By Hannah Brockhaus
With the 6th anniversary of the start of the Syrian war as backdrop this week, Pope Francis met Thursday morning with the President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun.
Their discussion centered on the large number of Syrian refugees now in Lebanon and the efforts to find a solution to the conflict.
According to a March 16 statement by the Vatican, in the 20-minute meeting, the Pope and President Aoun discussed Syria “with special attention to international efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.”
The Pope expressed appreciation for the many Syrian refugees Lebanon has welcomed during the years of the Civil War. The two leaders also exchanged views on the greater regional context and other ongoing conflicts, particularly the situation for Christians in the Middle East.
Lebanon, officially known as the Lebanese Republic, is a sovereign state bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south. Before President Aoun, 82, was elected on Oct. 31, 2016, the Lebanese parliament was under a 29-month deadlock to choose the next president.
During the audience, Pope Francis and Aoun both expressed satisfaction at the efforts of the various political parties to put an end to the long presidential vacancy.
The encounter also “focused on the good bilateral relations between the Holy See and Lebanon, underlining the historic and institutional role of the Church in the life of the country,” the Vatican statement read.
The two emphasized, the statement continued, “the hope for an increasingly fruitful future collaboration between the members of diverse ethnic and religious communities in favor of the common good and the development of the nation.”
At the visit, President Aoun gifted the Pope a statue of the Infant Child of Prague with emblems of the Holy See and of Lebanon and Francis gave Aoun a bronze sculpture of olive branches as a sign of peace, as well as three books: Evangelii Gaudium in French, and Amoris Laetitia and Laudato Si in Arabic.
Since the start of the civil war on March 15, 2011, 400,000 people have died in the conflict between government forces and rebel groups, and over 11 million have been displaced from their homes, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Five million registered refugees have fled the country, at least 2.2 million of these residing in Lebanon and 1 million in Jordan. This has placed considerable strain on the countries, which previously had populations of just 4 million and 6 million, respectively.