Dispatch from Lebanon
Cedars are valuable for their lasting quality. Building material, dock lumber all attest to their ability to resist wood rot. Biblical references to the “cedars of Lebanon” filled building materials required by Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls. Solomon eyed the magnificent and resilient cedars for the Temple in Jerusalem.
Today be it rot from the inside or attack from the out, the Lebanese having survived wars and its many rumours, speak in quiet tones, wondering if listening ears from Syria or its minions — Hezbollah in the south — are plotting nefarious schemes.
Prized as the pearl of the Mediterranean, the choice site for money from oil billions of the Gulf, Beirut until the civil wars of the late 20th Century, was choice for life style, opportunity and political freedom.
Centuries before Christ, as pioneers in coastal trading, their marine culture stimulated trade, bringing it riches and envy. Conquered by Persia (Iran) then Rome, in the first century AD became central to the spread of the Gospel. 7th century Muslim Arabs took over, while a minority Maronites (under the Rome church) hung on. Smack dab in the path of the Crusaders, in time the connection with France shaped her European influence.
Following WWI, as European powers divided up much of the world, Lebanon’s borders were decided on by France. This twist added into the mix of Christians (Maronites) as 50% of the population, an eightfold increase of Sunni Muslim and four time increase of Shi’ite Muslims. In 1926 Christians made up 84% today they are 39%.
They wrote a constitution based on religious powers, a remarkable feat of building a country founded on religious sectarianism: Disaster in the making. Unprecedented and in the end, problematic. France promised to keep Lebanon Christian: political promises with little current reality.
The government was so divided, which remains today: President has to be Christian; Prime Minister always Sunni Muslim although the president can veto legislation. Even though by the early 1960s Muslims outnumbered Christians, the formula still remains.
For decades she has been the punching bag of Syria, The PLO and Israel. Syria used Lebanon to get at Israel, the latest being supplying arms (much from Iran) through to the Hezbollah in the south. Israel retaliated. Tens of thousands Palestinians flooded in after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Now estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees bulge the camps in the north and along the Beqa’a Valley. Between 1975-1990 civil war raged: 100,000 died. Syria continued its political interventions and military presence.
Finally a new government led by Rafiq Hariri started the rebuilding. February 14, 2005 a massive bomb killed Hariri, fingers pointed directly at Syrian president Assad as assassin.
This historical overview is to put in place the important moment Lebanon faces today. For it is in this world Christian faith seeks its witness and presence. While Evangelicals are not implicated in the political trade-off of Roman Catholic Christians and Sunni Muslims, the precarious environment requires strategic thinking in living between the factions, knowing that at any moment an unexpected move could destabilize the tenuous arrangements of life and liberty.
It was to Lebanon I came, to renew friendships with Lebanese Christian leaders, to hear their concerns of what the Syrian debacle might mean to them and to visit Syrian refugee camps in the Beqa’a Valley just east of Mount Herman, the mountain famous from the Scriptures.
Visiting these camps, east of Beirut, the human tragedy of Syria is overwhelming. Alongside the more than 300,000 refugees (most Syrian although some from Iraq) are now in Lebanon, and all together, some 2 million Syrians displaced in their own country.
The situation in Syria is at a stalemate, while the West offers words, Russia and Iran provide money and munitions and the Chinese continue to back President Assad of Syria.
I had wonderful times with a number of families, and then groups of Syrians as they gathered round once I began to talk, huddling outside their shacks, interested in what was being said. I began by asking how they were getting along, what they needed, then their own views of what was needed back home.
Then I asked if I could pray. You should have seen their faces light up. It was as if I had given then a priceless gift. I told them I was a Christian and would pray in the name of Jesus. Before I began, I reminded them who Jesus is as noted in the Koran, and then in my prayers (and my prayers were not short) I prayed about Jesus and to Jesus. In the prayer, I reminded those listening that he too was a refugee, fleeing with his parents to Egypt. This resonated with them.
At the close of the prayer, I asked the leader in the camp to step into the centre and then put my hands on him for a special blessing. When finished their hand-signs told me how much it meant. One leader, Ibrahim, asked us into his shack for tea, a common sign of hospitality. A dentist from Damascus we sat drinking tea as he began asking about Jesus. The young men I was with from a local and creative ministry called Heart for Lebanon (A good group to help) who love to tell others of the Lord, began with gentleness and care. He took it only as far as appropriate then said he would be back in a few days with a Bible.
I was most interested in knowing who else were helping the refugees. They knew of Heart for Lebanon and World Vision. Then I asked where were their Muslim organizations. One man looked at me, turned his head and spit. “”We’ve seen no one. No one has come here. Only Christians.”
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance