Explosion in Lebanon: rebuilding lives, hope and church institutions

17 August 2020

Photo credit: All Saints Anglican Church: damage to All Saints Church Hall, with all windows blown in.

On 4th August, waves of explosion blasted out from the port through the downtown neighbourhoods of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, abandoned in a port warehouse for seven years, had ignited, setting off massive explosions. Latest figures show that over 220 people were killed and a further 7,000 injured. Property has been destroyed in a vast radius around the port.

The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, whose diocese includes Lebanon, has launched an emergency appeal to aid the diocesan response. “Since the explosion, we have been in constant communication with Imad Zoorob, Archdeacon over Lebanon and Syria, who also serves as the Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Beirut, located about a mile from where the blast took place”, Archbishop Suheil said. “In the aftermath of the explosion, he was able to assess the status of our two resident congregations there, as well as the damage to All Saints and to our complex at the Near Eastern School of Theology (NEST).”

Archdeacon Imad Zoorob said he was thankful that the congregation all appeared to have survived and were physically unharmed. However, All Saints Anglican Church building suffered severe damage. He said: “The explosion was massive. So much was damaged, not only at All Saints, but parishioners’ homes. Thank God none of the parishioners was hurt, but I’m busy working to sort out the church and support at least 18 people affected by the explosion. I am working with the Diocese to help financially and to clean their homes… Thank God the pupils at St Luke’s (Centre for Disabled Children) were away because of coronavirus, and we’ve not suffered any damage there… so far.”

Archdeacon Imad described how the windows of the church hall and vestry had been smashed by the force of the blast, causing great damage to the building’s interior. The sanctuary itself was remarkably unharmed, leaving the small stained glass windows in place.

Joel Kelling, Anglican Alliance Middle East Facilitator, was immediately in touch with colleagues in Beirut after the explosion. He relayed early reports that most institutions had been affected in some way, with churches of every denomination damaged in the blast.

Revd Dr. Rima Nasrallah, lecturer at the Near East School of Theology, described the damage done to the institution, which the Anglican Church co-sponsors and where many of its diocesan clergy have trained. Large sheets of glass were shattered, rendering the facade naked. Professor George Sabra, the President of NEST, noted that even when enough money is raised to pay for new glass, the demand for the material and labour required will be incredible, so there is no knowing when it will be possible to complete the necessary repairs.

In addition to the tragic loss of life and the thousands injured, at least 300,000 people have been made at least temporarily homeless by the explosion. This is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable, who were already suffering – unable to afford food or unemployed because of the economic crisis and the COVID-19 lockdown. There are also 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 0.5 million Palestinian refugees sheltering in Lebanon.

Colin Gibson, PCC member of All Saints’ English-speaking congregation, shared his first-hand account during the Anglican Alliance’s Middle East online consultation. He said: “The extent of devastation is shocking. There is a lot of despair. People feel at the end of their tether with the economic meltdown, the COVID-19 pandemic – and now this”. In regard to the relief effort he explained that there were plenty of offers of volunteer support, although there appeared to be no coordinated action by the government – a situation he had discovered as he went through the streets with his organisation searching for families in need of support. Many individuals and groups – particularly parishioners and leaders of the churches – were working to provide relief and to clean up piles of broken glass.

Following discussions with colleagues in Lebanon, Joel Kelling commented: “There is much work to be done to repair the damage done by the blast, and more work to restore confidence in a government that truly serves the needs of the people of Lebanon. Hospitals were closed in the aftermath of the explosions, unable to operate, and in the days following the rate of COVD-19 infections is reported to have risen sharply. There is a possibility that the international aid offered will help to repair the physical damage, but assistance needs to go further, in order to resolve the economic crisis, political uncertainty and provide protection for vulnerable people, including migrants and refugees.”

Among the number of missing or unaccounted for are scores of migrant domestic workers, already a group marginalised and sometimes abused by employers and exploited by traffickers. As a result of the ongoing economic crisis, many have been turned out onto the street by employers unwilling or unable to pay their wages, and abandoned by embassies until they can be repatriated home. The Anglican Alliance was already in touch with the Diocese to hear how the Church was responding to the economic crisis and COVID-19 lockdown. Accounts were emerging of people in acute difficulties. The Anglican Alliance had already, prior to the explosion, connected with partners in the Communion, especially Episcopal Relief & Development, to support the Church in Lebanon in helping these highly vulnerable migrants, many from Africa. The humanitarian situation has of course been rendered even more desperate by last week’s disaster.

Archbishop Suheil Dawani has appealed to the Anglican Communion for financial aid for the church response to this catastrophe and to help repair the damage done to All Saints Church and NEST. Anglican partners from around the globe are responding to the needs of their Anglican sisters and brothers, as well as the wider community affected by this fresh disaster on top of the existing crises.

Support for Archbishop Suheil’s emergency appeal will be crucial to rebuild lives, hope and the church institutions – some of which are being rebuilt a third time after the former years of conflict.

Joel Kelling said: “We pray for those bereaved and injured by this explosion, for those rendered destitute and homeless, that God’s Holy Spirit may comfort them and that they will receive aid to restore their lives. We pray for the reconstruction of Beirut as a physical city and of Lebanon as a nation of peoples, restored with justice. We pray a new government may be formed that seeks to serve the common good; and that God’s love and mercy may shine out of this current darkness, through the hands and feet of God’s people.”