By Courtney Mares
Pope Francis told Lebanon’s new prime minister on Thursday that the crisis-hit country is worth fighting to save.
The pope met privately with Prime Minister Najib Mikati for a 20-minute discussion at the Vatican on Nov. 25.
“Lebanon is a country, a message, and also a promise to fight for,” Pope Francis said after the two exchanged gifts in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, according to the Vatican.
Mikati presented the pope with a brick from the Melkite Catholic Church of the Savior, which was badly damaged by the Beirut port explosion in August 2020.
Pope Francis assured Mikati of his prayers for the efforts to help Lebanon get back on its feet. He recalled the Gospel passage, in which Jesus takes Jairus’ daughter by the hand and says to her: “Arise.”
“Lord God, take Lebanon by the hand and say, ‘Arise!’” the pope said.
The pope gave the prime minister a bronze casting depicting workers in a vineyard with the inscription, “May the fruit of the vine and the work of man become for us a cup of salvation.”
At the end of the meeting, Pope Francis asked the prime minister and his delegation to join him in a moment of silent prayer.
Mikati also met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.
“The meeting was an opportunity to reiterate how important it is to promote not only the notion of full citizenship for all Lebanese, but also peaceful coexistence, so that Lebanon continues to be a message of peace and brotherhood that rises from the Middle East,” a Vatican statement said.
The formation of a government in Lebanon after 13 months of political stalemate paves the way for a potential papal visit to the country.
Pope Francis previously said that he wanted to visit Lebanon once its leaders formed a government.
“His Holiness the pope will visit Lebanon but after a government is formed. And this is a message to the Lebanese, that we must form a government so that everyone can gather… to revive Lebanon with our friends,” Lebanese politician Saad Hariri said after a private meeting with the pope in April.
A Vatican official confirmed in June that the pope intended to visit Lebanon once it successfully formed a government, adding that the trip could take place next year.
Lebanon’s new prime minister faces the challenge of coming into power at a time when three-quarters of the population live in poverty and there are widespread shortages of medicine, fuel, and food.
The World Bank has described Lebanon’s financial situation as among the “most severe crisis episodes globally since the mid-19th century.”
It estimates that country’s real GDP contracted by more than 20% in 2020, with surging inflation and high unemployment.
Lebanon’s currency has plummeted in 2021. By June, the Lebanese pound had lost 90% of its value since October 2019.
In recent months, the state has only been able to provide electricity for less than two hours a day.
Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, welcomed the formation of the new government when it was announced on Sept. 10.
He wished the government success in carrying out reforms and improving the living conditions for all Lebanese people.
The Lebanese cardinal had been calling on the country’s political leaders for months to overcome partisan interests and form a government to help the country amid its economic crisis.
Other Maronite and Melkite bishops also recently issued a call to both religious and civil leaders convene a Conference of National Reconciliation and Forgiveness under the auspices of the United Nations and the Arab League.
Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, eparch of the Maronites in Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania, and Bishop Robert Rabbat, eparch of the Melkites in Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania, issued a joint statement on Nov. 25 that said that they were seeking the full support of the Vatican for the conference initiative.
“Without reconciliation, there is no resurrection for the nation, and without forgiveness, there is no life and hope for a modern pluralistic society,” it said.
Speaking at a Vatican day of prayer for Lebanon this year, Pope Francis said: “In these woeful times, we want to affirm with all our strength that Lebanon is, and must remain, a project of peace. Its vocation is to be a land of tolerance and pluralism, an oasis of fraternity where different religions and confessions meet, where different communities live together, putting the common good before their individual interests.”
The pope hosted the day of prayer with Catholic and Orthodox leaders from the country on July 1.
“Here I would reiterate how essential it is that those in power choose finally and decisively to work for true peace and not for their own interests. Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many. No more letting half-truths continue to frustrate people’s aspirations,” the pope said.