, as John Paul continued, “ancient spiritual and cultural traditions,” is in grave peril as the Catch-22 country collapses from internal and external pressures.
Speaking in a private interview with a leading member of the political opposition, I was told that, although official figures say that Christians still make up around 35% of Lebanon’s population, the actual figure is closer to 27%, and it is dropping all the time: the Christians, as are so many Lebanese who can, are leaving the country. All population loss for a country is a tragedy, but, as one friend who knows this area so well said to me, to see yet another land in the cradle of Christianity, where the original Christian population is emptying, is beyond heartbreaking.
As Christians read their scriptures and pray their psalms, again and again the imagery and the name of Lebanon appears. Attending recently a high-powered Catholic conference, I was shocked, and more than disheartened, to see that not only Lebanon, but the suffering of the persecuted Church across the globe was not even a side-bar on the agenda. The words that I have heard many times, which I pray are not true, from Syrian, Iraqi and Nigerian Catholics, came back to me: in their view, deep down, the Western Church does not care about them. Prayer, aid, and advocacy can change all of that. If Lebanon is a message more than a country, are we—who so need to hear that message—really listening?
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.