Maronite Catholic bishop calls on Western governments to recognize vital role of Christians in bringing peace to the Middle East.
Every third person is by now a refugee in Lebanon, the majority of them being Moslems. Absorbing a large number of Sunnis, the country now faces new threats to its internal equilibrium. The Maronite Bishop Michel Aoun heads the Eparchy of Jbeil in Lebanon, where he teaches sacramental theology at the Holy Spirit University in Beirut. On a recent visit to New York he spoke with the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in particular on the local Church’s role in coming to the aid of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon an influx that has posed enormous challenges for a country whose own population is just 4.5 million.
ACN: What is the situation at present—are the refugees being integrated somehow?
The refugees are everywhere, along the border with Syria, and in every town and village across the entire country. They are not in refugee camps. These people get some support from international organizations, but they also are seeking work. That is a problem: a Syrian will work for a lot less money than would a Lebanese. As a result, the country is getting poorer.
For the Church it is a special challenge. We are called to help the Syrians, which upsets the Lebanese, who are saying they themselves increasingly need support. Syrian Christians, on the other hand, have local connections, are helped by Churches, etc.
With violence abating, to some extent, in Syria, is the refugee crisis in Lebanon easing? Are Syrians—Muslims and Christians—beginning to return home?
That process has not yet begun, much as we want that to happen. Those Muslims who are in Lebanon are opposed to the Assad regime; the majority is Sunni. They await action on the part of the international community so that they can be sure that they will be given protection from being persecuted by the Syrian regime.
There is another issue. These refugees have now spent some four years in Lebanon and have gotten used to a better way of life than the one they left behind. Some are reluctant to leave also because Lebanon offers certain liberties that the dictatorship in Syria, a totalitarian system, would never allow.
Is the additional Sunni presence in Lebanon a threat to Lebanon’s stability?
Lebanon must preserve a certain balance, an equilibrium. Absorbing such a large number of Sunnis could thus pose a threat to that equilibrium. Neither the Shiite nor the Christians of Lebanon could accept that; a solution to the refugee crisis must be found.
Are there tensions in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims?
No, there is a long history of harmony between the two communities, which dates back many decades, up to a century. That culture of living side-by-side is inscribed in the hearts of our people. They work side-by-side and, in Catholic schools, often there are 15 percent or 20 percent, or more, of the students who are Muslim. Muslim parents are eager to have their children taught certain basic values at our schools.
Could Lebanon be a model for the Middle East in this regard?
Yes, St. John Paul II declared that Lebanon, with its conviviality among Christians and Muslims, has a message for the region. Citizens here have the same rights and obligations. It is therefore crucial for the world to help Lebanon preserve this unique state of affairs that shows the world that Christians and Muslims can live together.
Given the upheaval and wars in the region, is Lebanon at risk of losing its privileged position in this regard?
The greatest risk is that Christians will leave Lebanon, also that they do not have many children. That is crucial for maintaining this equilibrium. Christians should not become a small minority. Right now, approximately 38 percent of Lebanese are Christians, with Muslims comprising 62 percent, more or less half Sunnis and half Shiites, not counting the refugees.
What does the Maronite Church in Lebanon want Churches in the West to do?
It would be great if Christians in the West would petition their government so that, for example, the US government take account of the importance of Christians in the Middle East. It seems that sometimes that economic considerations have precedence, as has been the case in Iraq, for example. Western policy should ensure that Christians remain in the Middle East—their presence is vital.
The Lebanese example shows why: Lebanese Muslims are very much influenced by Christians—they are different than Muslims in Syria or Iraq, because they have lived side by side with many Christians and have been exposed to Christian values, including their support for democracy, and tolerance. That is a vital, indispensable gift Christians have to offer the region.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported aid projects in Lebanon with an amount of €5.4 million. In 2016 alone, the charity spent €1.18 million. In addition to ACN’s primary mandate to provide pastoral aid for the formation of seminarians, the construction of ecclesiastical buildings and the support of priests, in view of the dramatic events in the Middle East and the threat to Christianity in the region, ACN has initiated several large emergency aid projects for the accommodation and care of Syrian refugees, especially in the Bekaa Plain near the Syrian Border.
A further project, responding to the resulting refugee crisis, is a soup kitchen launched in 2015 by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Zahle. Called “John the Merciful Table”, the center has become a source of care for refugees from Syria, but also for needy Lebanese, especially for old people and children. To date, Aid to the Church in Need has supported this project with €415,000 enabling more than 1000 people to receive a warm meal every day. In addition, ACN sponsors several projects by the Good Shepherd Sisters, who are particularly committed to the medical and psychological care of refugees, especially traumatized women.