Images: (L-R) Al Jazeera News; OLOL Facebook; Screen grab, Seven News
The Maronite Catholic community of Sydney gathered at churches across the city last night, with services dedicated to mourning and prayer for loved ones affected by the massive explosion in the port of Beirut on Tuesday.
The explosion, which the New York Times says was “so intense that it was felt at least 150 miles away in Cyprus”, has left at least 135 people dead, 5,000 people injured, dozens missing, and 300,000 people displaced from their homes.
Hundreds gathered at the Maronite churches of Harris Park, Croydon, Mount Druitt and more, and at St Charbel’s Monastery in Punchbowl, to grieve for those lost, pray for those yet to be found, and give towards relief appeals.
“One moving post on Facebook reads, ‘Please Adra, answer me if you are safe’.”
As church members arrived at Our Lady of Lebanon (OLOL) Co-Cathedral in Harris Park, having their temperature checked as a COVID precaution as they walked in the door, one attendee told Channel 7, “It’s a disaster; it’s a new Hiroshima.” Another shared just how overwhelming the news been for his community: “We can’t concentrate on what we’re doing [outside of] this bloody disaster.”
Some are still waiting anxiously to hear from their loved ones in Beirut. One moving post left on the Facebook page of St John the Beloved Maronite church in Mount Druitt yesterday reads, “Please Adra, answer me if you are safe”.
The churches have partnered with the aid agency Maronites on Mission Australia to launch an appeal for relief efforts on the ground in Lebanon – a nation many older immigrants still think of as their ‘homeland’.
In Beirut, the Lebanese Maronite Order has opened the doors of its monasteries and schools to provide emergency shelter for those who have been left homeless by the explosion.
“We Hope the Cloud of Our Lord Will Overshadow This Darkness”
Yesterday as news broke of the blast, Father Tony Sarkis, Dean of OLOL Harris Park (pictured), wrote of his grief at the ongoing barrage of bad news for the Labenese community.
“This morning we have woken up to a scene in Beirut that has broken our hearts, a scene reminiscent of the civil war, a scene reminiscent of Hiroshima and its devastation,” he wrote.
“As if the political and socio-economic situation was not enough. As if the coronavirus and its effects were not enough. As if the regional instability and tension were not enough. The explosion that took place in the early hours of the evening last night at the Port of Beirut has resulted in hundreds of people who have either lost their lives or sustained great injuries, lost their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones.
“We don’t understand why this tragic event should happen in our beloved homeland… but in the midst of all these questions and as the cross of the Lebanese people gets heavier and heavier, let us stand united in prayer for our beloved country and its suffering people.
“In the midst of all these questions and as the cross of the Lebanese people gets heavier and heavier, let us stand united in prayer for our beloved country and its suffering people.”
“…We all hope that the cloud of our Lord will overshadow this darkness and we will be reminded to always look to him and listen to him, especially during this time… He is the one who by his cross conquered the darkness of this world.”
Father Sarkis urged Australians put aside their differences, and unite with Lebanese families in prayer and light a candle over the next three days for Lebanon, and for those who are suffering.
“It Must Have Felt Like the 25-Year Civil War”
This morning, Monsignor Shora Maree (pictured below) of Christ the Redeemer parish in the Hills district and St George parish in Thornleigh, wrote to his churches, calling to mind those in Lebanon who have already been traumatised by civil war.
“The last time I, and I am sure many of us, must have felt so low and shocked from such a tragedy, was maybe the morning of 9/11,” he wrote. “For the thousands caught up in the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday it must have felt like the impact of the whole 25-year civil war came back and hit them in one day.”
He encouraged people to take comfort in today’s Feast of the Transfiguration – an event celebrated by many Catholic communities, recalling the ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus – and to look to the words of Psalm 46:1-5 – “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.”
A Year Heavy With Disasters
It has been a heavy 12 months for the Lebanese community in Sydney, with the death of four young children from the Abdallah and Sakr families in a horrific road crash in February still very raw.
The children were members of the Maronite church community.
And in July, a member of the OLOL church in Harris Park tested positive for COVID-19, although it is not believed the parishioner contracted the virus at the cathedral.
On top of these local tragedies, the political tensions and economic crisis continuing in Lebanon have also been weighing heavily on Australia’s Lebanese community for many months.
Explosion Linked to Stockpile of Ammonium Nitrate
The Lebanese government has attributed Tuesday’s explosion to a dangerous stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – an explosive chemical used in fertilizer and sometimes in bombs.
The pink colour of the smoke cloud confirms this is likely the case, but an explosives expert has told the New York Times that the dense cloud also suggests the chemical stockpile was not military grade.
The NYT says the stockpile had been confiscated from an abandoned Russian-owned ship six years ago, and that port officials had failed in their attempts to have the stockpile removed. One Lebanese news channel reported that a fire broke out while welding work was being done on the warehouse, the fire spreading to the chemical stockpile.
The blast caused destruction in homes, apartments, churches, mosques, shopping malls, an entertainment arena, and hospitals. The New York Times reported that some hospitals had to turn away patients due to the damage, with some injured by the blast having to be treated in hospital carparks in the dark.
“Port of Beirut [receives] 80 per cent of all imports into Lebanon, so it is the main artery for this economy – for food, for medicine, for everything.”
Mark Daou from the American University of Beirut told Al Jazeera news the blast destroyed houses within a two to three kilometre radius of the port. Tragically, Lebanon’s strategic grain reserve silos located on the port, were also decimated, along with some of Lebanon’s big flour mills – wiping out at least three months’ worth of wheat.
In an already suffering economy, it’s a devastating blow, he said.
“Port of Beirut [receives] 80 per cent of all imports into Lebanon, so it is the main vein the, main artery for this economy – for food, for medicine, for everything. The damage is massive on every scale.”
Al Jazeera has reported that an investigation is underway with Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassian Diab promising justice to victims, saying the disaster “won’t pass without accountability”.
“Those responsible will pay the price for what happened,” he said. “This is a national commitment.”
How to Help
To support emergency relief work in Beirut, you may wish to donate to Maronites on Mission Australia’s disaster relief appeal.
Funds raised will go towards immediate needs such as food, medical supplies and repairs to damaged homes.