Lebanese cardinal urges leaders to help country avoid ‘total collapse’

CNA_506c7ba150a89_12535.jpg Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, head of the Maronite Church. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.

Lebanon's Maronite patriarch has said that the country could be facing "the risk of total collapse" amid a deepening economic and political crisis.

In his homily on Jan. 3, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the leader of Lebanon's Maronite Catholics, said that Lebanon's political leaders needed to "overcome the logic of partisan interests" and form a government to help rescue the country.

Rai urged the formation of a "government with real independence, democratic and pluralistic balance, and with highly qualified ministers."

He added that Lebanon's leaders needed to make a "responsible and courageous decision" to disrupt various internal and external interventions and "set their sights on the interest of Lebanon only." 

The patriarch warned officials not to "underestimate the risk of complete collapse."

It was the second time in less than a week that the Lebanese cardinal had spoken of the risk of collapse. 

In his homily on New Year's Day, Rai said: "No one or any group of the political spectrum, whether directly or indirectly involved, has the right to hinder the formation of the government for the sake of current or future accounts and interests." 

"Two months and 10 days have passed since the task to form the government was issued, while Lebanon is moving rapidly towards complete collapse and bankruptcy."

He continued: "It is truly shameful that the new year begins without the government formed and committed to work. It is also disgraceful for the unemployed to deal with the Lebanese issue as if it were one of the chess pieces of the Middle East or major countries. Let the political community remember that forming a government is its first and basic duty and the justification for its existence." 

Following the resignations of the leaders Hassan Diab in August and Mustapha Adib in September, Saad Hariri was given the task of forming a new government. This development came less than a year after Hariri himself had resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29, 2019, in the wake of mass protests.

Lebanon faced a profound economic and political crisis in 2020 which was exacerbated by the devastating explosion in Beirut's port on Aug. 4. The blast killed nearly 200 people, injured 600 others, and caused more than $4 billion in damage.

Prior to the explosion, the country was already facing severe economic pressure. Unemployment had soared and the national currency had lost at least 80% of its value against the U.S. dollar since 2019, according to AP.

Lebanon has one of the world's highest public debt burdens, which is 150% of its gross domestic product.

But in the face of the overlapping crises facing Lebanon, Rai's message to Maronite Catholics has remained hopeful. 

"Despite all the tragedies we have experienced ... we continue to strive in the name of Jesus with the beginning of this New Year in order to build a better society and protect a safer country," he said in his first homily of 2021.

Rai met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Nov. 28. He said that he informed the pope of the country's instability, which had "caused a bitter economic crisis, which increased the poverty rate and caused the exodus of population."

More than half of the country lives in poverty, according to the United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and tens of thousands have lost their jobs as a result of the explosion.

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Pope Francis wrote a letter to the "beloved sons and daughters of Lebanon" on Christmas Eve, encouraging them to trust in God during times of crisis.

The pope appealed to the international community to "help Lebanon stand apart from conflicts and regional tensions."

He said it was painful for him to see Lebanon "deprived of [its] precious aspirations to live in peace and to continue being, for our time and our world, a message of freedom and a witness to harmonious coexistence."

"Let us help Lebanon to stand apart from conflicts and regional tensions. Let us help Lebanon to surmount this grave crisis and resume a normal existence," Pope Francis said.

Since last July, Rai has issued calls in his homilies for Lebanon to remain neutral amid conflicts in the Middle East. He has urged Lebanon's political leaders to restore the country's neutral status as the "Switzerland of the East." He has argued that the only way forward for the country is an "active neutrality" leading to economic stability and security.

Rai suggested that a commitment to neutrality would enhance Lebanon's economic recovery by creating an environment that is stable and secure, which would lead to economic confidence, investment, and tourism.

Rai's statements come 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.

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Former Lebanese minister Sejean Azzi told Asia News Jan. 5 that Cardinal Rai "believes that the formation of a government should follow specific rules defined by the constitution and not require a patriarchal, or papal or Syrian, or Iranian, or international action."

"The pope is afraid for Lebanon's existence, and has spoken at length about it with Patriarch al-Rahi, making this clear in his Christmas message to the Lebanese. These fears are justified when we know that some people want to turn Lebanon into a place of confrontation," he said.

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