In early July, the leaders of Lebanon’s Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches met at the Vatican for what Pope Francis called “a day of reflection on the worrying situation in the country,” praying together “for the gift of peace and stability.” Prayer may be all that can save Lebanon at this point. The country is in the grip of a political and humanitarian crisis that grows worse by the day.
Lebanon has been without a functioning government for more than a year. The Cabinet resigned days after an explosion on August 4, 2020, which killed more than two hundred people, leveled the port of Beirut, and left much of the city in ruins. It was hoped that a July 15 meeting between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri would break the political deadlock. But Hariri emerged from the meeting—which lasted all of twenty minutes—to announce that attempts to form a new government had failed. By the end of the day, the Lebanese currency had plummeted to an all-time low of 20,000 lira to the dollar, wiping out savings and making the salaries of soldiers, police, and government workers worthless.
Even before this latest crisis, Lebanon was teetering. Today, it is in political and economic freefall. More than half of the once-robust entrepreneurial middle class has sunk into poverty. Electricity and water are strictly rationed; basic maintenance drugs for the treatment of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease are either unavailable or unaffordable; hospitals are struggling to maintain essential services. The World Health Organization estimates the number of Lebanese experiencing food poverty to be more than 2 million out of a total population of roughly 6 million.
The Vatican-sponsored meeting came at the urging of Cardinal Beshara al-Ra’i, patriarch of the Maronite Church and Lebanon’s senior Catholic cleric, following a string of failed initiatives to broker an agreement between the country’s president and the prime minister. Maronite patriarchs traditionally wield significant moral authority, but orchestrating the meeting—and at the Vatican, no less—was no small feat. The assembled churchmen represent not only different theologies, but also different political visions for the country. Saving Lebanon means saving their constituencies and, by extension, their authority. They are pressing for political solutions to Lebanon’s problems while defending the sectarian framework of the government that contributed to them.
Patriarch al-Ra’i has proposed the creation of a neutral Lebanon on the pattern of Belgium or Switzerland. The proposal has merit, but it is unlikely to garner support—and for good reason. It is fiercely opposed by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that controls much of the country, including its volatile southern border with Israel. With a sophisticated telecommunications network and a fighting force that is bigger and better equipped than Lebanon’s army, Hezbollah constitutes a state within a state.