The Grand Master in Lebanon
In the first, historic visit of a Grand Master to Lebanon, Fra’ Matthew Festing was received by the Head of State, met all the leaders of the different religious groups and toured the Order’s health and welfare centres in the country. A cooperation agreement was signed to strengthen the Order’s work in Lebanon.
The meeting with the President of the Republic
A twenty-one gun salute, military honours and official anthems welcomed Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing upon his arrival at Baabda Palace. He was received by General Michel Sleiman, President of the Lebanese Republic, with whom he then had talks.
After the meeting between the two delegations, a cooperation agreement was signed by the Grand Chancellor of the Order Jean-Pierre Mazery and by the Lebanese Foreign Minister Faouzi Salloukh. Stressing the work the Order of Malta has been carrying out since 1953 in Lebanon, the aim of the agreement is to support, facilitate and further develop humanitarian and health cooperation between the Lebanese Republic and the Order of Malta.
In the evening, President Sleiman offered an official dinner in the Grand Master’s honour, attended by some 150 people, including ministers, ambassadors, religious authorities and leaders in the business and arts worlds.
‘When faced with disasters and tragedies,’ President Sleiman stated in his speech, ‘one can either decide to step back and look on or to succour the wounded and help those who suffer. You have clearly chosen the more courageous commitment, the more difficult path, and you have never turned away from it, you have never stepped back. You have been at the side of Lebanon during the years of war – despite the danger – earning the respect and gratitude of all the Lebanese people’.
The talks with leaders of the various religious denominations
The analysts have called it a historic meeting, because the leaders of the seventeen religious groups present in the country met in the Presidential Palace to welcome ‘as a brother’ the Grand Master. Sunni, Shi’a, Maronite, Greek-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean, Druze, Evangelists, Alawites, Assyrians all expressed their great appreciation for the work that the Order of Malta carries out in its sixteen health and welfare centres that, with over 250,000 medical services a year, offer an invaluable aid to the indigent people in the country without distinction of race or religion, faithful to its tradition.
‘Your presence here,’ the Grand Master asserted, ‘represents a model of dialogue among the different religious denominations, a model that hopefully can be taken as an example in other countries and regions of the world’.
The meetings with the Prime Minister and Speaker
The next day, the Grand Master and his delegation were received by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, with whom the country’s situation was analysed as well as relations with bordering countries with regards to the peacemaking process. Premier Siniora asked the Grand Master to use ‘the Order of Malta’s moral authority in international assemblies to convey the message that violence creates violence and to help create a spirit of pacification so that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can be found’.
The Grand Master, and the accompanying delegation, then had a meeting with the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri.
In the Order’s health and welfare centres
No less significant were Fra’ Matthew Festing’s meetings and visits in some of the health and welfare centres of the Order’s Association of Lebanese Knights – in the centre of Barqa and in the centre of Kefraya in the Bekaa valley; in the centre of Roum, in south Lebanon, also specialised in treating the elderly.
Very touching from a humane point of view was the encounter in Chabrouh, where an international project has youngsters from the Lebanese and German associations working together to help the disabled young and adults. ‘The great commitment of volunteers in the service of other young people, some with serious disabilities and abandoned by their families, is really extraordinary and moving,’ remarked Msgr. Gabriele Caccia, Apostolic Nuncio in Lebanon, who had accompanied the Grand Master on this visit.
In the highly specialised centres for the disabled in Bhannes, equipped with cutting-edge balneotherapy, there was an encounter with the young patients, volunteers and doctors. Over 80 disabled children and adolescents are assisted daily in this unit, in what the Grand Master called ‘an avant-garde health facility, a jewel in the crown for the Order’.
Ain Remmaneh, the main socio-medical centre of the Order in Beirut, presented the Grand Master and the delegation with a review of all the technical aspects of the medical work.
The partnership with the Imam Sadr Foundation
There was a very significant meeting in the Imam Sadr Foundation, where the President, Mrs. Rabab El Sadr, welcomed the Grand Master with words of great appreciation for the health and humanitarian partnership implemented in south Lebanon. ‘May our collaboration and our commitment, that unites Christians and Muslims, brothers and sisters, be an example for all the world,’ said Rabab El Sadr. ‘Everyone is coming to see how we work together, how we communicate and how we complement each other in the service of humanity’.
The appreciation of the Lebanese Association
A very intense and emotional journey that the Grand Master – in thanking the President of the Order’s Lebanese Association Marwan Sehnaoui – defined as extraordinary. ‘I want to return soon to Lebanon,’ Fra’ Matthew Festing said, ‘I have been fascinated and inspired by what I have seen, by your hospitality and by the exceptional results the Association has achieved. I am asking you to continue in your commitment. For my part, I guarantee my support and that of the entire Order so that your work in the service of peace and coexistence between peoples can continue to give these admirable results’.