Why is Pope Francis worried about Lebanon?
In the Middle East, home to ancient Christian sects, Christian-Muslim ties depend on maintaining the internal demographic balance.
The Middle East has been the domain of Muslims since the 7th century, but they presided over a mixed society that was sometimes outnumbered by non-Muslims.
Years of persecution and violence have reduced the Christian population in the Middle East. And Christians who struggled to live in a predominantly Muslim state began to migrate.
In Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East with a sizable Christian population, there is a widespread perception that the number of Christians is on the decline.
In Iraq, where Pope Francis visited in March, and in Lebanon, where he plans to visit, efforts are being made to restore the internal demographic balance.
Pope Francis has expressed his desire to visit Lebanon since last December, but no concrete plan has been announced.
The Christian exodus was fueled by economic reasons due to a lack of employment opportunities
The plight of Christians in Cedar Land has worsened since 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and a wave of bombings in predominantly Christian areas.
With Christians representing 35% of its population, the Lebanese constitution states that the president is a Christian, the prime minister is Sunni and the speaker of the Shiite Muslim parliament in the country of 6.83 million people.
The largest Christian denomination is the Maronite Church. Founded in the 4th century by the Syrian hermit Saint-Maron, the church has been in communion with the Catholic Church since 1736.
Lebanon is currently ruled by an interim government as political leaders failed to form a government after the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, which killed nearly 200 people, injured 600 others and caused $ 4 billion in damage.
While no official emigration statistics are available, the Christian exodus has been fueled by economic reasons due to a lack of employment opportunities.
Ahead of the Vatican Day of Prayer for Lebanon on July 1, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican Minister of Foreign Affairs, said weakening of Christian presence due to emigration “threatens to destroy internal balance and the reality of Lebanon itself “.
“The Holy See is deeply concerned about the country’s economic, financial and social collapse, which would particularly affect the Christian community and the identity of Lebanon,” Bishop Gallagher told reporters at a press conference at the Vatican on June 25.
Pope Francis echoed similar views on Lebanon during his address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See this year.
“It is more than necessary that the country retain its unique identity, especially to ensure a pluralist, tolerant and diverse Middle East,” said the Pope.
The demographic imbalance was underlined by Cardinal Béchara Boutros Rai, Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church.
“Lebanon is created to treat Christians and Muslims equally,” Cardinal Rai said on July 8 during a webinar hosted by the Fellowship and Aid to the Christians of the East.
During the creation of Israel, there was a massive exodus of Palestinians to Lebanon between 1948 and 1967, which tipped the scales in favor of the Muslim population.
More than 500,000 Palestinians have lived in Lebanon since 1948, and some 1.5 million Syrians have arrived in Lebanon as refugees since the start of the war in Syria in 2011.
Therefore, protecting Christians in Lebanon ultimately means protecting Christianity in the Middle East as a whole, Cardinal Rai said.
Papal visit to Iraq in March aimed to reverse declining trend of Christians in Iraq
A Christian presence has existed in Iraq since the second century. The most important groups are the Chaldean and Assyrian churches.
After the US-led invasion in 2003 and the establishment of the Islamic State in 2013, attacks against Christians increased. Half of the Christian population left the country and their numbers fell by over 80%.
According to official data, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 1987. Today, their number is estimated at less than 250,000.
Spurred on by political upheavals and war, many Christians emigrated to North America, Western Europe and Australia.
After ISIS took control of the territories around Mosul in northern Iraq and the Nineveh Plains, Christians were expelled.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 Christians left the plains of Nineveh and settled in the Kurdish autonomous regions.
The papal visit to Iraq in March was aimed at reversing the declining trend of Christians in Iraq.
Although the Iraqi government has launched a rehabilitation process under international pressure, Christians face a dilemma over whether to return to their damaged homes or migrate from a country that cannot protect them.
The pope’s wish to visit Lebanon is part of a plan that Pope Francis has launched to revitalize the brotherhood of Abrahamic religions, with an emphasis on Christian-Muslim ties.
His historic visit to Iraq kicked off this plan. In the absence of historical rivalries, Christian-Muslim ties are moving in the right direction in the modern and wealthy UAE.
After the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Vatican has worked closely with the government of the United Arab Emirates.
It is education that will help awaken a fraternal generation and [contribute to] a peaceful world
The Vatican recently awarded Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, a Man of Humanity Award from the Pontifical Gravissimum Educationis Foundation.
Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, president of the foundation, also signed a pact with the UAE Ministry of Education to improve educational standards in the country.
“It is education that will help awaken a fraternal generation and [contribute to] a world at peace ”, declared Cardinal Versaldi.
The Abrahamic Family House, synonymous with peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding between three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is expected to be completed in 2022.
Construction progress is being closely followed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, according to UAE media.
As a place of learning, dialogue and worship, the Abrahamic Family House, designed by architect Sir David Adjaye, is a cultural landmark.
The UAE has already fixed the names of places of worship – the Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church and the Moses ben Maimon Synagogue.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.