The National News Agency reported Wednesday that Lebanese President Michel Aoun will lead an official visit to the Vatican and Italy March 20 to 23. A source close to the presidency speculated that “the details of the Pope’s much-awaited visit to Lebanon next September” will be discussed during the visit.
“President Aoun is going to the Vatican to invite the Pope once again and to discuss the situation in Lebanon,” the source said, “and to thank him for his prayers and for everything the Holy See has done to provide Lebanon with a diplomatic umbrella.”
The source detailed that the Pope will formally receive Aoun Monday, March 21. Then, he will hold a work meeting with the Vatican’s number two official, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states.
On March 22, Italian President Sergio Mattarella will receive Aoun, who will congratulate Mattarella on his Jan. 29 re-election for another seven-year term. Aoun will return to Lebanon on the evening of March 22.
A surprise announcement
The announcement that Lebanon’s head of state will visit Italy was a surprise. Italy’s Agenzia Fides reported that Lebanon’s ambassador to the Holy See Farid Elias el-Khazen announced the date of the impending visit simultaneously in Beirut, in cabinet, and in Rome.
The diplomat recalled that Aoun’s visit follows Archbishop Gallagher’s visit to Lebanon in early February. Khazen indicated that while the war in Ukraine has been the current focal point of the Holy See and the world generally, the See’s solicitude about Lebanon’s predicament will remain unchanged “at all levels,” no matter what happens.
Observers believe that Aoun’s Vatican visit sends a positive signal to the international community and indirectly underscores Lebanese authorities’ declared intent to hold legislative elections in May, which (along with the formation of a new cabinet) is among the prerequisites guaranteeing the country’s internal political stability, which in turn is deemed indispensable for the Holy See’s visit to Lebanon.
Misrepresenting of the Vatican’s position
While controversies and clashes between Lebanese political parties have escalated in the run-up to parliamentary elections, Lebanon’s Vatican ambassador publicly condemned those who misrepresent the Vatican’s position in the media, wrongly attributing positions to the Holy See that are favorable to one side of Lebanon’s political divide, or the other.
Western diplomatic sources refer to a press report suggesting that, while he was in Lebanon, Archbishop Gallagher had purportedly recommended that the US remove Hezbollah from its list of terrorist organizations.
Contacted by L’Orient-Le Jour, Lebanon’s Vatican ambassador recalled that Archbishop Gallagher had simply said that the Holy See is “ready to assume the role of facilitator of a dialogue between the political parties, in case an official request is made in this regard by all concerned parties.”
In addition, Archbishop Gallagher had expressed concerns about the situation in the country and the region generally. “The future of Lebanon is not certain,” he observed, and called on foreign countries to “stop using Lebanon and the Middle East to serve their foreign policy interests.”
“Weakening the Christians’ presence,” ,” Archbishop Gallagher had said, “would undermine Lebanon’s internal balance and identity.”.
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour Joseph Spiteri, Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, shared Gallagher’s perspective. Given current threats, he hoped for “a little more collaboration among the Christian candidates.”
“Everything has become more difficult with the tragedy in Ukraine,” he added. “The aid, the international community’s focus, the Middle East crisis, the US-Iran talks, the fate of displaced Syrians... President Aoun will certainly raise all these issues during his one-on-one meeting with the Holy Father, and then with Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury