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.
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.