BEIRUT: With the failure of local, regional and foreign mediation attempts to break the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock, the Lebanese, facing poverty, hunger and soaring unemployment, are looking for divine intervention to save them from the worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.
As Lebanon descended into deeper political and economic malaise, raising fears of a social explosion, the Lebanese people’s attention shifted to an inter-Christian religious summit in the Vatican headed by Pope Francis in the hope it would break a stalemate that for more than 10 months has left the country without a fully functioning government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn.
Pope Francis and Lebanon's Christian spiritual leaders began a summit Thursday to discuss how religion can help the country overcome a double economic and political crisis, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the Civil War. The Lebanese pound has been in a free fall since October 2019, losing over 90 percent of its value, pushing more than half of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty and unemployment.
Francis and the patriarchs of Lebanon's various Christian groups walked from the Santa Marta residence where he lives into St. Peter's Basilica.
The pope, dressed in his white cassock, and the leaders, dressed in black, lit candles and prayed before the tomb of St. Peter under the basilica's main altar.
The Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox and Protestant Churches were among those represented.
From the Basilica, the pope and the patriarchs moved to the Clementine Hall in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for a day of private meetings. A public ceremony, including a closing addressed by the pope, was due to start on Friday afternoon.
Francis has said he wants to visit Lebanon, but wants fractious politicians to agree on a new government.
The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said last week the visit could take place late this year or early next year. He suggested the pope could go even without a government in place.
Gallagher warned that the crisis in Lebanon was weakening the Christian community the multi-sectarian country.
"The Christian community is weakening, there is a risk that the internal balance in Lebanon itself will be destroyed, endangering the presence of Christians in the Middle East," Gallagher said.
Lebanon's three main Christian groups are Maronite Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Melchite Catholics. There are a number of other smaller Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic groups.
Francis has said he would invite Lebanon's Christian leaders to the Vatican on July 1 to reflect and pray for "peace and stability" in the stricken Middle Eastern nation.
Both President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, whose deepening rift over the distribution of key ministerial seats has stalled the government formation since caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned last August in the wake of the massive Beirut Port explosion that killed more than 200 people, hoped that the Vatican meeting would bolster coexistence and national unity in the politically-divided country.
“Today, the world is joining his holiness Pope Francis in prayers and meditation for the sake of Lebanon. Our call together, Christians and Muslims, is to strengthen the values of right, justice, balance and mutual respect that consolidate our national unity so that we can together restore to our nation its unique message in coexistence in its environment and the world,” Aoun wrote on his Twitter account.
Hariri expressed hope for the success of the Vatican summit to safeguard Lebanese coexistence.
“It is not strange for the Vatican to keep Lebanon in its heart through the gracious invitation sent by his holiness Pope Francis to 10 spiritual leaders with the aim of helping Lebanon emerge from its difficult situation,” Hariri wrote on his Twitter account. “We hope that this meeting will be crowned with success with the prayers of all the Lebanese to protect their coexistence, and for our country to be blessed with the pope’s visit as he has promised, and for Lebanon to remain more than a country, it is a message.”
Hariri, a three-time prime minister, resigned in 2019 after nationwide protests against a political elite blamed by demonstrators for pushing the country into crisis, which has its roots in decades of rampant corruption and mismanagement.
The Cabinet formation process has been stalled for more than 10 months over a rift between Aoun and Hariri regarding who should name two Christian ministers who are not part of the president’s Cabinet share. Hariri also wants the Free Patriotic Movement’s Strong Lebanon bloc to grant a confidence vote to the new government in exchange for allotting eight ministers to Aoun in the proposed 24-member Cabinet.
In an ominous development that carried with it the seeds of a much-feared social explosion as a result of the dire economic crisis, gunmen took to the streets in the northern city of Tripoli Wednesday, firing in the air to protest severe power cuts, and the Lebanese pound’s dramatic nosedive against the US dollar that sent prices of food and other essential goods skyrocketing. The Lebanese Army intervened to restore calm in the city.
The foreign ministers of the United States, France and Saudi Arabia Tuesday jointly pushed for Lebanon's squabbling leaders to come together to address the country's mounting crises. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held an impromptu three-way meeting on the Lebanon troubles with his Saudi and French counterparts on the sidelines of talks of the Group of 20 major economies in Matera, Italy.
The three discussed "the need for Lebanon's political leaders to show real leadership by implementing overdue reforms to stabilize the economy and provide the Lebanese people with much-needed relief," Blinken wrote on Twitter.
Al-Joumhouria newspaper Thursday quoted Western diplomatic sources as saying that the US, French and Saudi ministers’ meeting was “very important for Lebanon.”
“The international community is encouraging leaders in Lebanon to form a government to begin reform and rescue steps,” it said., quoting sources.
A political source said the meeting reflected increased US-French coordination on Lebanon, which began when Blinken met with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elyesse Palace last month, in addition to his talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The US and French sides have agreed to push for the formation of a government in Lebanon and to exert more pressure on Lebanese politicians for this purpose, the source said. He added that Washington and Pars were also trying to convince Saudi Arabia to help Lebanon out of its crisis by prodding its allies there to form a government.
Blinken repeatedly discussed Lebanon on a week-long European tour including with Pope Francis and Le Drian, whom he also saw in Paris last Friday. Blinken also met separately in Italy with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and said he raised both the war in Yemen and human rights. - With Reuters