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In Lebanon, the Church is ‘the lifeblood of the country’
“Tuesday, Aug. 4, marks the worst day in Lebanon since the civil war,” said Michel Constantin. The soft-spoken husband and father of three has witnessed much in his native city, joining the projects staff of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in Beirut as a young man during the worst days of that country’s civil war in 1989.
“Beirut was a bloodbath in those days, as opposing Christian factions shelled one another’s positions,” he said, recalling those waning days of the civil war that turned Christian against Christian — proxies for outside interests — in the eastern neighborhoods of Beirut.
But that August evening in the height of a Mediterranean summer shook him, as the ground shook and then the sound of the explosion shattered windows all around him, even in Beirut’s suburbs.
“Our office in Jal el Dib — just a few miles from the site of the explosion of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut port — suffered damages, with shattered glass and torn aluminum window frames that littered our work places and meeting rooms. Thank God they were empty, as we all had finished our day,” he said.
The explosion, which leveled much of the port and the Quarantina district that lies adjacent to it, killed almost 200 people, injured another 6,000, and displaced more than 300,000 people — 80,000 of whom are children. The explosion devastated the nearby fashionable center of Beirut, the historically Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh, damaging Ottoman-era palaces, houses and high-rise apartment buildings. Unfortunately for Lebanon, three of the country’s best hospitals — private Catholic and Orthodox facilities that serve all, regardless of religious confession — are located there as well, and they suffered damages so extensive that they have been shuttered.
“Fifteen of the 18 floors of the Rosary Sisters’ hospital, located just meters from the blast, are destroyed,” Constantin reported.
Sister Nicola al Akiki, who directs the hospital for the congregation, reported that saving their patients was their only priority. “One of our brave nurses who was injured managed to grab a [newborn] baby before a window fell on his head,” she said.
Lebanon’s health care system was in tatters before the explosion, with hospitals and dispensaries — still reeling from the COVID pandemic that hit the country hard — forced to furlough administrators, nurses and doctors. About 85% of Lebanon’s hospitals and medical facilities are privately administered, with funds and medical supplies in short demand and insurance reimbursements nonexistent. Many of these facilities are run by the churches that have thrived there for centuries — Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian.
Getting these health care facilities up and running is not only a priority for CNEWA — an agency of the Holy See founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926 to support the many humanitarian and pastoral programs of the Eastern churches — but for the Holy See as well.
Three weeks after the blast, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches invited CNEWA and other Catholic donor agencies to a Zoom meeting to discuss the needs of Lebanon, which is suffering a political and socioeconomic meltdown exacerbated by the August blast.
“The worldwide leadership of the Church understands that Lebanon is on the brink of collapse,” reported Constantin, who was invited to present the case of Lebanon’s hospitals to the participants. “Christians make up a bulk of the country’s middle class — they are its doctors and nurses and health care administrators. They run its schools and teach all children, regardless of religion or language.
“Christians will continue to leave because they are educated, because they can take their skills with them and start over in Europe or Oceania or North America.
“Helping the churches refurbish, reopen and maintain their hospitals and schools — 53 Catholic schools alone were damaged extensively, some of the country’s most exclusive centers of learning — is a necessity not just for the Church,” Constantin said. “The Church in Lebanon is more than its institutions; it is the lifeblood of the country.”
The Congregation for the Eastern Churches has asked CNEWA and L ‘Oeuvre d ‘Orient, a Paris-based Catholic organization that has long worked in the Middle East with CNEWA, to coordinate worldwide Catholic aid for Lebanon’s hospitals and schools, an initiative that will help focus aid and eliminate redundancies.
“The Lebanese are a proud people, especially its Christians,” said Constantin, himself a Maronite Catholic. “But our country is slipping into real poverty. More than half of our population is now living below the poverty line. Even so, our people are too proud to ask for help. Even as volunteers were clearing the streets of Ashrafieh, they discovered elderly people with no electricity, no food and debris everywhere, too ashamed to ask for help.
“As a Church, we have to reach out; we have to go door to door.”
To learn how to help, visit CNEWA’s website at www.cnewa.org/campaigns/Lebanoncrisis.
Michael J.L. La Civita is communications director for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (cnewa.org).