Christians in Lebanon are facing a situation of profound crisis, and in response to this the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has approved three emergency aid projects for the most vulnerable families and the refugees in the region of Zahleh and the Bekaa Valley.
Over the course of many years the Church in Lebanon has played a vital role in responding to the social, economic and political needs of its people. “Today all our people are struggling to obtain their daily bread. We will continue to do everything in our power to stand by them during these difficult times”, says Greek Melkite Archbishop Issam John Darwish of Zaleh, the principal city of the Bekaa governorate in Lebanon.
Two of these projects are designed to supply urgent basic necessities for the most needy families, including food and basic hygiene articles. Archbishop Darwish has asked ACN to supply funding for 2,000 basic food parcels to alleviate the suffering of some 2,000 families in Zaleh and the Bekaa Valley. The present situation is so bad, owing to the coronavirus crisis, that many of these families cannot even obtain the most basic necessities. A second project will help a further 100 families in the parishes of the Maronite diocese of Baalbek and Deir el-Ahmar, in the north of the Bekaa Valley. Thanks to this aid, the families, who are living below the poverty threshold, will at least have some security for the next three months.
“Your financial aid is of the greatest importance, and it has arrived just when it was most needed. It will have a real impact and will help a great number of needy people. We have no words to express our gratitude. It is the wonderful gestures of others like these that keeps us going most days. This is a tremendous help to us at a very difficult moment, a ray of sunshine that brings us some hope.” The words are those of Dr. Mireille Bechara, the director of projects for the Maronite diocese of Baalbek.
In addition to these two projects, and given the growing number of Covid-19 infections and the lack of testing capacity in the country, ACN is supporting the establishment of a Covid-19 test centre in the Tel Chiha hospital in Zaleh, a hospital established by the Melkite archdiocese of Zaleh and Furzal for the city and surrounding Bekaa area and an indispensable element in the fight to alleviate the critical situation the people are suffering.
This hospital is situated in one of the poorest regions of Lebanon, and the number of Covid-19 patients here has increased greatly, especially in the area close to the border with Syria. The one and only state-run hospital that is doing Covid-19 testing has been plunged into a scandal after providing false test results and after discovering that the doctor in charge of the test laboratory was working with a fake diploma.
“The people in Zahleh and the Bekaa Valley are living in a situation of chaos and fear. In the last two weeks the number of patients has increased dramatically in every region, and especially in Zaleh and the Bekaa Valley, and our health system is on the point of reaching its maximum capacity”, Archbishop Darwish explains.
And so the plan is to create a test centre within the Catholic hospital, to offer assistance to the local population of 150,000 people, including refugees and the most vulnerable among them.
“We hold people’s lives in our hands”, the Archbishop continues, “and we have to offer them a laboratory they can have faith in. At present, people in the region aren’t even sure if most of the results are correct, and so there is an urgent need to go back and test them, so that we can track the virus more closely.”
Regina Lynch, Head of ACN’s project department, underlines: “As we all know, Lebanon is going through immense suffering, especially in Beirut, following the disastrous explosion in the city, but at the same time we can’t forget the coronavirus crisis, which is still growing in the region. An important aspect of the pastoral outreach of the Church in the present emergency situation in the country includes attending to the basic needs of the people, such as the food parcels and basic medical care”.
There has been no official census in Lebanon since 1932. However, the most recent study carried out by Statistics Lebanon, a survey company based in Beirut, estimates the current number of Christians in Lebanon at 44% of the total population. But the grave economic and political crisis has for many years now been driving many Christians to emigrate. Fed up with the corruption, the people have lost all faith in the government and the politicians. According to ACN’s own most recent report into religious freedom worldwide, however, the percentage of Christians may well have fallen to around 32.2% of the total population of almost 6 million Lebanese, to which it is thought that the war in neighbouring Syria will have added around a million refugees, most of them Sunni Muslims.
Yet, despite this immigration, Lebanon is still the country in the Middle East with the highest proportion of Christians in the population and one of the few in which they do not suffer problems of social or political discrimination. Many Iraqi and Syrian Christians have also sought refuge in Lebanon, following the recent years of persecution and war in their own countries. Since last October there have been ongoing demonstrations for a change of regime in the country, but the devastating explosion which shattered Beirut on 4 August this year has brought the country to the brink of the precipice.