OUTSIDE THE PORT ITSELF, the historic heart of East Beirut took the most direct hit. The neighborhoods of Achrafieh—where Mallouh’s church is located—include Beirut’s largest and oldest churches, its up-and-coming arts and restaurant scene, and its best hospitals and universities. The mostly Christian residential areas are both poor and well-to-do, marking cosmopolitan diversity unique to Lebanon in the Arab world. The wife of the Dutch ambassador, looking out her embassy residence window in Achrafieh, was injured and later died.
Many Achrafieh residents remember Lebanon’s 100 days’ war with Syrian forces in 1978, when Christian militias defended the city in these same neighborhoods. Bullet holes are still visible in some buildings. “My parents hid me in a bathroom those 100 days while defending Achrafieh,” said Michel Salim Habib, who was 9 years old at the time. “We were bombed seven times, and it was nothing like this. This explosion we could not defend ourselves against.”
After the explosion, rubble left streets impassable for days. Smashed cars, piles of glass, and busted drywall sat in heaps near crumbled buildings along once-trendy Gemmayzeh Street. A week after the blast, cleanup crews picked through large glass shards and swept thousands of tiny fragments over pavement. The waterfall-like sound competed with the clamor of power saws and hammers.
Besides three of the city’s leading hospitals damaged and closed, at least four Christian schools need rebuilding, and most churches have significant damage. At the National Evangelical Church, the oldest Protestant church in Beirut and first led by a Lebanese, Pastor Habib Badr was in his office and took refuge behind a door just as glass shattered across his desk. Offices for Youth for Christ, International Ministries, and the Near East School of Theology also were damaged. At the Evangelical Christian Alliance Church just blocks from the port, the explosion demolished a second-story room surrounded by windows on three sides. Normally a Tuesday night prayer meeting begins at 6 p.m., but the coronavirus forced a change there and in many other places.
Mallouh’s congregation, like others, faces many injuries and damaged homes. One woman underwent five hours of surgery to remove glass shrapnel from her face. One mother is hospitalized with broken bones, her daughter receives treatment at another hospital, while her son is at a third, in a coma and unlikely to survive, doctors say.
Pastors such as Mallouh face the same dilemma: “We have limited funds, but we will help them.”
Church of God member Wilma Saloum hoped in September to begin her 29th year teaching English at Christian Teaching International. On Aug. 4 she had surgery for bulging discs at Wardieh Hospital near the port area. Two nurses had wheeled her into her room after the procedure, where her fiancé George Ghannam waited. “I had a panoramic view,” she told me of the blast’s mushroom cloud. One of the nurses died instantly. Ghannam was thrown against a door, bleeding from a head injury, while debris and glass covered Wilma and the other nurse. She disconnected Saloum’s IV tube, and the three made their way down a stairwell in the dark.
“There were people injured or dead on the floor, and blood everywhere. There was no one to help us. All the roads were blocked, no way to move really,” she said.
Strangers took them to hospitals so damaged they couldn’t accept patients before a friend got them to Sacre Coeur Hospital. Twelve days later, Ghannam remained in the ICU there with skull fractures, a broken elbow, and internal bleeding. “They say he will be OK but it will take time,” Saloum said.
Saloum’s 22-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son, university students, survived the explosion. But glass and wind shattered their fifth-floor apartment and smashed her car. The family now lives with Saloum’s sister. “My daughter is scared at any noise and is crying at night. Always she is scared.”
Saloum saw her surgeon five days later. “We had to meet outside as he doesn’t have an office anymore. He examined my stitches from the surgery and had to remove tiny glass pieces from between the stitches. But I will heal.”
Mallouh plans to work with local ministries to help restore his church families. But he echoed what I heard from many Christian leaders in Beirut: “We are tired.”
The 62-year-old has watched the Christian presence in Lebanon diminish, its access to political power and economic progress loosen even as it remains one of the more durable church communities in the Middle East. In 30 years leading the Church of God, he has seen his congregation drop in number and its families become poorer while militant Islamic groups draw closer. A car bomb at the church in 2007 also blew out windows and walls.
“I cried then,” Mallouh said. “Now I have no tears at all. It’s more anger because this is the result of negligence and lack of care for our people.”