Lebanon minister traces NZ family link


St Patrick’s Cathedral was the first stop in Lebanon Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’s retracing of his grandfather’s life in New Zealand more than a 100 years ago.

Mr Bassil’s grandparents, Gyphren Hannah and Rose Patch, were married on May 24, 1899 by Fr Francis Buckley at the cathedral. Mr Hannah, a Lebanese migrant, was 26 years old at the time while Ms Patch, who was born in England, was 23.

Cathedral assistant priest Fr Sherwin Lapaan and pastoral assistant Sr Mary Neven, RSM, showed Mr Bassil around the cathedral on April 5 and briefly shared its history.

“Your grandparents would have marched down this aisle,” said Sr Neven as she explained the changes that had taken place in the cathedral.

Mr Bassil said he had always known of his family’s New Zealand connection, but he had never really looked into it.

According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, Mr Bassil’s full title is Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants and part of his role is to make contact with his country’s 14 million diasporan community around the world and, through them, improve relations and promote trade with their new countries.

This official trip was also an opportunity for him to see where his grandparents lived.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully welcomed Mr Bassil to the country on April 5.

In a statement, Mr McCully noted that Lebanon is an important partner in the Middle East.

“During our term on the UN Security Council, we engaged closely with Lebanon on regional issues, including the war in Syria,” he said.

At present, Lebanon hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees. In 2015-16, New Zealand contributed $2.6 million to four Syrian refugee projects in Lebanon.

At the cathedral, Mr Bassil asked both Fr Lapaan and Sr Neven to pray for his country. “We need your prayers,” he said.

Mr Bassil lit a candle and offered a prayer himself as he toured the cathedral.

Fr Lapaan later blessed Mr Bassil and gave him [Mr Bassil] a copy of his grandparents’ marriage certificate. The Lebanese foreign minister said the cathedral was “magnificent”.

“It’s beautiful. It’s old and new at the same time. You cannot really tell how it changed . . . [when you think] that the old building is just that part and then they added this one and turned it from wood to stone,” he said.

Minister Bassil’s grandfather Gyphren Hannah lived in New Zealand in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Mr Hannah ran an olive oil company but later returned to Lebanon.

“One day, I’ll bring my children here,” Mr Bassil said. While in New Zealand, Mr Bassil met for talks with Minister McCully, the Middle East Business Council, and hosted receptions for the Lebanese communities in Auckland and Wellington.

Mr Bassil also reportedly visited a building built by his grandfather on the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets in Auckland.

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Rowena Orejana

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