In June, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila traveled to visit persecuted Christians in Lebanon with a contingent of several other U.S. bishops. His visit was coordinated in part by St. Rafka’s Mission of Hope and Mercy, an apostolate founded by Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood. Read below to hear about Archbishop’s experience in his own words.
Denver Catholic: How did you come to have the opportunity to travel to Lebanon?
Archbishop Aquila: I was invited by Bishop Elias Zaidan, who is the Maronite Catholic Bishop of Our Lady of Lebanon Eparchy. His eparchy, which is the Eastern Rite equivalent of a Latin Rite diocese, is based in St. Louis but covers all the Maronite Catholics from Ohio to California. I have known him for a few years and he desired to take a group of U.S. bishops to Lebanon to see the needs of the faithful there and to understand the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
DC: What were some of the highlights of your visit?
Archbishop: There were so many moments over the course of the two weeks that made an impact on me. I was struck by how ancient the roots of the faith are in Lebanon, as well as the peaceful coexistence that is present between Christians and Muslims. Some of the highlights were: visiting the tomb, hermitage and monastery of St. Sharbel; celebrating Mass at St. George Church in Akoura and in St. Rafka’s Monastery; going to Our Lady, Mother of God Church, where I celebrated Mass on an altar from 600 A.D.; meeting Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun; praying with and meeting the various Catholic and Orthodox Patriarchs; visiting the Chaldean refugees from Iraq and helping distribute food and hygiene goods to them; and visits with the Catholic Relief Service team there, as well as with the Caritas Lebanon team.
DC: What struck you most about the Christians living there?
Archbishop: I was most impressed by their resilience in the face of persecution; the depth of their faith throughout the centuries. The Gospel reveals that Jesus visited Tyre and Sidon, which are in present day Lebanon, and that the Apostles preached there. The Christian faith in the land goes back to the very beginning of Christianity.
One Iraqi Christian refugee who introduced himself to me said that he was captured by ISIS and held for two months. His captors repeatedly commanded him to renounce his faith and become Muslim. If he refused, they said they would kill him. But he said he felt the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the voice of Jesus telling him, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” So, he responded, “I am Christian. God created me a Christian and I will not change my faith.” This witness gave me great encouragement about the faith of persecuted Christians.
I was struck, too, by the generosity of the Christians in Lebanon, who are helping refugees regardless of their faith.
DC: What do you want people to know about the situation Christians in the Middle East face?
Archbishop: Now that the military fight against ISIS is close to done, there is hardly any press coverage of what is happening to the millions of refugees who were displaced by the violence that has plagued Syria and Iraq. The reality is that the towns and cities that our Christian brothers and sisters fled are decimated. In the Nineveh Plain, where many Iraq’s Christians lived, numerous towns were completely emptied by ISIS. Only recently have Christian families been able to start returning with the help of organizations like the Knights of Columbus. But even then, they face the arduous task of rebuilding homes, churches and recovering from the trauma of what they experienced.
Lebanon needs help, as the situation there is far more complex than most Americans realize. The balance of Christians and the Sunni and Shia Moslems is delicate, and they are trying to recover from a war that severely damaged their country. They want to live in peace with each other, and yet outside influences, especially radical Islam, place all Christians in a tenuous position. Furthermore, Lebanon has a regular population of 4 million, yet has taken in 2 million refugees – 1.5 million Syrian and 500,000 Palestinians. One can only imagine how this has impacted the infrastructure of Lebanon and created a pressing need for the refugees to return to their home countries. The situation with the Palestinian refugees in Southern Lebanon and Hezbollah only complicates matters further. Peace is maintained on the southern border with Israel by the 40,000 U.N. peace-keeping personnel there. The country is truly beautiful, and the faith of the people is great, as is their desire to live with one another in peace.
The Christians in Lebanon and those we visited with from Iraq offer us a real example of heroic faith, and little of this is reported in the media, nor is the real situation in Lebanon presented well. The Christians in Lebanon most of all need our love, prayers and material support.