‘We serve people with love’: in Lebanon, Easter brings joy in a time of crisis

Christians find solace in solidarity as disappointment with Lebanese politicians grows

Coloured eggs are kept in baskets before being distributed during Easter celebrations at the Church of Our Lady of Protection in the Sin El-Fil neighbourhood of Beirut on April 17, 2022. AFP
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Hundreds of Lebanese Christians congregated in the stone courtyard of Beirut’s church of Mar Maroun after Easter Sunday Mass to exchange greetings and share treats that have become a luxury for most in the country.

Amid a deepening economic crisis that has pushed three-quarters of the population into poverty, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, with the exchanging of flowers, chocolate eggs and pastries, offered a rare moment of shared joy.

“With all this misery in Lebanon, Easter is a moment of self-reflection during which we feel that it’s important to love one another,” said Berna Mezher, a bank employee who attended Mass with her husband and three children.

As she spoke, she sprayed her sons’ fingers with disinfectant before they reached out for the traditional pistachio-filled pastries called maamoul that volunteers had placed on tables outside the church.

Her daughter stood beside her with flowers in her hand. “They’re from the tomb of Christ and have been blessed,” Mrs Mezher explained. “When the Mass is over, everyone takes one home.”

The model of the tomb, set up at the back of the church, was created by Jihad Asmar, 60, who draped it with orange and white curtains and placed olive tree branches around.

Mr Asmar stood at a table of maamoul, handing the pastries out to worshippers as they greeted each other with the traditional saying of “Christ is risen”.

“We serve people with love,” he said, as a woman fussed over which maamoul she wanted.

Eighteen months ago, Mr Asmar lost, in short succession, his job, due to Lebanon’s economic meltdown, and his mother. The former company director has since become a parish employee and also volunteers to distribute food to the poor.

“There’s a lot of generosity. We must stand with the people. The country is going through a deep crisis,” he said.

Each month, the group he volunteers with distributes parcels of food and cleaning products to 200 families, in addition to providing about 150 meals a day to people who are too old or ill to leave their homes. The group, called Drama and Miracles, is paid for by private donations and was started after the August 4, 2020 Beirut port blast devastated neighbourhoods close to the church.

Mr Asmar has found joy in his new role.

“I love it when I call people to come by on Monday to pick up their food box,” he said. “They tell me beautiful things like ‘May God protect you, may your life continue in this path’. I find it really touching.”

For Easter, the food boxes contained maamoul as well. “They’re very expensive. People can’t afford them,” Mr Asmar said.

Food prices have soared since the economic crisis hit Lebanon in 2019, a trend that accelerated with the impact of the war in Ukraine on its sunflower oil and wheat exports.

The inflation rate of food and non-alcoholic beverages for the period from December 2018 to October 2021 was 2,067 per cent, official statistics show.

Few expect any respite from the country’s political class, which is widely viewed as corrupt and dysfunctional.

“Politicians just look after what’s in their own pockets,” said Mrs Mezher. “Maybe the situation will get better in four years, when my children have grown,” she said. Her youngest son interrupted her to ask for a chocolate egg.

“Everything is hard in Lebanon, but we remain attached to it because we have hope that it’ll be once again like it was. It’s just a hope. I don’t think it’ll happen,” she continued.

Mrs Mezher believes that she and her husband, 55, are too old to emigrate. “But I think they’ll leave,” she said, nodding towards her children.

Updated: April 17, 2022, 2:42 PM