The Maronites, an ethno-religious Christian group in Lebanon, have long enjoyed a unique position in the Middle East as the only Christian group with widespread autonomy throughout centuries of Islamic rule. They have been given Bkerké, the See of the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate and a unique spiritual center in the region. Charles Malik, the Greek orthodox Lebanese philosopher and diplomat, wrote in his (1980) letter to the Maronites about the importance of the Maronite patriarchate in Lebanon noting that: ‘Bkerké is extremely vital. In fact, if Lebanon happens to fall into ruins while Bkerké remains safe, sound, and strong, embracing the mission to which it has long been entrusted with an ironclad fist, it can rebuild Lebanon. But, if God forbid, Bkerké happens to be devastated, weakened, or languished, Lebanon alone cannot rescue Bkerké and help it regain its strength and rebuild itself. If Lebanon lies in ruins, it might not be able to rebuild itself if Bkerké is also in ruins.’
Today, Lebanon is in ruins. The small country is facing its worst economic crisis; it has entered hyperinflation with a currency that lost 80% of its value. And, with the Central Bank Reserves depleting, by the end of 2020 it may fail to finance the country's basic needs such as fuel, medications and wheat. The Matryoshka doll of misery does not end there; the Beirut explosion on 4 August killed hundreds, injured thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, causing damage and losses worth some $10 billion (USD).
At the root of Lebanon’s collapse lies a Ponzi scheme, corrupt politicians, and militia rule. The Lebanese ruling class are doing nothing to save the country from drowning other than kicking the can. But Lebanon no longer has the luxury of time. As French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said: ‘Lebanon is at risk of disappearing.’ In these circumstances, Bkerké is stepping in and fulfilling its role which, according to Malik, depends on living at the decisive moments of history.
The Maronite Patriarch Attacks the Lebanese Ruling Class
In his sermons, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, has vocally criticised the Lebanese political elite by arguing that: ‘It appears politicians want to hide their responsibility in emptying the treasury and not enact any reforms…[They] do not have the courage nor the freedom to meet and find ways out of the suffering.’ He has also expressed support to the Lebanese revolution — which recently celebrated its first anniversary — seeing it as ‘a glimmer of hope’ and highlighting the importance of cooperation with the protesters ‘so that it becomes a civilized revolution not a chaotic one.’
Most importantly, the patriarch is also now well aware of the dangers Hezbollah poses to Lebanon, and its Christian community, in particular. The Iranian-funded militia has its own economic networks, regional goals and maintains control over the failed state of Lebanon. For more than a decade, it has hijacked the Lebanese political process on multiple occasions— blocking the latest French reconstruction initiative is only the most recent example.
The country’s main Shiite groups’ (re: Hezbollah and Amal) insistence on securing the key Finance Ministry blocked the formation of a new government that would supposedly unlock foreign aid for Lebanon. This infuriated Al Rai, who said: ‘Which constitutional act permits the monopoly of a particular ministry portfolio? We reject this monopoly because it aims to establish the hegemony of a group over the state,’ hinting on Hezbollah.
The militia is also known for its total control over the Beirut port, airport, avoiding taxes and smuggling subsidised resources like fuel to Syria. It also often intimidates and assassinates its domestic rivals. Many also believe that Hezbollah hides weapons and dangerous materials like ammonium nitrate around residential areas. In a veiled attack, the Maronite patriarch addressed this issue: ‘Authorities must carry out raids on all weapons and explosives caches and warehouses spread illegally between residential neighborhoods in cities, towns and villages…Some Lebanese areas have been transformed into fields of explosives [and] we do not know when they will explode or who will detonate them.’
The deterioration of the relationship between Hezbollah and Bkerké hurts Hezbollah because the militia likes to present itself as the protector of all minorities, including Christians, for propaganda purposes. However, this is just the latest episode as the relationship between the two was significantly tarnished already a few years ago. Hezbollah’s electronic army attacked Al Rai, when he visited Jerusalem in 2014, accusing him of treason and considering his visit a ‘historic sin.’
A Return to the Lebanese Identity
The patriarch was also attacked for his proposal and promotion of “active neutrality,” which he considers essential for the country’s survival and historical vocation. He believes there is no salvation for Lebanon without neutrality: ‘Lebanon has always been open to all countries, east and west, except for Israel, which occupied our land; therefore, Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the east. Today, Lebanon has become isolated from the whole world, yet this contradicts with our identity which is positive and constructive neutrality, not wars.’
The concept of active neutrality rests on three key premises, the first would be that Lebanon not enter alliances, axes, political conflicts, regional or international wars. Active neutrality is a major concern for Hezbollah, which is aligned to Iran in the so called Axis of Resistance and has its fighters engaged in conflicts across the region. Despite that, the patriarch’s appeal for neutrality has been met with wide approval from the other political groups and sects in Lebanon.
Yet, neutrality alone cannot be the panacea to the crises the small country is facing. Lebanon needs to break Hezbollah's chains, which block the path to progress. This requires international and regional engagement, including with Iran. Lebanon also needs to rethink its system to solve its political and institutional sclerosis and move towards a more decentralised system. And, most importantly, to fix the severe economic crisis, it needs to unlock a deal with the International Monetary Fund and reorganise its banking sector.
The Gulf countries can help Lebanon get back on its feet by securing new deposits that could ease the pressure on the Lebanese Lira, as they did before, in 2006. However, today, Hezbollah’s large influence over the country poses a serious obstacle to obtaining such assistance from the Gulf. All six GCC members designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and they will not come to Lebanon’s financial rescue unless a new government that can act independently of Hezbollah is formed.