Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the explosion that rocked the port of Beirut and shook Lebanon to its core.
The days ahead will bring prayers, analysis, remembrance and self-examination, as people from around the region and the world weigh in on this event’s significance. There remains, of course, the vast human toll: some 300,000 left homeless, hundreds killed, thousands injured. But there is more to the story of Lebanon than simply numbers. There is a deep and complicated history.
To understand what Lebanon is facing now, we need to understand how it got here.
Lebanon is an icon, a message (according to Pope John Paul II) and a nation-state. As an icon, it is known for its natural and spiritual beauty and diversity. As a message, it inspires hope that people of different faiths — often with mutually hostile histories — can live together. As a nation-state, it is a disaster.
The word “Lebanon” (Hebrew: lᵊbānôn) appears dozens of times and in 16 books in the Hebrew Bible. It can refer to a mountain, a mountain range, a forest, a valley and, of course, a cedar tree. Nowhere, however, is it presented as a city, kingdom or city-state. People who lived in what is modern-day Lebanon were referred to as Phoenicians. From the cities of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, they sailed the Mediterranean as great traders.
Through most of its history, what is modern Lebanon was under the power of larger empires: Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman-Byzantine, different caliphates and lastly the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was dissolved in 1922. After World War I, the victorious French and British divided up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916). Considered part of Syria, Lebanon came under the French “sphere of influence” which later, under the League of Nations, became the French mandate. Most of the countries under the French and British mandates were restive. The modern nation-state of Lebanon was created on 22 November 1943.
A multi-confessional state, Lebanese Sunni, Shiite and Maronite (Catholic Christians) produced the National Pact in 1943, in which it was agreed that power would be shared: the president of the republic and commander of the armed forces would be a Maronite; the prime minister would be a Sunni; and the speaker of the Parliament, a Shia. Other positions were given to the Druze and Greek Orthodox Christians. There would always be a 6:5 ratio between Christians and Muslims in Parliament.
It cannot be said that this pact has worked well. There are any number of reasons why. For one thing, the National Pact is built on a demographic assessment that is no longer valid — which is that Christians outnumber all Muslims. In fact, it seems that at present Christians are the largest minority in Lebanon (about 36.2 percent Christian, 28.4 percent Shiite, and 28.7 percent Sunni).
The first indication that the pact was not working was revolt against President Camille Chamoun in 1958, from February to September. Sunni and Shiite Lebanese opposed the Maronite Chamoun. Violent demonstrations broke out after the assassination of Nasib Metni, a journalist critical of Chamoun, on 8 May. The United Nations Security Council ultimately became involved, and a new Maronite president was installed in September. The disturbances of 1958 were a prelude to the full-blown civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975, only 32 years after independence. The war lasted 15 years and had approximately 120,000 casualties. It devastated the economy and, one suspects, damaged Lebanese society as well.
Lebanon, about one-third the size of Maryland and the smallest country in continental Asia, has never really recovered from that civil war. The underlying grievances in the war have never seriously been addressed, much less solved. Outside influence from France, Syria and, more recently, Iran, has at the very least hindered any solutions. A huge influx of Syrian refugees has stretched the already weak Lebanese economy to the breaking point.
Then came the pandemic.
COVID-19 seemed like it would be the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the global event that would shatter whatever was left of Lebanon. Could things get any worse? Yes.
On 4 August 2020, a storage of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, destroying the port area, a large grain storage facility and large parts of the city. The ammonium nitrate, a dangerous and volatile compound, had been stored in the port area for years. It was incontrovertible proof of how dysfunctional the Lebanese government was. The disaster was followed by demonstrations of Lebanese citizens demanding a functional and effective government. In response, government officials basically blamed each other. There was a certain logic to the mutual recriminations, since indeed in one way or another all the parties in the government were responsible — just the type of “ecumenical convergence” that no one needs.
Enter Pope Francis.
Earlier this month, on 1 July, Pope Francis invited Christian leaders — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — to an ecumenical prayer service for Lebanon. It was to pray for Lebanon, to discuss its problems and to prepare for the first anniversary of the explosion. At the conclusion of the prayer service, Pope Francis delivered an address, entitled “The Lord God Has Plans for Peace. Together for Lebanon.”
It may be due to his education as a scientist that Pope Francis has such a keen analytic sense. He is familiar with both the real and idealized situation in Lebanon. He realizes the paradoxically simple as well as complex issues at work in the deterioration of Lebanon. Most acutely, Francis is aware of the two most dangerous forces: firstly, intervention from outside Lebanon, which is driven by self-interest of the countries involved and not the good of Lebanon; and secondly, a hyper-denominationalism (my term) which, seeing one’s religious adherence not only as the highest but the only good, prevents the Lebanese religious and political factions from putting the common good ahead of the good of their denomination.
At the prayer service, Pope Francis summed it up perfectly. He said: “Lebanon cannot be left prey to the course of events of those who pursue their own unscrupulous interests.” Francis put responsibility on all the actors. Lebanon is to be a place where “different communities live together, putting the common good before their individual interests.” The survival of Lebanon is impossible if it is conceived as the survival of only one group: “We cannot save ourselves alone or remain indifferent to the problems of others.”
In one sense, Francis states the obvious, but it is an obvious point that far too many in Lebanon — Christians included — are not seeing. As he put it: “Our future will be peaceful only if it is shared. [It] cannot be based on the pursuit of partisan interests, privileges and advantages.” The pope challenged Christians not to nurse “past grudges and regrets,” but to look towards the future. Once again with his characteristic understanding of complexities, Francis, speaking to Christian leaders, reminded them: “Let us therefore assure our Muslim brothers and sisters, and those of other religions, of our openness and readiness to work together (emphasis mine) in building fraternity and promoting peace.”
I think Francis has accurately analyzed the situation in Lebanon and, in broad but concrete strokes, portrayed a way out of what seems like Lebanon’s inexorable descent into chaos — a chaos that will profit no Lebanese citizen, least of all Christian Lebanese citizens.
It is common — and, to be honest, at times trivial — to describe Francis as “prophetic.” I think Francis’ analysis is accurate, his solutions practical and necessary.
However, I hesitate to call them prophetic for one simple reason: I am too aware of how seldom prophets in the Bible were actually listened to.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.