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World media attention has shifted from the horrific explosion in Beirut on August 4 to the historic Abraham Accord that is normalizing relations between some Arab states and Israel.
But speakers at a recent webinar on the region stressed the importance of remembering that though the Accord is ground-breaking, it does not necessarily herald a new dawn of peace in all the Middle East.
It has merely shifted the traditional fault lines in the political quick-sands of the region and potentially heightened tensions between the Sunni-majority Gulf States (UAE and Bahrain) and Shia-majority Iran. It has also negatively impacted relations between the Accord’s signatory Arab States and the Palestinian authorities.
The latter feel an intense sense of betrayal. They immediately recalled their ambassador from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Palestinians watched with increasing nervousness as another Arab State, Bahrain signed the Accord.
Thus, a real sustainable and lasting peace remains a mirage in the desert of Middle Eastern politics, and this is where Lebanon could play an important and critical role.
“Please don’t let Lebanon fall into despair,” the leader of the Maronite community in Lebanon pleaded during his keynote speech at the webinar, organized by Fordham University’s Centre for Religion and Culture as well as the Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Agency (CNEWA) and Salt and Light Media of Toronto.
The words from his Beatitude Cardinal Béchara Boutros Rai the Patriarch of Maronite (Catholic) Church of Antioch and all the East, sounded like a lament.
But coming nearly two months after a devastating explosion that turned Beirut into a ground zero of death and destruction, the Patriarch’s words were more significant than a cry for a ruined city. They were more important than a desperate appeal for humanitarian aid— although such aid is still urgently needed as Beirut’s explosion survivors are digging through the rubble of shattered glass and broken lives.
They were a call to the international community to recognize that Lebanon is geopolitically too important to fail. They provided an urgent reminder to Western democracies, including Canada and the U.S., that it is in their interest help Lebanon recover from its multiple crises of which the port explosion was just the last and most catastrophic episode.
Lebanon’s troubles include rampant government corruption, and a severe economic downturn that has impoverished its people and dragged the country down from its once enviable position as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” to the looming possibility of sinking to the ranks of failed states.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan strengthened the case for not giving up on Lebanon by emphasizing it is more than a catalogue of calamities.
“Lebanon is a laboratory of religious freedom and amity,” Cardinal Dolan said.
Cardinal Rai agreed.
“It’s a country where Christian and Muslim communities live in harmony,” he said. But he added a sobering note.
“The weakening of the Christian presence in Lebanon would be a huge loss to Lebanon, to the Middle East and indeed to the world. Many churches have invested in schools, universities, hospitals and other social service institutions. All these have created and nourished a vibrant society with a culture of openness, democracy and inter-religious co-living.”
In a region that is notorious for authoritarian theocracies that violate the human rights of their minorities with impunity, Lebanon, despite its many faults, is the lone flag bearer of democratic values and freedoms including the right of freedom of religion and belief in the Arab world. All these are guaranteed in the 1926 constitution, modelled on that of France.
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It is also seen as a haven of safety and religious freedom by millions fleeing political conflict and faith-based persecution in neighouring countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, particularly in the aftermath of Tukey’s assaults on north-eastern Syria and the toll it has taken on Christian communities there.
Cardinal Rai pulled no punches in explaining how the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 devastated Middle Eastern Christian communities.
“Iraq’s Christian population of 1.5 million was drastically reduced, and one million were displaced,” he said. “After the Iraq war, we had the Syrian war and then the ISIS invasion. All these had a such a negative impact on Lebanon on the Christian presence in the Middle East. Lebanon’s economy suffered immensely because all of our exports go through Syria and those routes were closed.”
The Cardinal outlined a plan for Lebanon which he called “active neutrality” that would ensure the country’s prosperity and peace.
“Lebanon should not be pressured to intervene in conflicts outside the country, should be able to defend itself, and should be able to have sovereignty within its borders.”
In light of the Cardinal’s comments, the current government of Canada would do well to help Lebanon repair the damage caused by the war.
Minister of Global Affairs Francoise Philippe Champagne, International Development Minister Karina Gould and the bureaucrats at Global Affairs Canada would do well to pay close attention to the Lebanese Patriarch’s comments.
Canada has taken a right step by providing humanitarian aid on the condition that it bypasses corrupt Lebanese government channels. They should keep up the pressure on Lebanon to set its political and economic house in order by enacting effective reforms. They should also help Lebanon maintain its state of “active neutrality,” by staying out of outside conflicts while maintaining its own territorial sovereignty.
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