Brendan MacPartlin SJ, recently returned from an eight-day visit to the Lebanon, is convinced of the need for solidarity with the people there and with the Jesuits who serve them. He was on a Near Eastern Province (PRO) immersion programme set up on foot of requests made by the former Fr General, Adolfo Nicolás, for Jesuits to show active solidarity in countries where Christians are persecuted or under pressure. He was joined by Ivan Bresciani, Provincial of Slovenia, and Henri Raison SJ, former head of CERAS, the research and social action institute in Paris.
Brendan says he learnt an enormous amount during his time in Lebanon, a country that is 54% Muslim (half Sunni, half Shia) and 42% Christian (probably shrinking). “The people were friendly and exotic,” he says, “and the food was fantastic”.
The three visiting Jesuits were looked after and driven around the Province, visiting communities and individual Jesuits, by two Angeli – French scholastic Vincent de Beaucoudrey and Gabriel Khairallah, a Lebanese Jesuit who is looking forward to Tertianship in Dublin next year.
They went to a retreat house and farm in the Bekaa Valley, on the road to Damascus. “This was a rural apostolate to the poor, mostly Muslim. The farm was contracted to an NGO to do Eco farming involving waste processing and water filtration. It was inspiring to see the work they were doing”.
They also visited a JRS refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley. Altogether there are over two million Syrian refugees in camps and in civic life in Lebanon. Brendan notes that the overall population of Lebanon is six million – roughly the same as Ireland – but the country itself is about a quarter the size. Not surprisingly, there are “huge problems with traffic, rubbish and overbuilding”.
The JRS are also working in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. According to Brendan they are, as a Jesuit work, “more integrated with Jesuit personnel than in other JRS regions”. He says they are planning to shift the JRS/Jesuit work in Damascus and Aleppo from first-wave relief work to second- and third-wave education and developmental work, as the need changes. “The rebuilding of Syria is one great challenge,” he notes, “but so also are all the Muslim and migrant issues around the Mediterranean. While Christians had a hard time in Iraq, it appears that the Bashar al-Assad regime protects them.”
The Jesuits in Lebanon are also involved in education. Brendan and his Jesuit friends visited the Jesuit High School in Jamhour, Beirut, which has “about 3,000 pupils, a staff of 400, quality labs, robotics, sports facilities and a swimming pool. It’s the mainstay of the Christian Lebanese community going back generations.”
There are over 30 third-level institutions in Lebanon and the Jesuit University of St Joseph, which they also visited, is in the top three. “It’s French speaking, with large faculties and facilities in Medicine, Engineering, Law and the Humanities. They also have a small theology faculty.”
The main Jesuit residence in Lebanon is in Beirut, a building of 13 storeys which houses the Provincialate and three communities. “It’s from there that they produce their publications. Lebanese speak Arabic, French and English interchangeably. The Arabic dialects are understandable from country to country, with the exception of Turkey.”
Lebanon’s Government is confessionally diverse. “The President is a Shia Muslim, the Prime Minister is Sunni, and the Speaker is Maronite. There are 18 recognised confessions with seats in Parliament, including Maronites, Melkites, Armenians, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as Shia, Sunni, and Alawite Muslims and Druze”.
There are 80 Jesuits in Lebanon and 110 in total in the Near East Province. The latter comprises of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq. “This looks more like an incipient conference rather than a province. Many of the countries have two or three Jesuits or works. Some Jesuits have a vision around it, others comment that it is an administrative impossibility. It’s certainly big”, Brendan, adding that the the old Lebanon Province was well-developed from the 1850s onwards. “Its institutions are strong and they have eight scholastics. Egypt looks dynamic, with six novices. Other countries have small missions.”
The Jesuits in the Near Eastern Province face challenges such as connecting their community building projects on the ground with the people who have necessary expertise and funding. According to Brendan, “They need young men and older men. The younger Jesuits should learn Arabic to facilitate working in areas of specific need, for example with JRS in Syria, though at present entry to that country is not available to foreigners. But there is need for Jesuits to take part in migrant work in Beirut and to accompany the single Jesuit working in Iraq/Kurdistan. Older Jesuits are also needed to serve as ‘elder brothers’ for younger men”.
Having been truly marked by his immersion in the life and work of Jesuits in the Near Easter Province, Brendan believes that the PRO Province faces bigger challenges than the Irish Province. “But they have bigger opportunities and are perhaps more dynamic as they have the same number of Jesuits but a younger age profile.” The Irish Province, he says, certainly should be in solidarity with them, posing a question for reflection that has been with him since his return: “What does the Cosmic Christ ask of us?”