“When they were first opened [at the end of the first wave],” Boeselager told CNA, “they were not much needed anymore, but they may be needed again now. The hospital in Milan is already being prepared to receive patients again.”
Further from its base in Rome, but closer to its historical roots in the Middle East, Boeselager explained that the order remained deeply committed to its work in Lebanon, where overflow from the Syria civil war has taken a rolling toll on the country and triggered an ongoing refugee crisis. More recently, a massive explosion in the capital Beirut decimated large parts of the city, triggering further economic crisis and the resignation of the government.
“The crisis in the Middle East is the core of our concern,” Boeselager told CNA. “We have huge activities in Lebanon, Iraq, and also some in Syria.”
Boeselager said the order’s Lebanese association is “probably the only organization with good contacts with all of the eighteen other confessions in the country.”
“We run nine clinics, some of them as formal joint ventures with Sunnis, Shi’ites, and the Druze. In the south, we have a clinic in cooperation with the Shi’ites, where the nurses are Muslim and wear the burqa, but on the burqa is the cross of the order!”
The still-ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria has had a deep impact on Lebanon. Boeselager told CNA the order had set up a clinic in a heavily Sunni area on the northern border with Syria.
The order is unique in that, while it has no territory, it is a sovereign entity under international law – with its own passports, diplomatic relationships, and permanent observer status at the United Nations. Boeselager said that this diplomatic independence was crucial to is ability to work in war-torn regions like the Syrian border, without be perceived as a tool of any side of government.
“We were warned about going there,” he told CNA, “because it was said it would be too dangerous for Christians, and we were advised not to put the cross of the order on the mobile clinic.”
In fact, after the order established its presence in the region, it found that its Christian presence was not only accepted but adopted as an essential part of bringing peace to the area.
“After four weeks of operation, the elder of the local village asked us to put the cross up on the clinic to have it better visible and protected because the order is so respected. And then we were told that in the small waiting room, one day they found leaders of three different rebel groups meeting under pretext of needing medical care to discuss ceasefires.”
Boeselager said the order’s diplomatic neutrality and Christian identity among the different Muslim groups, is essential, not just for delivering its humanitarian aid but also for fostering peace.
(Story continues below)
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“People in armed conflict have a sixth sense,” he said. “They know somebody is there only to help, or whether there is a hidden other agenda.”
“This is where you see our status in international law becomes so important,” he said. “You can see also how the religious identity is important, because in most Muslim countries – not in all – it is easier to work for a Christian organization than a secular organization.”
“Historically, the service to the poor is first,” said Boeselager, “this has always been in the foreground for us.”
“This and the order’s call to promoting, witnessing, protecting the faith are two sides of the same coin. It is creating a space where the faith can be promoted and is possible. The way the order promotes the faith is in combination in its work.”
“We are not theologians, we are not liturgists, our vocation is to promote the faith and serve the poor together.”