Holy Land journey: Challenges for the church in Lebanon

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

(Editor’s Note: Bishop Gerald Kicanas (right) of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is on a trip to Lebanon, his ancestral homeland, and to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he will attend an international meeting of  bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He has agreed to be a guest blogger for us during the trip.)

DAY THREE: Jan. 7, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Today was planned to be focused on learning more about the life of the Catholic Church in Lebanon as well as the place of interfaith dialogue in this land so rich with diverse expressions of faith.

* * *

We left rather early for Harissa to meet with the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. Traffic in Beirut is not unlike traffic in Tucson or most cities, a nightmare. Congested streets coupled with very aggressive drivers make for quite an adventure. Horns bark as cars cut in and out seeking to get an inch up on another car in order to turn into a lane or make a U-turn from anywhere at any time. We had an experienced driver who seemed to delight in the battle. Honk and move is the strategy. Pedestrians beware.

The nunciature was moved during the war from central Beirut to Harissa, which is located outside the city in the suburban area. We drove along the ever-present turquoise blue sea glimmering in the early morning sun. Mark pointed out to us the Armenian compound as we passed and the Maronite and Greek Orthodox Centers high up on the mountain. Like Tucson, Beirut has its mountains on which many homes and structures have been built. However in the city there is little open space or gardens. The city and its environ are dense with homes and businesses.

We climbed the road leading to the nunciature and entered a beautiful garden space. A religious woman greeted us with a warm welcome in several languages and escorted us in for a brief wait until the nuncio, Archbishop Caccia entered. He is a very young man, new to Lebanon. His family is from Milan and he served in the diplomatic corps in Tanzania and in the Secretariat of State in the Vatican before being named to this challenging and complex responsibility. He was ordained by Pope Benedict XVI as archbishop in September and arrived in Beirut in October.

The group with Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. (Photo courtesy Bishop Kicanas)

He said — at times depending on whom he is talking to — that he tells people he has only been in Beirut for a very short time, just a few months, and, at other times, that he has been here a year since he arrived in Beirut in 2009 and it is now 2010.

Despite his recent arrival, he showed an in-depth grasp of the situation both politically and religiously. Upon his arrival he took the initiative to visit individually with each of the religious leaders of the various rites and faiths, not a small task but a gesture very well received by all.

He has carefully analyzed the political struggles within the country and hoped that the new unity government would realize the peace people desperately want. He described what we have heard often on this visit, that Lebanon has to be seen as part of a regional solution. The outside influences on Lebanon are significant and what happens in any part of the Arab world affects other parts as well.

This may be why situations like what happened today in the shooting of Coptic Christians coming out of a church in Egypt cause such panic, fear and concern among Lebanese. They fear that any violence can trigger larger conflict.

* * *

He explained that there are many forces at play in Lebanon whether one is talking of Saudi Arabia or Iran or Iraq or Syria or Egypt. Their influence continues to affect what happens politically in Lebanon.

He spoke of the various rites that make up the Catholic Church of Lebanon including the Maronite, the largest, the Melkite and the Syriac Catholics as well as the Armenians. He commented on the other Christian Churches especially the Greek Orthodox Church and some of the evangelical groups. Then there are the various Muslim groups from the Sunnis to the Shiites to the Druze to the Alawhits. Each of these communities has its own history, culture and perspective, making this small country very complex.

He spoke of the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Middle East that Pope Benedict has called for this October. While called on short notice with little time to do the extensive preliminary work necessary, he has great hopes for the synod.

I was grateful for his comprehensive and helpful analysis of the situation. Clearly he is a man who, in a short time, has learned much by listening attentively to the community he has been sent to work with. Our Holy Father will be well served by his service.

* * *

Thanks to the work of Bishop Gregory Mansour, Maronite bishop of Brooklyn and a good friend, we were invited to visit with Cardinal  Nasrallah P. Sfeir, the Lebanon-based Maronite patriarch. I had thought it would be a brief personal visit with him and a few other bishops of the area, but when we arrived at the Maronite compound we were met by a number of media carrying cameras. I was greeted by His Beatitude and led into a hall where the entire Assembly of Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon had gathered along with priests and women religious.

Bishop Kicanas with Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir (Photo courtesy Bishop Kicanas)

We sat at tables as the TV cameras and photographers were given time to take their pictures. Then they were asked to leave and we sat down for a dialogue. Cardinal Sfeir opened the session with a gracious welcome to me and my collaborators and the expression of his hope that we would learn about the struggles of the Catholic Church in Lebanon and be able to bring this home to the United States Bishops.

While my mother spoke Arabic, my sisters and I never learned the language, I regret. I know just a few words from my family growing up, some words of which are not repeatable in public. It would have been great to have learned some Arabic since much of our dialogue was in Arabic. Msgr. Camille Zaidan, director general of the Maronite Center for Research, was my translator, which was immensely helpful as you can imagine.

Bishop Roland Abou Jaoudeh was chair of the meeting, which was attended by His Beatitude Ignatius (Joseph) Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church, whom I had known when he was in the U.S. conference, and His Beatitude Nerses Petros of the Armenian Church. His Beatitude Gregory III, the Melkite patriarch, was not able to attend but was represented. I was impressed to see the bishops from all the areas of Lebanon present. The nuncio also attended.

I quickly learned that this was not just an informal chat but would involve a question-and-answer period as well as comments from me.

The mighty Verdawni River in Zahleh. (Photo courtesy Bishop Kicanas)

When called upon, I began by sharing some of my ethnic background. I explained that my grandparents were all born in Lebanon, some in Beirut and some in Zahleh. I shared with them my relatives, comments about the great river in Zahleh which I imagined was a beautiful flowing river but which I learned in my first visit to Lebanon is, like the rivers of Tucson, mostly dry. This got a hearty laugh.

I told them that my mother was Greek Orthodox, my father for some reason was Latin-rite. Many relatives were Maronite. My sister and I were baptized and confirmed Melkite. My family was almost as religiously diverse as Lebanon.

Then we got down to business. Bishop Roland spoke of the internal and external challenges to the Catholic Church in Lebanon.

Internally the war has deeply affected the Christian presence in Lebanon: massacres, displacement, exodus towards the city, emigration. He spoke of the Palestinian refugee situation and the difficult situation of the camps. He expressed concern about the arsenal of Hezbollah that even outweighs by far that of the Lebanese army and security forces. It used to be that 52 percent of Lebanon was Christian, but now less than 35 percent because so many have left to go to the United States, Australia, Europe and the Gulf countries.

Education presents challenges especially in a multireligious, politically and economically unstable as well as morally weakened country. There are, at times, Christian internal divisions and quarreling and diminishing Christian political and economic influence.

Externally there are concerns about the appropriation of land in large quantities by people outside the country. So many youth are leaving the country. Fundamentalism and extremism are significant issues in the country and in the region.

They expressed concern about Western policies regarding Israel and Middle East oil which rarely take into consideration the needs and concerns of the Christian communities and their future. They expressed concern about the lack of understanding of Christian churches in the West to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

They fear that what has happened to Iraqi Christians might portent their future.

* * *

As the question-and-answer period began, several bishops spoke passionately about the need for the church in the United States and the bishops in particular to better understand the challenges of Christians in the Middle East. They need us to show solidarity not only by words but by actions. They are trying their best to respond to the needs of their people. They strive to treat their Muslim brothers respectfully and seek reciprocity but look to the United States to help resolve the regional challenges they face.

One bishop suggested that there be a structure by which the U.S. bishops’ conference and the patriarchs and bishops in Lebanon can continue to explore ways of working together.

Bishop Roland explained the many initiatives that the Catholic Church in Lebanon has taken to face these challenges, but the bishops strongly feel that the bishops of western countries with many Christians need to help their people understand the plight and struggles of Christians in the Middle East and encourage them to help.

Patriarch Sfeir concluded by quoting from Romans 5: 3-6, “Knowing that affliction produces endurance and endurance proven character, and proven character hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” — a powerful summary of what we heard and what the Catholic Church in the Middle East lives out today.

I assured the patriarchs and bishops of Lebanon of the warm regard felt by our conference president, Cardinal Francis George, who has visited Lebanon, and of all the bishops in the United States. I suggested that we continue to explore ways to better strengthen our solidarity in working for the well-being of Christians in Lebanon and throughout the region through our Committee on International Justice and Peace, and through the work of Catholic Relief Services we would continue to explore ways to better strengthen our solidarity in working for the well being of Christians and all in the region.

We finished the morning by gathering in a huge dining room where Patriarch Sfeir presided over a marvelous multicourse meal, another example of Lebanese hospitality.

* * *

We returned to Beirut where we met with two Iraqi families who have fled their country and came to Lebanon. Sonja and Isabelle, whom we met yesterday and who work for the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, welcomed us to their center. They explained the circumstances of the families we would be meeting.

Bishop Kicanas with the Iraqi boy Sivon at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center. (Photo courtesy Bishop Kicanas)

While we were talking a young boy of 7 named Sivon came into the office. He was Iraqi and Caritas had used his picture in one of their brochures. Since then he comes every day to the office after school where he has become like one of the staff. He looked at us strangers and quickly warmed up, showing that he knew some English. He sat next to me and counted from one to 10 and showed he knew the names of the days starting with Sunday. He stumbled on Friday but quickly recovered. When we had trouble understanding his first name he wrote it down for us to see how it is spelled. He wanted us badly to visit his family but since the staff had not arranged for that visit they felt it better not to surprise his family.

* * *

We went to visit the two families. The first was a family of nine. As you enter their humble home you see a picture of St. George and the Dragon on the wall. The father is a person with disability. The family fled Iraq and came to Lebanon just two months ago. Clearly the situation in Iraq remains terribly problematic. They lived in a village near Mosul. They are Chaldean Catholic. They live in a small, congested meager apartment where they pay about $200 a month. His sister and two nephews were killed in Iraq. His son brought out their pictures for us to see. The father broke down talking about their frightful experience. They are hoping to be given refugee status and to be resettled. The Christians in his area are under great threat. They fear for their lives. Some of the family remains in Iraq. This is another example of the breakdown in family that is taking place for refugee families.

The family welcomed us to their home and in typical Arab hospitality brought out some food and drink. They are hopeful to be resettled. I could only think of the great struggle being faced by Iraqi families in the United States. In Tucson when I met with Iraqi families they are desperate because of the lack of work and resources. The U.S. government provides only limited help which in these serious economic times with significant unemployment is totally inadequate to meet their needs. The U.S. government needs to do more for these families resettled in the United States. This was the point of the letter which a number of influential people in Tucson wrote to our legislators calling for more aid. Without that, families like the one we visited can only look forward to even more difficulties as they are resettled.

As we were about to leave I asked if the family would welcome a blessing. The father immediately said yes and bowed his head. He and the children prayed with me and after he grabbed my hand and kissed it. His faith was obvious.

* * *

The second family was a mother and her three sons. She came to Lebanon some months ago. Her daughter went off to church before they fled to Lebanon and disappeared, kidnapped. She fears for her daughter’s safety. She was told that her daughter’s body had been found and she used all her resources to bring her and her three sons back to Iraq to find her daughter. It turned out it was not her daughter and so they returned to Lebanon awaiting resettlement.

The family of four live in a one-room apartment for which they pay $250 a month. They are hoping to find a bigger place. Clearly landlords are making big money on very inadequate shelter for these families.

She broke down thinking of her daughter and wondering what had happened to her. What tragic situations the war has created for so many simple people just trying to live and raise their families.

Again we prayed together and they received a blessing with the deep faith that has held them together through terribly troubled times.

I could only marvel at the work of the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center staff who hear these tragic stories day after day and who show these families such compassion and care trying to assist them and move their cases along through a mind boggling bureaucracy. Bill expressed our admiration to them for their difficult and terribly important work.

* * *

The day ended with a meeting with religious leaders who are part of the Islamic Christian National Dialogue Committee formed in 1993 to encourage relationships among the various faiths in Lebanon. Emir Hares Chehab is the general secretary and the members are chosen by their religious leader to take part.

Lebanon can be a laboratory for interfaith dialogue and that was obvious as all the key religious leaders gathered for this evening where we shared dinner and dialogue. Mohammad Sammak, a Sunni Muslim, shares the role of general secretary of the committee. It was so encouraging to see the regard and respect those around the table have for one another.

It was mentioned that what is needed is to get this dialogue down to the local level, where people from different faiths still view one another with suspicion.

It was a delightful evening. I sat next to Archbishop Paul Boulos Matar, archbishop of Beirut, and across from the Greek Orthodox archbishop, who was delighted to know my mother had been Greek Orthodox. The apostolic nuncio also participated, showing his respect for these leaders of the various faiths.

The dinner was hosted by St. Joseph University, the Jesuit university which is part of the many institutions of higher education in Lebanon.

The day was full of images and messages that were very moving and challenging.

One Response

  1. Another outstanding blog. Thank you very much for sharing

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