How the economic crisis is transforming the Christian population in Lebanon

The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harrissa. The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harrissa. | Elias Turk / ACI MENA

Lebanese President Michel Aoun this week called on French company Total Energy to begin exploring for natural gas after a major diplomatic breakthrough between Lebanon and Israel.

The two countries recently announced a draft deal that could end a long-running dispute affecting the oil-rich maritime border between the two countries.

For Lebanon’s president, a Christian, this was a rare bit of potentially good news in recent months, if not years.

The ongoing turmoil and insecurity affecting the Christian community in an economically unraveling Lebanon is the consequence of long decades of political corruption, a constantly destabilized Middle Eastern country, and short-sighted governmental planning.

Economic chaos followed the events of October 2019, when the Lebanese government imposed new taxes on tobacco, gasoline, and smartphone apps for making calls, including WhatsApp. This caused nationwide protests that eventually led to the government’s resignation — and made the nation’s liquidity crisis fully apparent.

The fragile Lebanese economy fell into hyperinflation. Then COVID-19 began spreading in the country in February 2020, deepening the crisis, and an explosion in Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, killed nearly 230 people and injured approximately 6,000 more, destroying tens of thousands of apartments.

For the nation’s Christian community, these developments have added yet another layer of strain and anxiety to the constant existential threat they have been facing for decades in the Middle East.

This month brought another reminder of the community’s vulnerable condition. The end of October marks the expiration of the Lebanese president’s six-year term. The presidency has been held by a Maronite Catholic since 1943. With no new candidate elected yet, a constitutional void at the level of presidency is expected from the first of November.

Bleak situation for Christians

Any attempt to shed light on how these events changed the country’s Christian population should start by identifying the precise percentage of Christians in the Lebanese Republic. But that is not an easy task. The state doesn’t present official statistics, and demographics have always been politically manipulated and instrumentalized.

Before the crisis, Christians were estimated to make up about 32% of the population of 6.8 million, while Muslims made up 68%.

Christians, like all Lebanese, today face a rising unemployment rate, bank withdrawal limits, the suspension of international payments, electricity, water, and internet shortages, and the lack of a clear exit plan, leading to a continuous rise in poverty.

According to UNESCWA, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, approximately 80% of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line, and 36% are in extreme poverty.

A report by the World Bank published in May 2021 said: “The Lebanon financial and economic crisis is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-19th century.” The situation hasn’t gotten any better since then.

Locals see themselves living in an economic hell, and emigration seems to be the perfect solution. Out of despair, thousands of passport applications are being submitted daily to the Lebanese General Security departments. Canada, Australia, France, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Ivory Coast — any country is now seen as a better option.

Andros Ghannam, a 31-year-old Lebanese Christian who left the Middle Eastern republic to work in Luxembourg, explained to ACI MENA, CNA’s Arabic-language partner agency for the Middle East and North Africa, why he joined the exodus.

“The fall of our purchasing power, the constant political and security threat, the social instability, the failure of the October 2019 protests to bring sufficient change, and the whole outlook of the country after the Beirut port explosion were decisive for me to emigrate,” he said.

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As for the migrants’ religion, there is not enough evidence to assume that Christians are leaving at higher rates than Muslims, though the Beirut blast did primarily affect the Christian area of the capital, dislocating more Christians than Muslims.

Two years after the blast, the investigation into its cause continues. “Today, the investigation into the Beirut port explosion is in a ‘coma.’ High-level politicians are blocking it,” Mireille Khoury, who lost her 15-year-old son Elias and was injured along with her daughter by the blast, told ACI MENA.

“We have lost any hope in this national investigation,” she added. The investigation has been blocked for eight months. Families of the victims are now demanding an international investigation.

“During the 1975 Lebanese civil war, Christians were not forced to migrate in the same huge numbers as it is happening today,” Mireille noted.

“I lost my childhood and youth years during the war. But I decided to stay, back then. Now, I don’t want my daughter or my future grandchildren to stay in this country,” she said.

The future of Lebanese Christians

Since Christian families tend to have fewer children than Muslim families, every Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant family abandoning the country is seen as impacting the future of the country’s Christian community. 

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With fewer financial means, birth rates are already declining. Young Lebanese adults think twice before marriage, and families are more hesitant to have babies. 

Asma Fahl Yared, a Christian Lebanese resident who got married in 2021 and had her first daughter in August 2022 after childbirth complications, told ACI MENA: “At the hospital our newborn baby was denied treatment unless we pay a $1,000 in cash first,” a sum not many can afford in Lebanon right now. 

She added: “Like most of the families, we are having difficulties purchasing baby formula and medicines for our daughter. I believe in divine providence. God will take care of us. But, I am convinced now that raising one child is enough. It is already very difficult to raise just one!”

If Christians adopt a one-child family mindset, the remaining community will start to crumble demographically in the following decades.

Another challenge facing the baptized community is the lonely elderly. When one is older, migrating or finding a job abroad is more difficult, and with almost every Christian family now having at least an emigrant among its members, more elderly family members are left alone in a country where they cannot retire decently.

Loss of political power

On another front, Christians are also losing their leadership role in the country.

Until 2019, Christians were very influential in private schools, universities, hospitals, and in the banking sector. But hyperinflation is merciless. Now, about 179 private Christian and Muslim schools have closed their doors; medic residents who used to make $800 or $1,000 per month, for example, are making about $20 due to inflation; the salary of a soldier in the Lebanese army has depreciated 95%.

And with no solution on the horizon, thousands of medics, nurses, health care workers, university professors, schoolteachers, engineers, artists, and social activists continue to leave the country, turning the crisis into one of the most significant brain drains Lebanon has ever had. 

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