Crisis in Lebanon

Published August 8, 2020, 10:21 PM

by Former House Speaker Jose C. De Venecia Jr.


As though economic crisis, mass demonstrations since last year resulting in the resignation of then Prime Minister Saad Hariri, military conflict with neighbor Israel, and battling coronavirus were not enough, Lebanon is now besieged by another humanitarian crisis following a gigantic explosion in the capital city Beirut.

Lebanon is reportedly home to around 33,000 Filipinos, of which some 24,000 live or work in Beirut. Since last December, however, many of our countrymen there have lost their jobs due to the worsening economic condition and our Philippine Embassy in Beirut carried out a voluntary mass repatriation program. The coronavirus also claimed the life of our able Ambassador to Lebanon Bernardita Catalla in Beirut last April.

As of this writing, the massive Beirut blast has killed more than a hundred people and wounded more than 5,000, including several Filipinos. Many homes and buildings were reduced to rubble and some 300,000 families have been rendered homeless.

We convey our profound sympathies to the Lebanese government and people as they struggle with the heartbreaking catastrophe.

Many wonder how or why the Lebanese authorities allowed the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive and deadly chemical compound, which caused the massive blast, to be kept for six years at a port warehouse and, worse, allegedly without safety measures. Truly, it was a colossal disaster waiting to happen.

News reports compared the Beirut explosion to the massive blast in Texas City in 1947 which was triggered by 2,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate. The blast damaged hundreds of buildings and killed hundreds of people.

We remember visiting Lebanon the first time almost 50 years ago, when we were starting as a young pioneering entrepreneur in the Middle East and North Africa. We were impressed by how cosmopolitan Beirut was in the early 1970s. The city was vibrant. The streets, shops, and restaurants reminded us of Paris. Indeed it was once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East,” until civil war broke out in 1975.

In February last year, we flew once again to Beirut where we conferred with senior leaders of parliament and political parties of Lebanon, which are members of our International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP). Lebanon’s Future Movement Party and Free Patriotic Movement Party sit in the 39-member Standing Committee of ICAPP, which now represents some 350 ruling, opposition, and independent political parties in 52 countries in Asia.

Lebanon is the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, composed of the two divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia) and several Christian groups – Maronite Church, Orthodox Church, Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Protestant churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

It is interesting to note that in Lebanon, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. This arrangement helps provide unity and stability in a country of diverse religions.

In Beirut, we conferred with Speaker Nabih Berri of the Parliament of Lebanon, one of the longest-serving speakers in the world, as he has been holding the post since 1992 – 28 years. We also met with the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elie Ferzil and other senior leaders of parliament. We exchanged ways and means of enhancing Philippines-Lebanon parliamentary cooperation as well as helping advance the causes of peace and security in Asia through the channel of political parties under ICAPP.

Going back to the explosion in Beirut, we believe the Philippine government should send a humanitarian mission to Lebanon to show our solidarity and support to the Lebanese people and the international community, as Lebanon wrestles with a tragedy in the midst of the global pandemic.

Since it is overly difficult for us to send a medical team, as our doctors, nurses and other medical frontliners are already saddled with the rising COVID-19 cases in our country, perhaps we may provide search and rescue or engineering group. It is, after all, our nature as Filipinos to lend a helping hand even as we grapple with our own difficulties.

Truly, “these are the times that test men’s souls.”