Address of Bassil in the Italian Chamber of Deputies

Emigration and the Orient Christians. May 19th, 2023

Gebran Bassil in La Stampa conference in the Italian Chamber of Deputies
SEM Gebran Bassil in La Stampa conference in the Italian Chamber of Deputies

Dear colleague, dear hosts, ladies, and gentlemen,

First, I would like to extend my sincere condolences for the tragic loss of life due to the recent floods in Italy. (Our thoughts go to the families of the victims and to those who have suffered terrible injuries. We wish them a prompt recovery and express our empathy and solidarity with the Italian authorities).

Dear colleague,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take the floor on such an important topic, “Emigration and the Orient Christians,” since the current movements of populations in the Middle East have an immediate effect on (the continuous presence of) the Christian communities in the Levant and a direct impact on European societies.

It is also an occasion to show similarities between our two countries; on top of the openness, hospitality, and great food, that we both share and offer:

  • Italy and Lebanon have always been lands of migration where the Italian and Lebanese diasporas are present on all continents. Still, Lebanon is leading in the ratio of expats to residents, being the highest in the world 3 to one. (And both diasporas have kept tight links with their native land)
  • Italian and Lebanese have been a model of integration, showing a high capacity to adapt to their host countries while at the same time showing (as host countries)
    great generosity to host and integrate individual migrants
  • Both countries have become, today, the first destination for new waves of migrants (in the contemporary mass influx of displaced and refugees seeking a bright future)

However, the case of Lebanon remains unique when confronted with the current migration crisis, despite a dual mass influx confronting the old continent and Italy.
In the East, due to the eruption of war in Ukraine, and in the South, due to the disequilibrium between two worlds, separating them in religion, economy, education, development, and social levels.
Lebanon similarly faced migration and the influx of 500,000 Palestinians from the South and 2 million Syrians from the East and North, is also continuously facing the imposed migration of its population.

A- Lebanon hosts more than200 displaced per sqkm, the highest rate, by far, in the world. If you transpose it here, Italy would be hosting over 70 millions refugees! Lebanon has an initial density of 450 citizens per sqkm, when Italy’s density is 200 per sqkm, (Sardinius for instance, is only 65), and and Syrius is 100.

B – The number of Syrian displaced jumped between 2016 and 2023 from 1,600,000 to 2.0 million, out of whom 800,000 are under the age of 18. The increase is due to the increase of newborns, not to newcomers, while the Lebanese birth rate has dropped from 2.12 in 2010 to 1.75 in 2022, a historical low, due to the deterioration of the situation, and while public schools host more Syrian students than Lebanese, and while 200,000 Lebanese have left the country recently, 1/3 of them are under the age of 25, amongst whom, a yearly average of 10,000 students out of a population of 70,000 students.

C – The direct economic burden on Lebanon due to the hosting of the Syrian displaced population is estimated by the World Bank to be above $50 billion. At the same time, our GDP has dropped from about 55B USD to somewhat between 15 and 20B USD, compared to Italy’s, which is at 2.1 trillion. This comparative figure is the main reason behind the increase of 500% in illegal and legal migration of desperate souls from our shores to yours in scary sails.

Despite all this, the Lebanese were able to cope/adapt to the situation due to their unique resilience. They demonstrated generosity, hospitality, human solidarity, and compassion, in a manner that had never been expressed in the history of humanity. But the crisis has become unbearable and is now a direct threat to the existence of the nation and its people due to the following factors:

  1. The lack of distinction between migration and forced displacement. ‏الهجرة والتهجير. In July 2016, the UN issued a document entitled “‏Dealing with mass movements of migrants and refugees, where it neglected to deal with the reasons, and focused on the results, thus ending up in forgetting the right to return, whilst stressing on supporting, protecting, and dignifying the displaced populations, in order to integrate them in the host countries.
    The UN also put an emphasis on the concept of resettlement, which eliminates the right of return of the Palestinians (against the UN resolution 194) and leads to a demographic change in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, disrupting their social fabric, weakening the states, and ending into countless conflicts and religious divisions.
  2. The political will of the international community, led by the UN and its executive arm UNHCR, including that of the European Union, to integrate the displaced in the host countries. The cost of this policy is tremendous for the European taxpayers as the EU is indefinitely financing the stay of the Syrians displaced into Lebanese territory instead of momentarily funding their return.
    Actually, the UNHCR and other countries and NGOs are stopping, if not threatening, voluntary returnees under the menace of halting their assistance if they do return permanently. A noticeable result of that policy, in the case of Lebanon, is the monthly number of border crossings, where an average of 300,000 of Syrian individuals, registered as refugees in Lebanon by UNHCR, regularly go back to Syria and forth again to Lebanon. UNHCR, until today, refuses to deliver to the Lebanese authorities the lists of registered refugees, which could help avoiding them reentering our territory as refugees.
  3. The said plot to remove the Christians from their Levant land. A plan that started at the beginning of the 20th century with the Christians of Mount Lebanon and the Armenians and Syriacs of the region and moved to the Palestinian people in waves, along with the creation of Israel, while naturalizing the Christians in the West.
    In the 70’s, during the Lebanese Civil War, Western powers offered to deport the Christians. In the 80’s, the turn of Iraqi Christians came, and western powers are till nowadays encouraging them to leave their country. More recently, the Arab spring and the Syrian conflict gave an occasion to push further this idea. Since 2011, more than 50% of Christian Syrians had to flee the country. Shimon Peres himself stated in the 1991 “Peace” book that Israel has a long experience in the “transfer” of people and in reshaping the demographic geography of the Middle East, not to mention the famous document of Oded Yinon (Yinon Plan).

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Migration and forced displacement of Christians fell within a series of disintegrating the Levantine states, turning them into conflicting groups, poor and radical. This desintegration has only negative repercussions on the Middle East and Europe, as conflicts and instability create waves of migrants carrying extremism and terrorism, targeting and killing people in both the East and the West.
Today, more than ever, Migration and Levantine Christians are two correlated themes (in the Middle East).

As such, the Christian communities find themselves at a critical juncture:

If they look to the West, aiming to meet communities sharing a common set of values, hoping they can easily adapt and integrate, they find themselves in lack of benchmarks confronted with post-modern societies that have moved away from conservative Christianity;

If they look to the East, they belong to the Levant; they are part of its society, social fabric, history, civilization, identity, and conscience. They initiated the idea of the state and citizenship, and there is where their added value is needed. But they feel the place is no more their (like before).

Levantine Christians are guarantors of pluralism and diversity. They are the engine for promoting social justice based on merit and hardship. They strive to implement open and tolerant societies by refuting an inward-looking and isolationist approach.
Any attempt to isolate them in closed circles, or to force their displacement, is an attempt to push the East towards unilateral killing circles, closed both culturally and socially.
Their displacement threatens the East and the West and the idea of “living together.”
Their stabilization in the Levant is a defense to its countries, and their targeting is an offense to it.

The active and free presence of the Levantine Christians in their land, next to their brothers and sisters in citizenship, is a base for Peace in the Middle East. Moreover, their civilization and contribution are essential for both the East and the West. Still, their economic mastership, social equalitarian model, and political heritage are seriously challenged, and thus, their role is endangered.

Without a role, they have no presence, so what is their way out?

I would first call upon them, the Levant Christians, to take their share of responsibility and show an unseen resilience to remain in their land and an endless determination to fight.

We will have to redouble our efforts to avoid being marginalized in our own countries. Soon, there will be no reason to complain about the lack of religious freedoms. Soon with the revolution within the (Arab) Muslim world led by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamad bin Selman, Christians, and others will freely live their faith. They will no more run the risk of disappearing. They should instead run the challenge of existing in the core, not at the margins of society, willing to flourish and develop, and free to do so.

In a world undergoing significant reshuffles and in a rapidly changing Middle East and a pluralistic Lebanon at the fringe of collapsing existentially, stands a Christian community at a crossroads of its presence and role.

The same Christians who once led to the emancipation of the state are now responsible, in parts, for the definition of its future:
• A land of Peace and Humanity
• A haven of tolerance and justice
• A territory with immutable geography
• Defying the demographic challenges along with the economic, social, and political ones

I would second call upon the European countries to think deeply about the threats of demographic engineering of the Levant and disintegrating its states. The expenses of fueling wars are much higher than those of developing societies. Always remember that the protection of Christianity is not through implicating Levantine Christians into conflicts that go against their interests and lead to their displacement. It is instead through building their states and developing their societies in security and Peace.

I would third call upon the international community to fix the mess it has created in our region; the Mass movements of populations are breaking the delicate demographic balance. The mass displacement of the Syrian and Palestinian populations has destabilized Lebanon. This mass influx has to be inverted.

Humanitarian aid should be provided to Syrians inside Syrian, re-rooting Syrians in their homeland, and financing their return should be a top priority in partnership with the Arab countries who have recently welcomed Syria back into their league. Likewise, Palestinians should be re-rooted to their homeland in a two-state solution where Israel can no longer impose its force on its neighbors and its exclusivist model in a multicultural region.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is in terms of civilization and humanity, and ethics that one should approach the migration issue (in the Middle East) and its effects on the (Levantine) Christians.

Whilst there should be no discussion regarding the imperative to welcome, assist, and protect those in need, we believe that the time has come too genuinely discuss our specificities, as the promotion of equal human rights cannot be successful when havens of diversity, such as Lebanon, are weakened, or when the rights to be different end up being diluted, deprived of basic social, economic and political rights.

“Lebanon is a message,” once said Saint John Paul the Second. We believe we are messengers (Don’t kill the messenger!!).
We carry the word for tolerance and peace, openness and humanity, freedom, and human dignity.
And we also want to be the echo for reason, wisdom, and reality.