A hundred years ago, a visionary Maronite Catholic Patriarch presided over the fateful birth of what would become the Republic of Lebanon. A century later, another Maronite Patriarch speaks out, against all odds, to salvage what remains under very different, even more dire, circumstances.
Many are aware of the role that the Venerable Elias Butros Hoyek (1843-1931), the 72nd Maronite Patriarch, played in securing an independent Greater Lebanon, under a French Mandate, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919-1920 after the First World War. But the likelihood of Lebanon's emergence as an independent nation was not at all clear in the turbulent decades preceding this decision. The Maronites and all Lebanese were as divided then as they are now. Maronite clergy faced off against liberal modernizers, masonic innovators from America, and a rising bourgeois class squared off against traditional landed elites. While the Maronite church traditionally looked west, to France and to the Vatican, Hoyek also felt the need to hedge his bets, in 1905 visiting and praising the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in Istanbul. Some in Beirut and the diaspora worked fervently towards a Maronite-dominated Lebanese state, while others looked to a greater Syria. The situation balanced on the edge of a knife. In October 1918, as the Ottomans collapsed, French troops prevented the British-supported Hashemites from claiming Lebanon as part of a new Arab state of Syria.
It was the arriving Western allies in 1918 that succored Lebanese reeling from three years of Ottoman-induced famine in Mount Lebanon. In an eerie echo of today's Lebanese crisis, the famine was a combination of ruling (Ottoman) state action, corruption and incompetence, natural disaster and political repression, and Western moves against their enemies in the form of an allied naval blockade. Lebanon's survival as a people and its eventual emergence as a state in 1920 was not a sure thing, but even in his late 70s, Hoyek was a forceful and capable figure.
A century later and Lebanon is in freefall. There is no famine like a century before but there is real hunger. In a matter of a few months, Lebanese currency has lost 80% of its value, as salaries and savings become worthless. Most of Lebanon's much-vaunted middle class is now poor. Unemployment has risen from 15% to over 60% in less than a year. One prediction is that three-quarters of the population will be dependent on food aid by the end of the year. Food, medicine, and electricity are in short supply. As the crisis deepens, the Lebanese government seems strangely slothful in taking action to address a crisis that many saw coming a year ago. For those in power, priority goes to staying there and, if anything, consolidating that hold on power.
Lebanese media was galvanized last week by the remarks of the current Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Bishara Butros Al-Rai (b. 1940), seen as criticizing the status quo created by Hizbullah, which controls Lebanon's government and which is closely allied to Lebanon's Maronite President Michel Aoun. In a homily on July 7 and a Vatican radio interview on July 15, Al-Rai called for a "sovereign" Lebanon to adopt a position of "neutrality" in the region, which is seen as a break with the Hizbullah narrative of Lebanon being part of a "resistance axis" led by Iran against Israel and the U.S. He noted that Lebanon has paid a heavy price for Hizbullah's military adventures in the region, alienating potential donors.
Al-Rai's remarks provoked a critical response from Lebanon's Shia Mufti Ahmed Kabalan and mild dismissals from the Lebanese prime minister and president, who both sought to paper over the incident. Social media voices were, naturally, more extreme in their criticism.
Not surprisingly, Lebanese religious leaders are often controversial figures, and this is more so for Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch, who is both a religious leader and, by nature of Lebanon's unique demographics and sectarian system, a highly political one. Al-Rai's predecessor Nasrallah Sfeir was generally seen as an often lonely opponent of the Assad regime in Syria and of Hizbullah. Aoun's zealous Maronite supporters even organized demonstrations against him. Al-Rai has been much more circumspect since he assumed his position in 2011. He praised the Assad regime in 2011 and 2012 as violent repression led to open revolt in that neighboring country, a fact that Syrian dissidents have not forgotten. To the dismay of some Lebanese, Al-Rai at that time also endorsed Hizbullah having its own weapons independent of the Lebanese state.
Al-Rai is not the first Lebanese Christian religious leader to criticize Hizbullah's stranglehold on the country (the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Beirut, Elias Audeh, has famously done so recently in much starker terms). He is, in fact, rather late in doing so. And, ostensibly, the criticism was still relatively mild and delivered with all sorts of the usual diplomatic caveats. Both those who hailed the Patriarch's remarks and those who condemned them saw them as significant given his mildness – some would say weakness – over the past decade.
But, as welcome as these sentiments are for those who care about Lebanon, the remarks seem to be only a very small part of the words and deeds that will be required in the critical months ahead. The time for nuance is past. The unchecked Lebanese economic crisis is discrediting many institutions and shaking trust in almost all authority in this country.
The crisis threatens all confessional groups but is devastating basic institutions forming the pillars of Lebanon's historic Christian community, small businesses, and entrepreneurs, and including the country's parochial schools. Both the French and American governments have offered some emergency funding for education, but it will not be enough. As the worst effects of the country's poverty are felt in 2020, the desire of many Lebanese, including formerly middle class and now poor Christians, to leave the country will only intensify. In 2019 already the percentage of Lebanese emigrating rose by 42% and research showed that 60% of Lebanese Christians are now interested in emigrating. Lebanon's Christian population, which is already down to a third of the country's population as of 2018, may be on the verge of cratering.
Existential crises like the one raging in Lebanon can reveal the best and the worst in people. The majority of the political elite has been unmasked as corrupt charlatans repeatedly used by Hizbullah to implement its rule. The many heroic Muslim and Christian Lebanese in the streets since October 2019 are one slender but very real cause for hope.
On the national level, Lebanon is filled with leaders and yet lacking in real leadership that can build up rather than destroy. Al-Rai may well fall short of the challenge. His political track record is not very encouraging. He may not be another Sfeir, and it is even more unlikely that he will now morph into another Hoyek, whom historian Franck Salameh has called "a towering figure" and a "bulldozer." Unfortunately, the odds are much worse for Lebanon in 2020 than they were in 1920. The 80-year-old Al-Rai will either preside impotently over Lebanon's fast approaching demise, becoming a pastor whose sheep are all in Australia or France, or he will, improbably, summon the will to mobilize, to bulldoze. And may he be joined in this urgent task by any other Lebanese Christian and Muslim who wants to see their country survive.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
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