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Messenger of Peace for Lebanon

by Michael Healy

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When His Beatitude Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Sfeir visited the United States in June and July of this year, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch was carrying a message on behalf of all Lebanese people of faith:

“What we are asking for is not humanitarian assistance, even though the Lebanese people have become in need of it, but moral assistance to make the Lebanese cause known and create a public opinion which will support it,” said the spiritual leader of the world’s Maronite Catholics.

The 13 years of violence in Lebanon have seen the partition and destruction of Beirut, the devastation and uprooting of a majority of the city’s population, and the collapse of its economy. The fighting affects every person in that once beautiful and prosperous country.

“No one in Lebanon, when he leaves home in the morning, can be sure that he will be back in the evening because there are snipers, car bombings, explosions – all kinds of violence. The people are threatened in their lives each day,” said Patriarch Sfeir.

The economic problems are especially disastrous for the people of Lebanon. As the patriarch explained, “They are forced to emigrate because there is no employment, no work, no money. In 1975 one dollar was equivalent to five Lebanese pounds; now it’s equivalent to 350 Lebanese pounds. It’s impossible for Lebanese to live normally.”

The patriarch consulted with Lebanon’s religious leaders before his trip to the United States. He has the trust of the country’s major Muslim groups and of its different Christian denominations. He shared their concerns with political leaders here, including President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State Shultz, Governor Dukakis, members of Congress, and U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Patriarch Sfeir also shared the concerns of the Lebanese people with the U.S. Catholic bishops at their general meeting in Collegeville, Minnesota: “It has become almost impossible for the ordinary Lebanese individual to buy medicine, to enter a hospital, to pay school tuitions, or to take care of necessities.” He told them that “every day there are victims, and more innocent blood is being shed.”

The patriarch sees the conflict in Lebanon as a special concern for Christians throughout the world. “If something drastic is not done in the very near future, Christianity will disappear in the land where our Lord walked,” he told the bishops. “It is our firm hope that the light of the Gospel will not be extinguished in that land as we begin the third millennium.”

“If a free Christian presence ceases to exist in Lebanon, the world will lose a unique example of religious freedom and conviviality between Christians and Muslims,” he added.

The Lebanese crisis was heightened by the failure to elect a new president in September. The patriarch anticipated the problem when he told American leaders that “although we are in need of material help, we most of all need political help – to get all the foreigners to leave Lebanon and allow the Lebanese to come back together and form a new government.” He encouraged the United States to use its influence to speed the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. The patriarch also urged the Soviet Union to cooperate with the U.S. to solve the tragedy of Lebanon.

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Tags: Lebanon Christianity War Economic hardships Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir