By Linda Bordoni
The leader of the Catholic Maronite Church in Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Boutros-Rai, is urging the country’s political leaders to take responsibility for widespread corruption and the failure of governance, and to name a technical administration to tackle the crisis gripping the country.
Archbishop Paul Sayah, deputy for external relations of the Patriarchate of Antiochia, noted that one remarkable thing about the ongoing protests is that they have united people who would normally be divided along religious and sectarian lines.
But first, he explained what has led to the current crisis.
Corruption, Archbishop Sayah explained, has been rampant for a long time. Coupled with that, he said, is the fact that the government has not been listening to the people, to the Patriarch or to anyone who has been trying to tell political leaders about the situation and warn them “that overlooking the will of the people and the misery that the people are experiencing” in the long run, is a disastrous choice.
He noted that poverty in Lebanon affects a large part of the population and, together with the impact of the enormous number of refugees in the nation, is an explosive issue.
“Two million refugees in a country of four million people! What an economic weight on the situation,” the Archbishop said, added to an unemployment rate of above 30% and all the poverty. So when the government tried to impose more taxes, while the people were asking for transparency: “it really what broke the camel’s back,” spurring this popular movement which began about 60 days ago.
He explained the protesters are asking for the fall of the government and said that although the government did submit its resignation about 45 days ago, no new government has been formed and the situation is getting worse by the day.
The involvement of the Church
“The Church got involved immediately after the uprising started,” Sayah said, revealing that the Patriarch called for a meeting of all the Christian denominations in Lebanon: “Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant… everybody was called and we had a long meeting.” A communiqué was then issued, he said, in which the Churches expressed support for those leading the uprising “because what they were doing was right”, but requesting them to make violence did not develop within the movement.
Since then, he continued, every time the Patriarch preaches during the 10 O’clock Mass at the Patriarchate, a part of the sermon is dedicated to the political situation.
“The Patriarch has been calling on government [members] to listen to their consciences, to listen to the people who have been on the streets for 60 days, to look at the social situation, examine closely the difficulties the people are experiencing and to make sure the uprising does receive sufficient attention because on the whole, what the uprising is calling for, is justified,” he said.
Protests uniting the people
Archbishop Sayah agreed that the protests have united people who would normally have been divided and said that this is what makes the movement so important: “for the first time in a long time, a popular movement has gone beyond sectarian limits; it has bypassed political affiliations, and people are on the streets requesting justice and transparency for the way the economy of the country is run.”
“They are asking the government to make sure they don’t use their political positions for their own gain,” he said.
The Church is mediating
Sayah said the Church, and the Maronite Patriarch in particular, are in constant contact both with the people leading the uprising and with the politicians.
He noted that the protesters are not willing to talk to government representatives but they trust the Church.
“I am personally am involved with a group that gathers various political parties and factions in the uprising,” he said, and we are “working on various socio-political levels.”
At the moment there is a lot of effort going on to promote reconciliation among factions, talking to those leading the uprising, “trying to make them reflect on the situation, and listening to the solutions they have to offer.”
Government of specialists
Archbishop Sayah said that there is a wide base of protesters asking for the formation of a government “that is not formed in the traditional way: that is not made up of the same political parties that have brought the country to where it is now.”
He explained that the uprising is demanding that the government be a government of ‘specialists’ who are not politicians by profession, men and women who had nothing to do with the deterioration of the situation in the country.
“The protesters feel – and I think rightly so – that you can’t have people who destroyed the whole thing, and ask them to rebuild, because they would not have destroyed it in the first place had they the will, or the spirit or the know-how to build a sane economy,” he said.
Concern for the poor
The Archbishop highlighted the fact that the Church is deeply involved in trying to assist those most in need: “we are trying to make a special effort on the social level. We have formed committees and groups to try and make sure the people have enough to eat because we expect the situation to worsen due to the unemployment and to the fact that the banks have put limitations on the amount of money they give the people.”
He reiterated that the social situation is taken very seriously by the Patriarchate and said it hosted a meeting last week for some 30 or 40 institutions to try to coordinate social work.
The parishes, he said, who have the pulse of what is going on at a grass-roots level are tasked with reaching out to those most in need.
“This is an issue that we are taking very seriously,” Archbishop Sayah concluded.