Muted Easter celebrations for Lebanon’s Christians as poverty bites

For the second year running, a once-colourful celebration for Lebanon’s Christians is marred by national crisis

Easter in Beirut.

The busy streets of Furn El Chebbak, a popular Christian district at the heart of Beirut, were near-empty on Easter Sunday.

The sound of church bells and a few people dressed in their Sunday best were the only indications that Christians are celebrating this weekend.

About 100 mask-clad parishioners gathered at Saint Nohra Catholic church, sitting apart from one another to follow coronavirus hygiene measures.

Easter in Beirut

As he left the morning service at his local church, Rabih said celebrations this year filled him with sadness.

“It’s especially sad for the kids. We haven’t celebrated Easter properly for two years,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic and economic collapse weighed heavy for the second year in a row on what is usually a time for celebration, prayer and family gathering for Lebanon’s Christians.

The Arab nation is home to a plethora of Christian sects who represent a sizeable minority. Among them, the Catholics, Melkites and Maronites celebrated Easter on Sunday, while Orthodox Christians will mark the holiday at a later date.

The government imposed a three-day lockdown for Easter with houses of worship limited to 30 per cent capacity to avoid the surge in infections that followed the unrestrained Christmas and New Year period.

Shopkeeper Bernadette, 56, said she wishes that bigger Easter celebrations were permitted to alleviate the pain of the faithful.

“Where are the celebrations? The processions?” she said, gazing at the empty street.

“People used to fill the church and even stand outside on the staircase to pray.”

Easter in Beirut

Lebanon has been struck by a severe economic crisis since late 2019 that has pushed more than half of the population below the poverty line, according to data from the UN.

The financial downturn from Covid-19, a deadly blast at Beirut port last year and the stalling of government formation for the past eight months have compounded an already bleak economic outlook.

The small joys of Easter, such as gathering with the family around a warm meal or making and buying maamoul, a Lebanese biscuit stuffed with walnuts or date paste, have vanished for the second year in a row.

Children usually paint on egg shells and crack one egg with another on Easter Sunday, but because the price of eggs rose many families have dropped this tradition.

Bernadette can no longer afford to make maamoul at home. Inflation has tripled the cost of ingredients such as walnuts and ghee.

She said she only bought half a kilo of date-filled maamoul, “the cheapest kind”.

Before the crisis, she could live decently with her salary of 700,000 Lebanese pounds per month. Once worth $463, her salary is now valued at roughly $60, leaving Bernadette and her sister to rely on donations to make ends meet.

Taxi driver Nabil stayed near the church after Mass. He says he finds solace in his faith and aid from his local church at a time when the political leaders of Lebanon have turned their backs on the poor.

Aged 70, he can barely cover fuel expenses for his cab and says he received no help from the government despite promises that Lebanon’s poorest families would be granted financial aid.

“The church is trying to help people who lost everything but our corrupt leaders continue to impoverish us,” he said.