By Philip Pullella
VATICANCITY – Pope Francis, meeting the prime minister of Lebanon, on Thursday compared the country to a dying person and promised to do everything in his power to help it “rise again”.
Francis and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who took office in September after a year-long government vacuum, met privately for about 20 minutes and discussed the country’s devastating economic and social crisis, the Vatican said in a statement.
The fallout from Lebanon’s financial collapse in 2019 has left swathes of the nation in poverty and foreign donors are demanding an audit of the central bank and financial reforms before they release funds.
U.N. agencies have warned of social catastrophes, with one report saying that more than half of families in Lebanon had at least one child who skipped a meal amid a dramatic deterioration of living conditions.
“Lebanon is a country, a message and even a promise worth fighting for,” Francis told the extended Lebanese delegation after the private meeting.
He then referred to the Gospel story of Jairus in which Jesus raises up the man’s 12-year-old daughter, who was believed to be dead. Jesus told the parents she was only sleeping and the girl rose up when Jesus commanded.
“I pray that the Lord will take Lebanon by the hand and say ‘arise’,” the pope said, adding that the country was going through a “very difficult, ugly period” of its history.
“I assure you of my prayers, my closeness and promise to work diplomatically with countries so that they unite with Lebanon to help it rise again,” he said.
The seemingly never-ending crisis has sunk Lebanon’s currency by more than 90%, caused poverty to skyrocket and led many Lebanese to emigrate.
Mikati’s government was finally formed after a year of political conflict over cabinet seats that only worsened the crisis.
In August, on the first anniversary of the huge chemical blast at Beirut port that killed 200 people and caused billions of dollars of damage, Francis promised to visit Lebanon as soon as the situation permitted.