Patriarchs meet in Lebanon to discuss political neutrality amid crisis

Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai the Maronite Patriarch at the Vatican March 5 2013 Credit InterMirificanet Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the Maronite Patriarch, at the Vatican March 5, 2013. |

As Lebanon reels from an economic crisis, Catholic patriarchs met Thursday and reaffirmed the importance of the country's neutrality in regional rivalries, underlining that this is vital for a peaceful future in the Middle East.

"Lebanon's neutrality is a project of peace, not of war … Lebanon is unable to remain hostage to external conflicts and projects. The time has come to move out, hand in hand, from deterioration and collapse, and from successive crises," said a statement issued by the Maronite Patriarchate on the meeting July 23. 

"The proposal for a system of neutrality is completely far from any sectarian, political or factional thinking, but rather is a national, inclusive approach and in the interest of all Lebanese," it said.

The statement comes at a time when Hezbollah -- the Shiite Muslim political and militant group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government -- has strong alliances with Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and with Iran in its conflicts with Sunni-majority Gulf states. 

A mass protest movement in Lebanon, which began in October 2019, included calls for Hezbollah to give up power after years of government mismanagement and corruption.

Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai spoke at the meeting of patriarchs about "the system of neutrality," according to the statement. In recent weeks, the cardinal has stressed the importance of Lebanon's neutrality often in his Sunday homilies and in meetings with diplomats, Church leaders, and with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun.

Speaking after his July 14 meeting with Aoun, Rai said: "What is the meaning of neutrality? It does not mean that I step aside and do nothing. Rather, the intended positive and active neutrality is that, if Lebanon enjoys a neutral system similar to Switzerland, Austria, Finland and Sweden, it adheres to the general issues of the Arab world without entering into political and military conflicts or in alliances, but it is a promoter of justice, peace and understanding in Arab issues."

He continued: "Neutrality should not be considered to be directed against anyone at all. Rather, it is in the interest of all Lebanese, and all Lebanese factions, parties and components, because it brings political stability to the homeland, and then we have economic, commercial, social and financial growth." 

"There is no matter that can lift us from the situation in which we are today, including the economic crisis besides poverty, other than neutrality."

The cardinal has also called on the United Nations to assist Lebanon in achieving neutrality. 

Among those present at the July 23 "spiritual summit" in Bkerke were Greek-Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, the Patriarch of the Syriac-Catholics Ignatius Joseph III Yonan, and the Patriarch of the Armenian Catholics Gregory Peter XX Ghabroyan.

In the statement following the meeting, the leaders asked the Lebanese government to focus more on rebuilding the economy.

Rai also met with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian July 23 and thanked France for its support of Lebanon's Catholic schools after France pledged nearly $17 million in aid to all of Lebanon's schools amid the country's economic crisis. 

France, the former colonial power in Lebanon, has also already donated more than $50 million to Lebanon's healthcare sector, Le Drian said.

According to the patriarchate, the cardinal also spoke with the French Foreign Minister about Lebanon's neutrality, saying that neutrality was needed to "save Lebanon," and that it was especially important because "Lebanon has historically been a neutral country and its previous neutral policies have long led to the prevention of military, political and economic dangers from it, which led to its prosperity and distinctiveness."

Lebanon's neutrality has been a frequent topic for the cardinal in July as the country looks for political answers to its growing economic crisis. 

Unemployment in Lebanon has risen and the country's national currency has lost at least 80% of its value against the U.S. dollar since last year, according to AP. Lebanon has one of the world's highest public debt burdens, which is 150% of its gross domestic product. 

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A Washington Post report July 19 said that most parts of Lebanon were only receiving two or three hours of electricity per day. 

The government has been in talks this month with the International Monetary Fund, but these have yet to yield any results. 

"We as a Church -- Patriarchate, parishes and social institutions, such as Caritas Lebanon, St. Vincent de Paul, the Red Cross, the papal mission, and many other institutions -- have created a network of cooperation covering all Lebanese lands to prevent the hunger of any human being and the destitution of any family," Rai said July 3.

He added: "The political crisis is the cause of all crises."

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