ALL SAINTS’, the Anglican church in Beirut, Lebanon, is doing its best to dispense financial aid to help members of the congregation and others to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic and life under a 24-hour curfew imposed since the middle of January. It was originally to have been lifted on 25 January, but was extended by two weeks.
The Rector of All Saints’, the Ven. Imad Zoorob, who is the Archdeacon for Lebanon and Syria, said on Monday that “money comes from the diocese [of Jerusalem] and churches around the world linked to us.” It was badly needed. The Lebanese economy “was in a terrible way before Covid. With the curfew, many people have no income whatsoever and are desperate.”
Illegal protests against the 24-hour lockdown have taken place in the northern city of Tripoli, resulting in clashes with the security services.
Food shops are open, but for deliveries only. All goods are priced in US dollars. The official exchange for $1 is 1500 Lebanese pounds. But, Archdeacon Zoorob said, “the black-market rate is eight or nine times that. So to buy a $1 item is costing you 8 to 9000 Lebanese pounds.”
The Archdeacon said that anyone wanting to send money should do so through the diocese, because “if you send it via the banks it will be wasted. We would receive it in Lebanese pounds at the low official rate.”
Another difficulty is keeping in touch with his congregation. “I can’t go and visit them, and they can’t get to church; so I stay in contact using WhatsApp.” On Sundays, the Archdeacon leads services online. One Lebanese member of the congregation of All Saints’ has died of Covid-19, and several others have contracted the virus.
The Lebanese health system, meanwhile, is close to collapse. Peter Ford, a member of the pastoral church committee, referred to the case of a Lebanese woman who caught the virus and had serious breathing problems. “They couldn’t find a hospital in Beirut that would accept her,” Mr Ford said. “But she had a relative working at a hospital at Baalbek” — a town 55 miles to the east and on the other side of the Lebanese mountain range — “and she managed to get her into a room there, with 30 other people, men and women.”
Mr Ford teaches at the Near East School of Theology, where he and his wife have a flat. Unable to step outside, for exercise “we walk the stairs or play ping-pong. We’re doing OK. The curfew should end on Monday, but they could always extend it. That would be disaster for so many.”
Lebanon is in trouble in several ways. This severe phase of the pandemic came in the wake of the huge explosion in August at Beirut port (News, 7 August, 14 August 2020). Since then, there has been no functioning government, and no chance of an international bailout.
When asked whether he remained optimistic, Archdeacon Zoorob said: “As a churchman, I’m always optimistic when I’m preaching or with my congregation. As a Lebanese citizen — no, really no.”
The Archdeacon missed out on a normal teenage life because the country was embroiled in a civil war: “I spent my teenage years in shelters, and now it feels like history repeating itself.”