Lebanon is one of the 40 smallest countries in the world, yet it houses the largest proportion of refugees per capita. Its proximity to Israel and Syria has meant that thousands of Palestinians and Syrians have sought refuge in this country which, despite suffering a cruel war in the 1990s, is one of the most democratic in the Middle East. The presence of more than one million refugees has placed a huge burden on the government and has led to an aggravation of the political and economic crisis the country is suffering. The Archbishop of Furzol, Zahle and the Bekaa for the Greek Melkite Catholics, Issam John Darwish, spoke in an interview with Maria Lozano for the Pontifical Foundation for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), about the protests and demonstrations taking place throughout the country since 17 October 2019, as well as immigration and its consequences.
ACN: What is the Church’s position about the protests taking place in Lebanon? And what are the primary demands of the people?
The demonstrations here have a pure economic background; religions have nothing to do with it. And Christians are practicing the religious rituals normally without any problem. The main trigger for the demonstrations is that the government was planning to put extra taxes on the citizens. Now the majority of the people participating in the demonstrations have no more confidence in the government. Their main demands are a government of specialists to save the country, to declare bank transparency of politicians’ accounts and to recover looted money.
ACN: Who are the protesters, are they especially young people as in other countries where social protests are taking place? Do you think people have a real chance to be heard?
Actually everybody is protesting. Men and women, young and old, Christians and Muslims, students and parents and the demonstrations are not located in one place. In every region in Lebanon, there are demonstrations, even in Zahle. People are doing their best to be heard. Politicians give speeches and promise them that they are ready to make a change, but the people seem to have lost all confidence in them. They are calling on them to resign.
ACN: Do you think these events will have a positive impact on the unity of the country?
These events are certainly something that had never happened in Lebanon before. Christians and Muslims in all the regions of Lebanon are united behind the same demands. We note that the people are behind living demands like saying no to taxes, asking for medical insurance, asking for electricity, complaining about corruption, and the very bad economic situations they are living in. These demonstrations have no political backgrounds; people are asking all politicians to resign.
ACN: All religious leaders provided support to the people, except the Shiites. Why?
Actually I have no answer for this question. There might be a political reason or they are afraid that if the government resigns we might be facing a dramatic economic collapse. And that is what some politicians and religious leaders are afraid of.
How do demonstrations affect daily life in your area?
Until now people have been getting their necessities. But if the demonstrations last longer without any solutions from the government we might face bigger problems. Most of the roads are being closed each morning by the protesters. That’s why many of the people are not capable of reaching their place of work.
ACN: Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita worldwide. Does the Church in Zahlé also take care of refugees?
Eight years into the Syria crisis the estimated number of Syrian refugees exceeds 1.5 million; in addition to a large number of Palestinian refugees. And there is no end in sight to this situation. Our Archdiocese in Zahle and the Bekaa for Greek Melkite Catholics had the leading role in helping the displaced Syrians. We have supported and helped them since the beginning of their displacement to Lebanon until today, especially the Christian refugees, who were and still are invisible to all European and international communities because they live off camps. So they are always neglected in terms of support or help. The number of displaced Christian families was more than 2,000 families, among which 800 families are in our region.
ACN: This is an immense number of refugees in relation to the small population of Lebanon. Does it have repercussions in Lebanon? Is the current crisis in the country related to the refugees’ crisis?
Well, the presence of the refugees has an influence on the economic situation in Lebanon. Lebanon is a small country with many political and economic problems. Their presence caused additional burdens on the government. The unemployment rate increased; now Lebanese and Syrians find it hard to have jobs. The economic situation is very bad, the government tried solving it by putting extra taxes on the Lebanese citizens and that was the main cause that has launched the demonstrations.
ACN: The situation in Iraq and Syria has improved. Most of the refugees are from there. Are they starting to return home?
A small minority is returning back to their home country. The majority of the refugees are immigrating to Europe and Canada in search for a better future. In Zahle, many of them left without telling us, because they know that we are not in favor of their immigration. The other families are still here in Zahle, under our care.
ACN: What does ACN’s help do?
ACN helps by allowing and giving refugees the opportunity to have a hot meal every day at Saint John the merciful Table and also through humanitarian assistance, including the distribution of food packages, hygiene kits, diapers, mazout for heating, rent assistance, medical assistance, and school tuition. This help is very important to the refugees especially since Lebanon is having an economic crisis and a high rate of unemployment. The Lebanese themselves have been suffering from this severe economic situation for a long period and this is the main cause that launched the uprising and the demonstrations in the streets.