Pascale G. Debbané writes from Rome, where she represents the Middle East and Oceania for the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
Monday, 14 September, marked 40 days after the Beirut explosion. On this day, the church celebrates the ancient feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. “Forty” is a traditional biblical number and the feast is an invitation to us to reflect on the meaning of the cross after the tragedy of the Beirut explosion. The Lord is inviting us to carry his cross, and at the same time not to remain at the foot of this cross, but to live with him in a life anew.
Lebanon has experienced many tragedies in the past few years. It was not easy to welcome and integrate 1.5 million refugees amid a financial crisis; many jobs were lost, and the middle class became poorer.
In desperation, people have taken to the streets to express their anger and weariness at the corruption that has accumulated since the end of the civil war nearly 30 years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation, affecting what remains of the still-active socioeconomic sectors. Fortunately, the only growing factor was our strong faith that brings hope for eventual peace.
After the explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August, local churches immediately reacted by helping residents rebuild their homes and get back on their feet. Many NGOs pledged aid to rebuild Beirut and its destroyed heritage, including historic homes, hospitals and schools. Far from media attention, several bishops, priests, nuns and lay people have made it their mission to listen to the needs of the victims, mostly Christians, given the area of the explosion.
Maronite Bishop Mounir Khairallah of Batroun, after having celebrated the Divine Liturgy in one of the parishes of Beirut last week, listened to the grievances of the faithful and noticed that very few families remained in the area, stating that “only seven families out of 400 stayed in their homes, while others sought refuge outside Beirut with family and friends, returning during the day to repair their homes.”
He also said residents “were disappointed by empty promises of certain NGOs and international aid, fearing not to be able to return home before the winter season.” The high cost of restorations, given the economic crisis and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound against the dollar, has added to the frustration among residents; everything is quoted in U.S. dollars. Adding to the costs and the burdens is the fact that most of the area destroyed is classified as historical heritage. Many citizens have contributed, within their limited means, to helping families restore their homes, hoping to give them an opportunity to return before the rainy season.
Pope Francis’ call to prayer and fasting on 4 September nourished our thirsty Land of the Cedar! Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s visit was a great act of consolation. It helped “Lebanon not to be abandoned in its solitude” and all Lebanese to respond to the pope’s call “not to abandon their homes and heritage” and let “faith and prayer be their strength.”
The pope also called us to renew this genuine culture of encounter through our “fraternity.” This word is our most powerful heritage. Lebanon, a country of 18 different religious communities, can be resurrected through its witness of coexistence and love. Our history proves that our country is above all a country of hope.
The apocalyptic explosion of 4 August seemed like a real crucifixion for all Lebanese across the country and abroad. While cleaning the blood of my wounded friends on the floor of my apartment in Beirut, the image of Mary cleaning the blood of Christ after his flagellation came to my mind as I repeatedly prayed, “Oh Lord, may your blood be united with the blood of the innocent, so we may live with you, a true resurrection!”
Even though we are still in shock, we strongly believe that one day Lebanon will rise again.