Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate says he does not want to deviate from his mission of forming a government of specialist ministers, as efforts to form the new cabinet continue to flounder.
France has been putting pressure on Lebanese politicians to form a new government and embark on reforms to try and find a way out of the deep financial and economic crisis that has crippled the nation.
The former government resigned in the wake of a massive explosion in the capital, Beirut, on 4 August, which killed over 200 people, injured some 6,000 and displaced more than 300,000.
The cause of the fire that triggered the blast in a warehouse in the port area is under investigation.
Meanwhile, record rates of unemployment and inflation, the collapse of infrastructure and social services, compounded by the COVID-19 emergency, have led to a situation in which hundreds of thousands are in need of humanitarian aid.
Pope Francis has expressed his closeness to the people of Lebanon and the Secretary-General of Caritas Internationalis is on the ground, in Beirut, to bring the solidarity of the Church and to coordinate with the local Caritas Offices that are providing much-needed humanitarian relief.
As he told Vatican Radio, Aloysius John also visited the site of the explosion.
Listen to the interview with Aloysius John
Aloysius John described the situation at the site of the explosion as “apocalyptic”.
“It was as if there had been a huge tsunami or tornado. Everything was down,” he said noting that all the nearby houses had also been devastated and everything is in ruin.
He was in Beirut, he explained to bring the closeness of the Church to the people as well as to coordinate with the local Caritas Lebanon and Caritas MONA offices, together with Lebanese religious leaders.
He said he visited various families and individuals who had been directly affected by the blast.
One woman, he said, told of how her 32-year-old son went to see a friend on the day of the explosion and never came back. She too, he said, suffered multiple cut injuries due to all the shattered glass and is still taking medication to stop the bleeding.
Another story he told was that of a disabled man who was fortunately out of his tiny apartment at the time of the explosion and therefore unhurt, but who came back to a severely damaged home with no windows. Thanks to Caritas volunteers, John said, the house has been rendered “livable” again and the man has a roof over his head.
Caritas Internationalis Secretary General in Lebanon
These are just a couple of thousands of stories, John said, noting that the people today are overcoming the shock and asking important questions, about the future.
“There are about 300,000 people in highly vulnerable situations,” he said.
Most of them have lost their houses, in the sense that their houses are no longer fit to be lived in; those who were renting are being thrown out by the owners who are unable or unwilling to do anything about the situation, also because they fear the insurances will not step in.
John said that today Caritas is one of the few organizations that is helping them; it is distributing about 10,000 food parcels every day and its volunteers have been on the ground since day 1 offering much needed psychological and social support as well.
“All this is happening in a state where there is no government and no social security or social help,” he said, recalling the words of one of the women who revealed, “it is only God who can help me and give me the courage I need.”
One of the reasons for John’s six-day visit to Beirut was to exchange information and coordinate with local Church leaders who are deeply involved in supporting the people.
He said the commemoration of those who died in the blast was an extremely important moment for the city and for the nation, and he said he had the opportunity, especially talking to Cardinal Bechara Rai and to Archbishop Michel Aoun, to gauge the depth of the crisis in the country that has been undergoing “turmoil and conflict, and all kinds of emergencies, as well as COVID-19 and the dire economic situation.”
What the Church is asking for today, he said, is solidarity and “how to transform this situation into an opportunity to change the system.”
John said he travels back to Rome with a series of requests and questions: the first being the need to continue to show solidarity and support to the people.
The second, he continued, pertains to the need to investigate the explosion: “was it a simple blast? Or is there something behind it?”
Speaking to people on the ground, he revealed, he understood that the situation is not clear and he said it is something the international community is called to deal with and ensure justice be done.
And looking not too far ahead, he said, there is a huge responsibility to make sure that all those left without a home be able to face winter with a roof over their heads and warm clothes and blankets. Those who survived the blast, he said, are afraid they will not survive the cold!
Once he is back in Rome, John said, Caritas Internationalis is committed to engaging with other parties at a global level as well as continuing to provide help through Caritas Lebanon during the coming months, also by incrementing a just-launched campaign by Caritas MONA.
On another level, he continued, there is the urgent need to look at the economic situation in the country and at how it has been affected by decisions of the “superpowers”, decisions that have led to such inflation “the people can’t even by food” with the salaries they are receiving.
“And now the government is not going to subsidize rent, petrol or medicine. That means the prices are going to be even higher. How are they going to pay for them?” he asked.
John also spoke of the devastating effect of the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States on Syria that can no longer afford to buy from Lebanon, creating a major crisis compounded by the fact that huge amounts of Lebanon’s wealth are in banks outside the country.”
“These are some of the things we will be focusing on as we lobby for Lebanon, ” he said, expressing his belief that justice is needed for everyone, especially for the poor.
“We will survive”
Regarding the formation of a new government, John said people are desperate but hopeful.
“We will survive” is a slogan, he said, that is written on posters and placards all over the streets.
They say “Lebanon has fallen a thousand times,” but they are adamant they will survive.
The key question for politicians, John said, should be “what they have in mind for the poor? Are they going to look at citizens as right-holders or are they going to look at them as people they can exploit? Are they going to act as duty-bearers to the citizens?”
We will have to see how things go, he concluded, but one thing is sure: “Lebanon is in political turmoil.”