Lebanese scholar: The West cannot afford to abandon Lebanon

Leban flag barbed Lebanese flag on barbed wire in front of the Lebanese government seat of Grand Serail. | JossK/Shutterstock.

A Lebanese academic and aid worker told CNA on Thursday that if Western nations fail to help Lebanon recover from the explosion that rocked Beirut last week, the effect on regional and global security could be disastrous.

"There are very tangible, concrete, strategic reasons why looking the other way as Lebanon sinks is very bad for the West itself," Habib Malik, Associate Professor of History at Lebanese American University, told CNA in an interview.

"Lebanon is reeling and in very bad shape. And keeping in mind what's at stake, both on the humanitarian level, but beyond that on the strategic level, I don't think ignoring Lebanon anymore should be an option."

A massive explosion in the port area of Lebanon's capital on Aug. 4 overturned cars, shattered windows, set fires, and damaged buildings across Beirut, a city of more than 350,000, with a metro area of more than 2 million people.

As of Aug. 12, more than 200 people are confirmed dead, more than 5,000 injured and hundreds of thousands have been rendered homeless.

Lebanon was already reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as economic woes brought on by corruption, Malik said. Lebanon was already suffering high levels of public debt and low employment.

The Syrian civil war and ensuing refugee crisis also has hit Lebanon hard, with UN figures estimating the number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon at 1.6 million.

Bishop Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles had in May of this year warned that if Lebanon, one of the few democratic nations in the Middle East, became a failed state, that would have dire consequences for its Christian community and for wider regional stability.

Though some foreign countries, such as France, have pledged millions of dollars in aid for Lebanon, Malik cautioned that other countries wishing to help, such as the United States, should be wary of pledging money directly to the Lebanese government.

"The last thing Lebanon now needs is money or aid coming through government channels or through the political parties," Malik said. "Any real aid from well-meaning sources should go through very carefully vetted NGOs."

Malik said he recommends a local NGO called NAWRAJ that normally works with isolated outlying Christian villages near the Syrian and Israeli borders.

"And now of course, they have prioritized helping in Beirut, but I know that they are honorable, they are credible, they are independent, they are fine people," Malik said.

He also recommended an NGO called Ashrafieh 2020 that is helping to rebuild one of the predominantly Christian neighborhoods in Beirut. Beit el Baraka is another NGO that Malik has personally vetted, he said.

Malik is also a consultant for the Philos Project, a group that advocates for Christians in the Near East as part of a broader goal of religious pluralism in the region and of educating Western Christians on their situation. Philos has set up a fund of $10,000 to help a local initiative called the Human Chain with its humanitarian efforts. Philos is encouraging donations to its Action Fund on its website.

Though Lebanon endured a 15-year civil war starting in 1975, in recent years it has emerged as a relatively peaceful and pluralistic society of the Middle East. Sixty percent of Lebanon's people are Muslim, evenly split among Sunni and Shia, and nearly 35% of the country's population is Christian, most of whom are Maronite Catholic Christians. Lebanon also has a small Jewish population, as well as Druze and other religious communities.

Sources have told CNA that Hezbollah, a hardline Shiite Islamic party with significant political sway in Lebanon for the past 30 years, is widely suspected to be poised to profit from the explosion disaster.

"Further neglect of Lebanon actually directly undermines Western interests in the Arab Levant and in the Arab middle East, because the Iran axis represented here locally by Hezbollah, it is in their interest that Lebanon collapse, that the people become destitute and become completely desperate," Malik continued.

"So that then, China could step in and throw us a lifeline of a few billion dollars, which the Lebanese, the exhausted Lebanese at that point, would have no choice but to accept. And that would mean China would then acquire a deepwater seaport, the first one ever in the Mediterranean. They would be then the gatekeepers of that port," he said.

Investigators believe the explosion may have started with a fire in a warehouse that stored 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be made into an explosive. According to reports, the chemicals had sat in the port, neglected, for over six years.

On Aug. 10, Lebanon's Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, called for the resignation of the entire Lebanese government, adding that it is "necessary to hold everyone responsible accountable for this massacre and catastrophe." The Prime Minister and the rest of the government subsequently resigned later that day.

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Anti-government sentiment in Lebanon had most recently bubbled over in October 2019, when thousands of peaceful protestors took to the streets to challenge government corruption and mismanagement of finances. At the time, Pope Francis sent his encouragement to the mostly young protestors.  

Malik recently wrote an op-ed for the journal of the Institute of Religion and Democracy expounding on his political analysis of the post-explosion situation.

"The stench of corruption at the highest levels mingled pungently with the odors from the burnt-out hangars as well as the dust from destroyed buildings, businesses, and apartments in the stricken city," he wrote.

"It is safe to assume that all the governments, presidents, and political leaders in power over the past six years knew about the deadly ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut port. No one lifted a finger to remove this lethal time bomb or even warn the public about it. Whether it was colossal negligence, or complicity with those storing this explosive material for whatever military or terrorist purposes, the result is the same: criminality of the highest degree at the highest levels of government."

In terms of cleanup and relief, Malik said large piles of rubble have been moved to the side of city streets, but no one has yet been able to clear the rubble out of the city. 

Multiple Lebanese survivors of the blast have told CNA that majority-Christian neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the damage from the explosion.

Some international Christian aid agencies, as well as the Red Cross, have been active in the city following the disaster.

Despite damages to their own facilities, Catholic Relief Services has provided relief to the victims of the explosion. Caritas Lebanon has offered water and hot meals at several locations throughout Beirut. Caritas health care centers have also opened, and a mobile medical unit and mental health team have been available to the public.

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Malik said although the Maronite Catholic Church is doing a lot to help survivors, the Churches- both Catholic and Orthodox- themselves are in great need since their buildings have been so badly damaged. The Maronite eparchs of the United States have similarly  been pleading for prayers and aid for the people of Lebanon.

"We have a number of churches and hospitals that happen to overlook the Beirut port area. That's kind of a scenic view in normal times, but they were just in the direct line of the blast, as you can imagine. And so huge damage has been sustained by these establishments, to the homes, the churches, and so on," Malik said.

Malik recommended Christians and people of good will reach out directly to Beirut churches to ask them what they need.

"There are Protestant churches, Orthodox churches, Catholic churches, there's everything in Beirut. And ask them directly for their needs. And they will actually tell you," he said.

Malik said despite the monumental rebuilding task ahead, it has been refreshing to see many young people taking to the streets to volunteer and help their neighbors.

"These volunteers are mostly of the new generation of youth. These people have come from all over the country and across the sectarian divides to help," he said.

"And they're very genuine about it. And the refreshing thing about these people is that they have no political ties, they are not beholden to any of the clan leaders or party leaders."

Pope Francis appealed for prayers for the Lebanese people in his Wednesday audience on August 5.

"Let us pray for the victims, for their families; and let us pray for Lebanon, so that, through the dedication of all its social, political, and religious elements, it might face this extremely tragic and painful moment and, with the help of the international community, overcome the grave crisis they are experiencing," he said via livestream from the Vatican.

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