When Pope Benedict XVI visited Lebanon on Sept. 14-16, he worked hard in public statements and in private conversations to consolidate peace in that country of 4 million people, and to diminish the threat of its being dragged into the war in Syria. 

Indeed, the armed conflict now raging in Syria was the backdrop to the papal visit. On the plane from Rome, the pope spoke about it with journalists and called for an end to the fighting there, a halt to the flow of arms to that country, and new initiatives for peace.

Concern and divisions

At least 350,000 people are seen in this aerial view as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Beirut Sept. 16. CNS via Reuters

On his last day in Beirut, speaking at the end of Mass, he again returned to the issue of Syria, saying, “Sadly, the din of weapons continues to make itself heard, along with the cry of the widow and the orphan. Violence and hatred invade people’s lives, and the first victims are women and children.” 

He concluded with a passionate appeal to “the international community” and to “the Arab countries” to propose “workable solutions” that respect the dignity, rights and religion of every person and bring peace to Syria and elsewhere in the region. The previous day, speaking to young people, he called on Christians and Muslims “to come together so as to put an end to violence and war.” 

Many Lebanese are concerned about the conflict in Syria, where tens of thousands have been killed, millions have been displaced from their homes and hundreds of thousands have fled and sought refuge in other lands — Turkey, Jordan and, especially, Lebanon. 

The war has impacted Lebanon in other ways, too. It has hit its already-struggling economy, seriously hampered tourism and divided the society into those who support the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, and those who want him removed from power. The division runs deep through all strata of society: through religious communities, political parties and even the security services. The Lebanese who have seen too much war over the past half-century do not want to be dragged into the Syrian conflict, though it could happen. 

Providing aid to displaced

That division in Lebanese society over Syria has also impacted on the tens of thousands of refugees who have entered the country because the government chooses to ignore their plight for fear of being accused of taking sides in the Syrian conflict. 

“We have very many displaced people here in Lebanon — men, women and children, young and old,” Issam Bishara, director of the Pontifical Mission’s office in Beirut, told Our Sunday Visitor. Pope Pius XII set up the Mission in 1949 to help Palestinians then forced to leave their homeland, but it has since developed into the Holy See’s relief and development agency for the Middle East. It is administered by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), based in New York. 

While the United Nations claims there are 69,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Bishara said the number is far greater because the United Nations only counts those registered with it, whereas many refugees do not register because they fear the Syrian regime will discover them and bring trouble for their families. 

“There is a continuous daily flow, in and out, across the long border we share with Syria, and it’s difficult to have precise figures,” Bishara said. He knows, because his agency works in partnership with Catholic churches and parishes across Lebanon, providing assistance to the displaced, originally to Palestinian refugees, but now also to those from Syria. There are many Christians among the arrivals from Syria, including many originally from Iraq. 

The situation of the refugees is desperate, but given the Lebanese government’s neutral stance, it falls to agencies like the Pontifical Mission and its partners to respond to their needs. 

‘Peace zone’

One of the mission’s partners is the St. Antoine Dispensary in northwest Beirut, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. Originally privately run, the dispensary was given to the sisters during the Lebanese war (1975-91). They have placed a sign over the entrance: “Religion is for God, this dispensary is for everyone.” 

Some 100 laypeople work there, including 15 doctors, and several psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and clerical staff. Whole families arrive from Syria, fleeing the violence, and since the average Syrian (Muslim) family includes five or six children, there are “lots of children” among the refugees. The sisters and their team work with Syrian and Iraqi families, many of whom are Christian. “We are currently working with 2,250 families,” Bishara said. Half of the patients treated at the dispensary are children, 30 percent are women and 20 percent are men. 

“This is a peace zone created by Lebanese sisters in an environment of care,” Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of the Mission and CNEWA, told OSV after visiting the dispensary. “I have seen with my own eyes that the money given by American Catholics to CNEWA’s work is really well spent here.” 

Life in camps

Across the city, Chakib al Jabiri, a Syrian Muslim pro-opposition activist, identified two kinds of Syrian refugees: “the haves” and “the have-nots.” The former rent apartments or stay in hotels in Beirut, he said, whereas “the have-nots” seek refuge in places like the Palestinian refugee camp at Sabra and Shatila in southern Beirut, where “the poor help the poor.” 

Al Jabiri is part of an informal network of Syrian activists who help their displaced compatriots find temporary places of refuge in Beirut. His friend, Shadi Abou Karam, escorted OSV to the Sabra and Shatila camp in southern Beirut, where tens of thousands of poor Palestinians have given shelter to more than 1,000 Syrian families.

The camp resembles a makeshift town, with precarious buildings, narrow streets and primitive sewage and water systems. The apartments are very small, and electricity cuts out frequently, as in the rest of Beirut. 

The refugees fear there might be Syrian regime spies in the camp. They are afraid of being identified, so their real names are not used here. 

In a small apartment, composed of one room, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom, sat Fatima, a 27-year-old pregnant Muslim woman who was covered from head to foot, only her face and hands visible. Sitting on a mattress beside her 2-year-old daughter, she said she fled with her husband and child from Hama after riots started there and armed men smashed the windows of their home with gunfire. 

“We are lucky to be alive because so many people die each day in Syria, and most of them — like my husband and I — have nothing to do with the revolution,” she said. 

In a nearby apartment, Hada, a 19-year-old woman told how she came from Idlib with her six-month-old child and husband, after they feared they might be killed when the conflict broke out in their area. Fighters have since looted their home. Her husband has found casual work and earns $400 a month, half of which pays for the two rooms they share with his brother and sister-in-law. 

Many refugees denounced the killings carried out by both the Syrian army and the rebel forces. Among the latter, they said there are many Jihadists who have come from Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, and who show little respect for human life. They claimed Jihadists now count for 20 percent of the rebel fighters in Syria, which disturbs them. 

The pope drove nearby the Sabra and Shatila camp on his way to Harissa, but most of the Syrian Muslim refugees said they were not aware of his coming. “We didn’t know he was coming, but he is most welcome. But can he do something to help us?” they asked. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome. He traveled to Lebanon in September to cover the papal visit.