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On March 11, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, president of the Pontifical Mission and secretary general of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, interrupted an agency visit to Rome and to projects in Egypt to visit the staff in Cyprus. The visit was a complete surprise.

“By the time I saw them they were in great spirits,” he said. “While they were happy to get out of Lebanon, all seemed eager to get back.”

The following morning Msgr. Stern offered Mass for the staff and met with them. Bishara then submitted a report on the weeks since Jan. 31 upon which much of this story is based. Msgr. Stern told me he was struck by some of the children of the staff members, who have never known a Lebanon without war, and their reactions to simply living in a tranquil place for a change.

“The kids didn’t understand that they could simply be out on the street, that they didn’t have to worry about ducking inside because of shelling,” the monsignor recalled. “Just the freedom. You could just walk as you pleased.”

Everyone has since left Cyprus. The Pontifical Mission is back in the field in Beirut – to the extent that it is possible to work. At this writing, nothing has been resolved in the Christian enclave; generals remain intransigent, and the violence and killing rages away. Since returning, Bishara has managed to contact New York headquarters with a wireless telephone, and he has reported worse fighting than he has personally ever seen it.

I even managed to talk with him one morning, though we kept getting cut off. To use his wireless and be free of radio interference, Bishara has to position himself at as high an elevation as he can on those lovely foothills that rise so abruptly from the eastern Mediterranean. From a long way off, one can see how badly pockmarked the entire city of Beirut has become. And yet it was not hard for me to imagine what a beautiful place it once was, the “Paris of the Middle East.”

“We try to keep going, but to make the field visits is difficult,” Bishara’s voice crackled. He said that now there is no electricity at all – at least in his sector of the city – and water is not available but for fountains and springs. He also complained about the abundance of military checkpoints that have to be crossed to travel any distance, and how they consume so much time. “The needy child program is OK, but it’s difficult for the people to get to the office.

“But everybody is amazingly great,” he assured me. “This is more than a routine job. We are taking our work home, even if during the whole night there is shelling. We all feel more needed at this time.”

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Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East.

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Tags: Lebanon Christianity Muslim Beirut Civil War