Intensive shelling this Spring extensively damaged St. Charles Hospital, Beirut. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Children from the U.N.’s Dbayab refugee camp, Beirut. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Signs of faith amidst the rubble; a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by the ruins of a gasoline depot. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The author sharing with a friend her vision for the future at Byblos, Lebanon. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Lebanon is a land of minorities. Until recently, it also has been a land of cooperation and intercommunion tolerance.
Of all the regions of the Middle East, Lebanon presents the closest juxtaposition of confessional groups and peoples within a small territory. More than 16 sects from the three main religions Christianity, Islam, Druze form the Lebanese society. Their coexistence and cooperation were essential for Lebanons stability and prosperity.
Historically, Lebanons population has been almost evenly divided between the Christian and Muslim inhabitants. This fact was the basis for the Lebanese formula, a political arrangement begun in 1943 which assigned the major government posts to different sects. This system provided general political and religious freedom to all factions. Shifts in population were never addressed in the distribution of power, however. Eventually Christian emigration changed the ratio on which the Lebanese formula was based to a current estimate of 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. Accordingly, the 1943 formula is challenged by some Muslim sects in order to increase their political power. The politically strong Maronite Christians fear losing their traditional political privileges and control.
The current conflict in Lebanon did not start as a civil war. Essential imbalances in social structure disguised as religious differences created internal tensions. At the same time outside forces on the regional and international scene took advantage of a weak system in order to pursue their self-interests.
After 14 years of war, there are very few things in Lebanon that resemble what life used to be before 1975. The civil war has changed the political, economic, social, human, and even geographic conditions of the country. The imprint of war is everywhere and touches everything. Battles in various parts of the country displaced hundreds of thousands of people and caused enormous amounts of damage.
An estimated 3.1 million in 1974, the population of Lebanon is believed to have declined to 2.7 million in 1979, and down to 2.6 million in 1984. The total of those killed or disabled in the early days of the war (19751976) is estimated to number 30,000 people. Thousands more were killed or wounded during 1978. A further 19,000 people died as a result of the Israeli invasion in 1982.
Each round of violence caused a new wave of movement of population, whether within Lebanon or abroad. When the war displaced 100,000 people from southern Lebanon, they lost their land, which was their only source of income. When 150,000 people were displaced from the mountain region, they lost their income from tourism and agriculture. An estimated 400,000 people emigrated in search of work in Arab countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
For nearly 5,000 years Lebanon was a center of trade between East and West. In the 20th century, when oil was discovered in Arab lands, Beirut became a center of financial commerce linking the Middle East with the world. More than 40 banks had their head offices there, and the Beirut seaport became the largest in the region. Lebanon prospered because of its trade experience and commercial facilities. 90% of the national income came from trade, tourism, and services.
The enormous political and military chaos since 1975 was a disaster for the economy. Banks and capital were transferred to neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Syria, and Cyprus. The cost of living increased to nearly 700%. While the political crisis continues, the economy will only deteriorate further.
Years of governmental chaos led to a political low point for Lebanon when the presidential election was not held on 23 September 1988. Members of parliament boycotted the assembly which was to elect a speaker of the house. As a result, Lebanon has two governments. One is headed by General Michel Aoun, the Commander-in-Chief of the Lebanese army. The other is headed by Dr. Selim al-Hoss and is supported by Syria. This division within the government has paralyzed it, with the consequent disruption or elimination of essential services.
For 40 years and throughout the growing chaos of Lebanons civil war, the Pontifical Mission has been caring for increasing numbers of Palestinian refugees and displaced Lebanese. When the Pontifical Mission was established in 1949, its primary field office in Beirut addressed the problems of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon and Syria. As Lebanese lost their homes and basic medical and educational services during the last 14 years, this papal agency was ready to respond to their immediate needs. It also offered resources for reviving social stability in programs and institutions, such as schools and hospitals.
During the past two years, the Pontifical Mission has responded considerably toward meeting the essential needs of the poor and needy persons in Lebanon. Our staff have dealt with more than 500 individual projects in health care, education, pastoral work, and social development. Particular emphasis has been given to support education and health care projects.
The civil war caused tragic results with schools, especially state schools. 28.6% of the schools have been completely destroyed, and only 5.4 % of the public schools have satisfactory equipment.
The cost of education weighs heavily on the family budget because the nation lacks a system which pays for education. The parents are required to provide schooling, text books, school supplies, and, transportation. Yet teacher salaries keep rising with the cost-of-living; school books are scarce because most of them are imported from abroad. Transportation also is a major problem because of rising fuel prices and the lack of public transportation.
Another essential life element, health care, is similarly affected by the same economic circumstances. The hospitals have suffered since regular social revenues (such as government, military, and social security reimbursements) either no longer exist or are several years behind in payment.
Each month the hospitals, private, non-profit religious entities, are borrowing from banks to meet their payroll. It is not possible to replace outdated equipment and essential supplies, such as medications, compresses, and syringes, which are too expensive to keep in stock. The poor and displaced who cannot pay for health care services will not be accepted by profit institutions. Private charitable hospitals refuse no one, but they are at a crisis point because they cannot provide minimum health care without external assistance.
The Pontifical Mission worked out a program of health care with eight non-profit hospitals in Beirut and the mountain area. The hospitals are run by religious congregations. They cannot meet monthly payrolls without borrowing from banks, nor can they replace needed equipment. Their debts pile up because governmental and military agencies have been unable to pay reimbursements for three years.
The Pontifical Mission program covers stationary patients and emergency cases resulting from acts of war and non-war-related health care cases. Members of all religious confessions are considered and accepted for this support. Our social workers select, and follow through with each patient and work closely with the hospital administrators. The patients pay what they can. Though not a substitute for ordinary government funding, these small sums act as supplements.
The Pontifical Mission takes this kind of lead in many areas to support people in need in Lebanon with health care, education, pastoral work, and social development. Hospital equipment, supplies, academic scholarships and maintenance funds for schools are given. Small commercial and agricultural projects aimed at familial self-support are funded. In all cases, Pontifical Mission aid goes to provide only essential needs to displaced people regardless of religious affiliation.
The Pontifical Mission responds in creative and appropriate ways to the most critical needs of this war-torn country. Our obligation to do so flows directly from our mission statement which says that we are to assist without distinction of nationality or religion, all those who suffer because of the repeated conflicts which have devastated regions of the Middle East since 1948.
Sister Maureen is the director of the Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.