By Louay Khraish
On Saturday, November 24, Pope Benedict XVI appointed six new cardinals from Colombia, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, the United States, and Lebanon. It was reported by Future Television that 1,500 dignitaries, representing the various religious and political groups in Lebanon, attended the ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, making the Lebanese delegation the largest among the six countries even though Lebanon is the smallest in population and geographic size.
The appointment of Patriarch Rai as a cardinal in the Catholic Church is an important event in Lebanon due to the historic role the Maronite Church had in the founding of the nation. Therefore, it is not surprising that representatives from across the political and sectarian spectrum scurried to Rome to witness the elevation of Patriarch Rai to the College of Cardinals. Lebanon’s delegation, which was headed by President Michel Suleiman, was made up of representatives from both March 8 and March 14, including one representing Hizbullah and two representing Saad Hariri, symbolically one Muslim and one Christian.
Should the Lebanese rejoice for having yet another cardinal? Should we be proud that Lebanon had the largest delegation despite our size? Should we be relieved that our politicians looked stunning in their black-tie attire, acted civilly towards each other, and spoke poetically about our Christian-Muslim diversity, unity, and peaceful coexistence? Not really!
First, most Lebanese are no longer convinced of this rhetoric. We heard it during the Pope’s visit to Lebanon last September. The minute the Pontiff was on his plane back to Rome, our politicians unleashed the evil inside of them and resumed spreading their poisonous, sectarian speech.
Did 1,500 dignitaries really have to accompany Rai to Rome? Wouldn’t it have been humbler, and thus more Christian, for Rai to have a smaller delegation in attendance? Wouldn’t it have been holier if his delegation were not made up of crooked politicians, former warlords, and exploitive businessmen? Wouldn’t it have been better to use the money spent on airline tickets, hotel rooms, and extravagant dinners to help poor families in Lebanon during this holiday season?
The average economy ticket from Beirut to Rome is $450 and first class, which most of our dignitaries probably flew, around $1,500. The cost of a hotel room in Rome ranges between $70 per night to $400 per night, and of course our politicians probably opted for the higher-end accommodations. With absence of any form of transparency in Lebanon, one can never really know the cost accrued to fly and house the dignitaries, but with a simple calculation, one can estimate it at $780,000 to $2,850,000. It is not clear whether the dignitaries paid for their own travel expenses or whether the Church or the government did. No matter who paid the bill, if Cardinal Rai and his delegation really wanted to show that they cared about the Lebanese, they could’ve used this staggering amount for a better purpose than lavishly basking in the media spotlight at the Vatican and feasting on the luxurious dinner that was held by the Maronite Foundation in the World.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates extreme poverty in Lebanon at 8 per cent of the population with more than a quarter million people unable to meet their basic daily needs, including food. Little current data is available on the average monthly household income in Lebanon, but the UNDP once estimated it at around $1000. If the money spent on the unnecessary trip to Rome could’ve been used to help the needy, 780 poor families (using the lower estimate) or 2,850 poor families could have been supported in the month of December or 65 to 237 families for the entire year.
Both Benedict XVI and Rai have urged Christians to stay in the Levant despite rising Islamism. It is not the rise of Islamism that is endangering the existence of Christianity in the Levant, specifically in Lebanon. Islam was not able to eradicate Christianity from Lebanon during the height of the Muslim Empire. What will eradicate it today is economics, and the economic plight of the Christians in Lebanon is no different than that of the Muslims.
If Cardinal Rai wants the Christians to stay in Lebanon and to peacefully coexist with their Muslim countrymen then he needs to concentrate on the economic issues that are affecting the average Lebanese instead of being the jet-setting Patriarch he has been since his election. Since becoming the 77th head of the Maronite Church a year and a half ago, the cardinal has traveled to Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. Unless he is seeking to ease restriction on visas or facilitate our emigration, one wonders what is the purpose of these trips, especially to countries like India and Hungary with no Maronite eparchies.
In the end, let’s remember that there is not one clergy or politician, whether a Christian or a Muslim, who is hungry in Lebanon or seeking to immigrate. While the Arab world revolts against political dictators, it seems in Lebanon we have to revolt against the political establishment and the religious dictatorships, both Muslim and Christian.