Sydney’s Maronites grieve after another Lebanese tragedy

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Raymond and Louise Merhi hold a photo of Raymond’s brother Joseph, aged 50, who died in the blast on 4 August in Beirut. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Raymond and Louise Merhi hold a photo of Raymond’s brother Joseph, aged 50, who died in the blast on 4 August in Beirut.
Photo: Patrick J Lee

Sydney’s Lebanese-Australian community is mourning the loss of relatives and friends who died in the explosion in the Port of Beirut which injured more than 150 people and left 300,000 homeless.

Maronite Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay led a memorial Mass last Saturday for the victims. The Eucharist was live-streamed from Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park.

The disaster came on top of Lebanon’s ongoing tragedies of “economic and political instability and a lack of responsible and proper governance,” the bishop said.

“The explosion did not only shake Lebanon and the Lebanese community and diaspora. It has shaken the world,” he said in his homily.

Five of the Beirut victims had family members present at the Mass.

They are Jacqueline Jibrine, Joseph Latif Merhi, Nicole Majid Elhelou, Micheline Khalil Taouk and Joseph Roukoz.

The bishop also prayed for the firefighters, some with Sydney relatives, who were among the first responders on the scene and remained listed as missing.

George and Fadia Abou Saleh of St Charbel’s parish in Punchbowl attended the Mass to pray for the repose of their cousin, 25-year-old Ms Elhelou. Ms Elhelou had been driving close to the blast’s epicentre after visiting a friend.

“As soon as it happened everyone in the Lebanese community was trying to get on the phone, frantic, because so many people work down at the port,” Mrs Abou Saleh told The Catholic Weekly.

“That’s where all the new buildings were going up, trendy new offices and bars.

Maronite Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay led a memorial Mass last Saturday for the victims of the explosion in the Port of Beirut on 4 August. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Maronite Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay led a memorial Mass last Saturday for the victims of the explosion in the Port of Beirut on 4 August. Photo: Patrick J Lee

“That part of Beirut has always been a hub for work.

“It’s terrible that we can’t go over [to support them].

“First the economic crisis, and then COVID hit and it got worse and now this happened.”

Elias Moawad of Strathfield spent many hours on phone calls to his relatives and those of his wife, Claire.

“It’s not the first time Lebanon has had a disaster but nothing like this,” he said.

“It is devastating, heartbreaking. I feel my heart literally aching.

“I have no words to explain how we feel,” he said.

“It’s more than a disaster, and we feel as affected as if we were on the ground there.”

The son of his nephew, Patrick Mouawad, was injured by shattered glass at St George’s Hospital, less than 2kms from the Port of Beirut.

Patrick and his younger brother Mario are young doctors there.

Mario was also at the hospital but was able to take shelter under a table and was uninjured by the blast.

Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, head of the Maronite Church in Australia, holds a crucifix during Saturday’s Mass. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, head of the Maronite Church in Australia, holds a crucifix during Saturday’s Mass. Photo: Patrick J Lee

“The hospital was obliterated. Many nurses, many patients died,” Mr Moawad said.

“My nephew rushed to the hospital to find his sons, he said if he hadn’t found them he would have collapsed and died.

“Thank God Patrick pulled through.”

The Moawads have a large extended family in Beirut.

Numerous relatives rushed to provide aid and assistance from the first moments despite sustaining damage to their own homes, businesses or places of work, he said.

Mr Moawad said he was certain the disaster would not have happened if the nation’s political leaders “were honest and working for the people”.

“The negligence and corruption of what I call the political mafia is really disheartening,” he said.

He said the faith of the Maronite and Melkite communities in his home country is “very, very strong” including among the younger generations.

“The Christians in Lebanon have very strong faith in the intercession of St Charbel, in Our Lady of Lebanon, in St Elias,” he said.

“But how long can their faith support them?

“So many of them want to leave Lebanon, they don’t have any hope anymore.”

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