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MIDDLE EAST
from issue no. 08 - 2006

LEBANON. THE WITNESS OF THE MARONITE CATHOLICS

Report from a pulverized country


Constant bombing. Obstacles to rescue and humanitarian help. By now a humanitarian catastrophe is taking place in Lebanon


by Davide Malacaria


Beirut, 20 July 2006

Beirut, 20 July 2006

Sunday 30 July, Cana, the site of Jesus’ first miracle: 60 persons have died under the Israeli bombs, of whom 37 children. I am writing this article the day after this nth slaughter of the innocent. «The Lebanon can no longer bear it, our people are in a state of agony, while the world looks on. The crime of Cana must be condemned by everyone». Such was the response of the Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to the news of what had happened in the place where Jesus changed the water into wine.
We don’t know how the situation will evolve, whether, that is, diplomacy will achieve at least a truce or whether the widespread hate sown during this nth Israeli raid will drive the Middle East slaughterhouse into paroxysm. This article should be taken for what it is: a postcard from Lebanon, sent on a precise date. A postcard smeared with blood. So much, too much innocent blood.
«Before this war began Lebanon was going through a marvellous period», sighs Monsignor Alwan Hanna, rector of the Pontifical Maronite College in Rome: «With the dispersal of the tension after the death of the former premier Rafik Hariri [blown up on 14 February 2005, ed], with the departure of the Syrian troops from the country, positive dialogue had started up among all the forces in the country, rightwing and leftwing, Christians and Moslems, that was leading to the reform of the Constitution. Then what you know happened… »
For years south Lebanon has been a zone of friction between Israel and the Shiite Hezbollah militias. A perennial conflict, with the launching of Katiuscha rockets on the one hand and aerial reprisals on the other. In the background, the tragedy of the Palestinians refugees, shut for decades in concentration camps in Lebanon.
Tyre, 23 July 2006

Tyre, 23 July 2006

It was on 12 July that an Israeli patrol penetrated Lebanese territory and came under attack by Hezbollah guerrillas. The balance sheet: seven Israeli soldiers dead and two kidnapped. Hezbollah is not only the name of a militia, it is also a party, with its own representatives in the Lebanese government. That is why Israel has involved all of Lebanon in the reprisal. For the country of the cedars it is hell. Constant bombardment on the ground, from the sky and from the sea are devastating what was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, on the verge of an economic boom without precedent. The bombs are devastating everything: public and private buildings, houses, bridges, power stations, food stores, reservoirs. «We shall knock the country back twenty years», said an authoritative Israeli spokesman at the start of the conflict. And that is what is happening. What still has to be understood is what all this has to do with the threat represented by the Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and beyond
Since that fateful 12 July the bombs have been dropping incessantly on Lebanon. One of the images that the television has shown with insistence in these days is that of a rocket, equipped with telecamera, lining up on the mast of a broadcasting station. The device homes in on the target, which explodes. An image of a clean and “intelligent” war. I, too, followed the path of that rocket, going to look for one of these strategic targets. «Voice of Charity is the only Catholic radio in the whole Middle East», says Father Fady Tabet, director of the station: «We have programs in twelve languages, it’s the only Middle East radio that broadcasts in so many different tongues, a choice to reach everybody. I believe that our radio is a useful tool for getting the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ listened to. Our station was listened to throughout Lebanon, but also in Cyprus, in Syria and throughout the Holy Land. Unfortunately our masts have been bombed. Now our effective range is limited to Beirut and little more... ». Not only the radio stations, but also the television stations, including the Christian ones, have finished up under the “intelligent” bombs.
«The Lebanon can no longer bear it, our people are in a state of agony, while the world looks on. The crime of Cana must be condemned by everyone». Such was the response of the Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to the news of what had happened in the place where Jesus changed the water into wine
Meanwhile the conflict in south Lebanon where the Israeli army is facing the Shiite militias is in stalemate. The army with the Star of David, one of the most powerful in the world, is having difficulty against an army of ragamuffins that have nothing to lose and hide in a network of tunnels after the fashion of the Vietcong. From there the Hezbollah, which Israel and the US accuse of being an arm of Syria and Iran, is bombarding Haifa with rockets, the third city of Israel, spreading terror and death. Again on this occasion, with a tragic irony dear to the sowers of terror, the Israeli city being attacked is the one that over the years has become the symbol of the co-existence between Jews and Arabs. From Haifa we are pursued by images of innocent children lacerated, terrified eyes hiding in underground shelters. They are less devastating devices than those that are pouring down on the Lebanese cities, but just as murderous and terrifying. Yet if the aim of the Israeli offensive is indeed that of eliminating a militia, the disarming of which had already been required by UN Resolution 1559, maybe it is making a mistake of judgement. Not least because, among other things, backing for the Hezbollah is increasing day by day in the Arab countries. «The effect of this offensive is that the Lebanese population has found itself forced to resist. The solidarity of the Lebanese people has grown under this attack. They want to resist, right to the end of this tragedy», explains Father Abdo Abou Kassam, director of the Catholic Information Center, an organ of the Lebanese Bishops’ Conference; who continues: «Hezbollah is not only one militia or an armed party. It is a community, they are family nuclei; they are fathers, mothers, children united by a strong ideology, animated by a great spirit of solidarity. This aspect, furthermore, gives the movement a strength that a simple armed militia doesn’t possess. For that reason a military assault against Hezbollah is futile and difficult. To disarm these militias, as demanded by UN Resolution 1559, the Lebanese government is needed. I believe that only dialogue between our government and Hezbollah, and between our government and the United Nations, can resolve such a tough crisis». Yes, the disarming of Hezbollah. By an unlucky stroke, something that often occurs in these tragic events, precisely on that fateful 12 July all the interested parties were to ratify an agreement to fit in with Resolution 1559. The Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri recalled the fact to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she arrived in the country of cedars on 24 July 24. But now everything has become complicated and even the Rome Conference, that was held on 26 July to seek a way to peace, produced no immediate result. While diplomatic activity is intensely seeking solutions, the fighting continues. And the burden of horrors increases. The Lebanese victims, as I write, stand at eight hundred. But, as Monsignor Alwan Hanna explains, this is only the number of the victims checked, made countable. Because of the dense rain of bombs nobody has begun to dig into the rubble to see how many bodies are buried under there. Against that, the Israeli victims, counting military and civilians, come to around sixty. To these figures those of the wounded need be added, of the injured... and unfortunately it has not finished.
Among the victims, so many, too many children. The Lebanon is full of children, says Monsignor Alwan, above all in Moslem families. So it happens that 25% –30% of dead in this war are children. «I can’t understand why the Israeli forces are attacking the children so furiously. And yet there is an international law that safeguards them». Father Abdo says: «Look, I’d like to make an appeal through you. I want to ask people to pray. Stop the slaughter of children, the attack on civilians...».
«I invite all, finally, to continue to pray for the dear and tortured region of the Middle East. Our eyes are full of the spine-chilling images of the broken bodies of so many people, above all of children – I am thinking in particular of Cana, in Lebanon. I want to repeat that nothing can justify the shedding of innocent blood, wherever it might be!» Benedict XVI, general audience of 2 August
The Geneva Convention forbids the harming of civilians, even in war. And says the wounded must be treated without cruelty and allowed to have medical help. While the testimonies gathered tell of ambulances and of humanitarian convoys being indiscriminately hit. Among other things, there are ever more voices claiming that the Israeli forces are using weapons banned by the Convention, such as phosphor devices, pressure and fragmentation bombs. All false, as the Israeli generals assure us? A look on the internet, that shows children reduced to smoking cinders and similar butchery, leaves more than one doubt. «I haven’t been an eyewitness of happenings of the kind, but I see that the Arab television channels are denouncing these breaches with force, they show images...». Monsignor Alwan goes on: «The problem is that the whole Israeli reaction seems disproportionate. I understand the motives of a country that feels threatened, that sees two of its soldiers kidnapped, but I don’t understand this reprisal killing so many innocent civilians and devastating all the infrastructure of the country». “Disproportionate reaction” has been the refrain used by those out in the world who have criticized the Israeli intervention in Lebanon. Cardinal Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, also used this expression at the end of his journey to the United States. He was looking for peace across the Atlantic, in vain. On his return from that journey the Patriarch called together all the Lebanese bishops who at the end of the meeting launched a dramatic appeal begging for an end to hostilities and humanitarian aid to be sent to the population. The Pope also launched repeated invocations for peace and named Sunday 23 July as a day of prayer and penitence to ask for the gift of peace. But up to now the appeals have fallen on deaf ears. «We are only a spiritual force», is the realistic comment of Father Charbel Mhanna, superior of the Maronite Mariamite Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Lebanese religious order that numbers 110 priests distributed in sixteen monasteries scattered all over Lebanon: «The Church doesn’t have the strength to impose anything». As we contact him, Father Charbel is in the College of the Mariamite Maronites at Saint Peter in Chains, in Rome, and has nearly finished putting together a cargo of humanitarian aid to be sent to his country: «We are trying to use all possible channels to get the aid to its destination, everything is needed».

The Church and the dark
Lebanon is an Arab Country in which the Christian presence is an important part of society. As Monsignor Alwan says, there has always been an unwritten law in Lebanon – in force even during the fratricidal wars of Christians against Moslems and those against the Druze and so on – that requires a Christian as president of the Republic, a Sunni Moslem as prime minister and a Shiite Moslem as leader of the House. The Church, the people we asked explained, while condemning the Israeli reprisal, doesn’t side with either of the two adversaries, but pursues and prays for peace and the good of the Lebanese people. «We are all involved in this war, both Christians and Moslems, those in favour of the Hezbollah and those against». Father Abdo explains: «The slaughter is clear for all to see. We are under siege, the whole country is at a standstill. The Israelis bomb everything, even the trucks bringing humanitarian aid. In the south, then, the situation is even more tragic still, they lack electricity, water, medicine. We hear on the radio incessant appeals from people asking for help. It’s not only those injured by the bombing that need treatment, there are also the people affected by the usual sicknesses, such as diabetes or heart trouble, men and women who no longer have any health services...».
While the buildings crumble under the bombs, while in various ways the delivery of humanitarian aid is hindered, the Church is trying its best to bring help to the wretched local population. «Caritas was the first humanitarian organization to bring help to the victims of the war, distributing food and medical care», says Father George Massoud Khoury, president of the Lebanese Caritas: «The Catholic organizations have opened their doors to the needy. And without any discrimination, either religious or political. If we’ve been able to do so it’s also thanks to the network of solidarity that has been created between the Catholics in Europe and in the United States, a thing for which we can’t but be thankful. But this crisis, unfortunately, won’t last just some weeks, it will be a long one. Let’s hope that this solidarity stays intact to its end».
«I believe that this war, with its load of horrors, had made something new blossom. Christians and Moslems have never been so united. All of Lebanon is united now as never before» Father Marcel Abi Kalil, abbot of the Maronite Mariamite mission of Deir El Kamar
The most unforeseeable thing that has happened in Lebanon in these days is the opening of all the ecclesiastical structures to the victims of the war. It was the Patriarch himself who decided that the Church was to open its monasteries, its convents, its schools and its presbyteries to the crowds fleeing from the bombs. As I am dashing down these lines the refugees number around 700,000. An enormous number, even not taking into account that the population of Lebanon comes to only 4 million inhabitants. People who have lost everything and who need everything. «We have opened all our structures», confirms Father Charbel: «The area where this has happened in the most massive way is around the patriarchate. Not least because it’s believed that it’s an area to be spared. If they bomb there... My parish is also lodging many refugees, both Christians and Moslem...». An admirable work of charity that is flourishing under the bombs. Like all things in life, this also has features that are less than idyllic, such as, Father Fady Tabet recounts, the misunderstandings with Hezbollah refugees who wanted to raise their banners over the monasteries, but something new has certainly happened. Something that distances even more, except for unforeseeable mishaps, the tensions of a time, when knives were drawn between Lebanese Christians and Moslems. And certainly the work of General Michel Aoun, historic Christian political leader, who for some time has engaged in positive dialogue with the Moslem political leaders, is not foreign to this little new beginning.

«It looks like Stalingrad»
Where help to the war refugees is most attractive (can that be said during a massacre?) is in the south, the south scorched by the Israeli bombs driving out the enemy guerrillas. At the beginning of the war the Sciites, who are in the majority in the area, flooded into the four villages with a Christian majority, in search of refuge. Not least because, in the meantime, all the channels of communication between the south and the north had been hammered by the artillery, the bridges destroyed, and thousands of unlucky people closed in a deadly trap. «I know of a village in the south where there are around 35,000 refugees», Father Fady explains: «They have nothing, so the children are forced to eat grass and drink polluted water». In the south, for the last fifty years, a school of the Lebanese Maronite missionary fathers, the Collège de Kadmous, has been in operation, where 97% of the pupils are Shiite Moslems. The school now gives refuge to hundreds of refugees. It is difficult to get through to the missionary fathers, given that the phone lines have been destroyed. When I finally manage to contact the director of the school, thanks to a mobile, reception is very disturbed. The only thing to be heard clearly is: «There’s war». Several times, in French. The nth bombardment is going on, and the school has several times been grazed by the bombs. I close the phone, thinking with apprehension of that agitated voice that for so many poor wretches is the only oasis of hope in that storm-torn sea.
Tyre, 26 July 2006

Tyre, 26 July 2006

A little farther north things are better. The phone call, that is. Father Marcel Abi Kalil is abbot of the Maronite mission of Deir El Kamar, in the Chouf, a region backing on the south. Formerly superior general of the Maronite Mariamite Order, there are currently six religious in his monastery. Father Marcel tells of Israeli raids that have reduced the cities of the south to a heap of rubble: «It looks like Stalingrad», he comments. He says that the refugees who have flooded into Deir El Kamar number 40,000. At the moment 300 of them have taken refuge in the school; a similar number are lodged in Christian homes, given that there was no other place to put them: «The Israelis drop leaflets warning that they’re about to bomb. There’s just the time to jump in the car and run for it, without taking anything with you». He tells of stunned, terrified people flooding into the Christian villages with nothing: «At the beginning I believe there was distrust. Maybe they didn’t expect such a generous reception from the Christian community. Instead the Christians immediately came to the help of their Shiite brethren in misfortune. The parish organized a collection and all the faithful brought something: mattresses, clothing, foodstuff, cutlery, medicine. Thanks to them we were able to give these our brothers in misfortune initial help. Then Caritas arrived. We set up refugee camps and have been able to do things more effectively». Father Marcel’s voice is cheerful on the phone, despite the situation: «Some of them were miserable, because they’d lost everything. We said: “You have lost nothing, because we are your brothers”. They began to cry». And he tells of a pregnant woman who escaped the murderous bombs and got out of the ruins of her home, got in the car to search for a refuge. Her son was born in a camp at Deir El Kamar, and she decided to call him Nasrallah, after the leader of Hezbollah; and after the Patriarch of the Maronites, because she was touched by the goodness of the Christians. «I believe that this war, with its load of horrors, had made something new blossom. Christians and Moslems have never been so united. All of Lebanon is united now as never before.»
I wanted to close this article with this small, harmless, flower of charity because this tortured Middle East, crushed between the folly of the Apocalypse and the misery of ever more desperate crowds, now more than ever needs the concern of men of good will. Maybe also of a force of international intervention. Certainly of a new dialogue between the West and “Arabia”.
In short, there is need of everything. Above all of miracles.


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