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In Lebanon, Some Turn To Beloved Local Saint For Solace And Protection From COVID-19

The grave of St. Charbel has long been visited by people seeking comfort and healing.
Alice Fordham for NPR
The grave of St. Charbel has long been visited by people seeking comfort and healing.

High above the Mediterranean Sea, up a mountain wreathed in springtime mist and drizzle, is the monastery where the beloved Lebanese St. Charbel is buried.

A hermit who died in 1898, Charbel was canonized in 1977. He is revered for his healing miracles among Lebanon's Christians, who likely number at least a million. In a country where a financial crisis has left health care threadbare and unreliable, many have begun turning to the saint to ward off the coronavirus.

"He gives us faith and strength, especially in this time of sickness," said Elie Badr, standing by the tomb outside the monastery earlier this month. "He is the only cure, in my opinion."

Father Louis Matar sits in his office in Lebanon's Monastery of St. Maron, where St. Charbel is buried.
/ Alice Fordham for NPR
Alice Fordham for NPR
Father Louis Matar sits in his office in Lebanon's Monastery of St. Maron, where St. Charbel is buried.

A museum in the monastery's crypt exhibits prostheses and calipers — left behind by people who prayed to Charbel and recovered. The monastery itself is nearly 200 years old and follows the traditions of the Lebanese Maronite Order of monks, founded in 1695.

Badr wore a mask, kept his distance and held a small bag of mud, which he had just scooped up with a spoon from the grave. He planned to boil it up at home.

"St. Charbel instructed that the soil be boiled and drunk as it is a medicine," he said. He planned to give it to his elderly aunt and mother to drink.

His faith in the saint is profound, but he also believes in medical science: he is an X-ray technician in a hospital.

"We try as much as we can to help the sick and provide them with services," he said. "And with the strength of St. Charbel, we are able to do our part."

Although people have long come here to pray to be healed, the practice of drinking water boiled with soil from the grave is new. It began only earlier this year, after a woman, who has not been named publicly, arrived at the monastery to say she had had a vision.

"A few weeks ago, I was sitting here on Sunday after Mass, having coffee and talking with some friends," said Father Louis Matar, a monk at the monastery, sitting in an office decorated with 11 portraits of St. Charbel. "And a woman came in and she said that she had had a dream, that she should take the soil from the grave and boil it, and filter it, and put it in individual bottles and take it to Rafik Hariri hospital," where Lebanon's coronavirus cases are being treated.

The number of confirmed cases now stands at 463. There have been 12 deaths. A large refugee community is particularly at risk — Lebanon is home to as many as 1.5 million Syrian refugees, among others.

Lebanon took early measures to halt the spread of the virus. Schools and universities closed at the end of February. Borders closed March 18. And on March 21, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced a ban on all non-essential movement outside the home, to be enforced by security forces. The government has also encouraged hand washing and has conducted special street cleaning.

Matar told the young woman to help herself to the soil from the grave. The news spread after a friend having coffee with Matar disseminated the story of her vision on WhatsApp.

By the time the woman arrived at the hospital on March 4 with a bottle of water — filtered after being boiled with the soil — Lebanese media were following the story.

She told the OTV television channel, which is popular among Lebanon's Christian community, that she approached a doctor, who refused to take the bottle of liquid.

"I left without handing over the bottle," she said. "But yesterday I got the news from someone who works at Rafik Hariri hospital that the patients inside who have coronavirus were requesting the bottle in order to drink from it."

A doctor there, Pierre Abi Hanna, told NPR the delay was a matter of hygiene.

"We wanted to be sure that we deliver it in a safe way, with all respect for all belief," he said.

A few days later, the liquid was allowed into the hospital, and nurses delivered it to patients who wanted it, though they did not encourage people to drink it. (Of the six COVID-19 patients who requested the water, four have survived, according to the hospital).

Although Abi Hanna respects faith, he also urges people not to go to church or mosques or any gatherings now. Before the pandemic, Lebanon's health system was already faltering, after a slow collapse of the banking sector left private banks and the government desperately short of foreign currency reserves to buy supplies.

"People are aware that this will be a major problem if we have an ongoing outbreak in Lebanon," Abi Hanna says, "because of our economic problem."

He echoes statements by Lebanon's Christian and Muslim religious leaders, saying, "People should try to pray at home at this time."

The pandemic has been destabilizing for many who have put their trust in the robustness of modern medical science, says Joseph El-Khoury, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut.

Under the circumstances, he says it is not surprising that people in a religious country like Lebanon are turning to the sacred for hope.

"It's very hard to control this [behavior]," he says, "and when people are panicking and in a state of desperation, I think the wiser authorities or the official representatives of the church are going along with the flow."

He does have qualms over the practice of drinking water that's been boiled with mud, which is unsanitary and may make people ill. But he says authorities are probably wise to permit the practice, as long as mainstream advice — such as washing hands, limiting social contact and movement — is also heeded.

"From my perspective, as long as you're going to be in quarantine," he says, "as long as you're going to be listening to what the public officials are saying, and taking the necessary treatment or the testing when needed, then that's fine."

He says religious observation or even alternative treatments can be beneficial, making patients "calmer, more considerate of others, and adaptive."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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