In late January, three of us (myself, Andrew McLellan, and Ian Alexander) were fortunate enough to visit Church of Scotland partners in Beirut, to re-connect with them, to show solidarity with them at this difficult time, and to visit some of the refugee camps.
Our main partners in Lebanon are the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), the Near East School of Theology (NEST), and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). We met with all three groups and heard of the challenges that they are facing, but also the difference that they are making to the current situation. Some of the highlights of the visit are noted below, but I wanted to start with a call to action, and some thoughts on how we as Christians can help the current situation, even from afar.
What can we do?
As Christians, there is much we can do.
• Firstly, please pray for the situation in Lebanon and Syria at the moment. We need to be praying for the end to the Civil War, and we also need to be praying for the Christians in the region, many of whom are under severe pressure.
• Secondly, please consider supporting ‘A Place at the Table’ – an easy way to raise funds to send to our partner church, and which will directly impact on the lives of the Christian population remaining in Syria. See in particular the notes below on our visit to NESSL. http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/serve/mission_worldwide/place_at_the_table
• Thirdly, please consider Twinning. Would your congregation be interested in building a relationship with one of the congregations in Syria or Lebanon? They desperately need support and encouragement, and this is a great way of doing it. If you are interested, please contact Rebecca Greenwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Fourthly, would you be willing to ‘partner’ with a congregation in prayer? Whilst not everyone is able to twin with a congregation, everyone is able to pray for a congregation. That may be on an individual basis, or through one of your church groups, or even as a congregation. If you are interested in this, please contact Kenny Roger at Kroger@cofscotland.org.uk and we will link you with a congregation and provide specific prayer points for you.
In many ways, the visit to the Synod was the most important time of the week. It was good to meet with the leadership there, and with Mary Mikhael, who is well known to many within the Church of Scotland. The Synod was keen to make their attachment to the Church of Scotland known, and of course the opportunity of visiting the General Assembly in 2013. Grateful thanks were made for the ‘Place at the Table’ project, which has raised around £30,000 so far, and which has been taken on by the Presbytery of Europe as their project for 2014.The Synod is clear that this crisis is long-term. Long after the war has ended, people will need medical care, fuel, water, education, rent, and many other basic needs. The Synod therefore sees themselves being on the ground for a long time. How we respond as a Church is therefore very important – we must also look at the long term rather than just the immediate need, and see if there is a way in which we can commit to long term funding for the Synod.
The Synod had 15 pastors in Syria before the war started, and there are now just 10 left there. These pastors provide a lifeline for communities, and currently 1,300 baskets of food are distributed monthly to families in Syria, along with fuel for everyday use. This is what the funding from ‘A Place at the Table’ is going towards, and as a Church, we must continue to do all we can to help with the promotion of this.
Syrian Refugee Camps
We had planned to visit one of the largest Syrian refugee camps, but sadly on the day we went, it was pouring with rain. That was significant because it meant that all the refugees were in their tents and as many of the men were at work, we were unable to go in due to sensitivities. It should be noted that the camps are almost exclusively Muslim, as many of the Christians who have fled, have either emigrated or have found cities to settle in. It was a huge disappointment that we were unable to speak to people in the camps, but just seeing the scale of them and the utter despair on people’s faces was enough to show us the grim reality of the lives of the refugees.
NEST currently has around 20 full time students, and many more part time students. At its peak in the 1970’s, there were around 100 students there, but the civil war and difficulties in general have reduced that number. The sense is also that the Protestant church is struggling, and that there is currently a lack of call amongst the Christian community to theological training and service in the ministry. We were able to meet and talk with some of the students and the staff of NEST, which was a privilege, and an opportunity to hear first-hand of the success of NEST. NEST has a first rate library and a real focus on teaching surrounding Christian-Muslim relationships, and it is hoped that the Church of Scotland may be able to support those ministers and students who may be interested in developing their knowledge in this key area. Everything that NEST does must have Islam at the forefront, as that is the culture which they are living in. We heard also of the struggle to have women ordained as ministers, and although no denomination has yet taken the first step, it appears that there is little opposition to it.
Meeting with the MECC, which has been through a number of recent changes and crises, was important. They are linked in with 4 different denominations and are currently doing a lot of work with the Syrian refugees. The MECC represents Christians and speaks out on their behalf, and are currently looking to reconnect and re-establish links with churches, rather than simply church based organisations. Their key focus and new vision is based around keeping and developing the Christian presence in the Middle East and they also work with those Muslims who see Christians as important to the region. The MECC can give a universal and ecclesiastical view of what is happening in the region, and that is important to us as the Church of Scotland. The MECC is where the churches can come together, and there is great importance in that. The churches are trying to accompany the MECC rather than to lead it.
Christian Situation in Lebanon and Syria
The Arab Spring is turning into a nightmare for Christians in the Middle East, and we need to do all we can to support them as they look to remain and witness to society. If Christians stay, they can support institutions and influence society, and we were reminded that as a Western Church, we often help with emergencies, rather than trying to build a continuation of support and self-sufficiency. NEST itself was very close to leaving Beirut in the 1990’s, but the local community implored them to stay and remain as a witness.
The Synod is also very concerned with Fundamentalist Islam, and whilst Christians have lived together with Muslims for hundreds of years, it is clear that something different is happening now, and that is scary for the Christians in the region. They are afraid of living in the Middle East. However, the Synod is doing so much work in Syria itself for the very reason that they want to encourage the Christians to stay and be rooted in the region. Without that solidarity, the church is threatened.
It was interesting to note that many of our partners felt that critical to the hope and place of Christians in the Middle East is the transformation of Islam. They feel that without transformation, there will be a constant drain of Christians from the region. It is understood that the only way of helping this transformation is by working together in partnership, building trust, and helping them rather than imposing things on them. It was noted that many Muslims are appalled by what is being done in the name of Islam in Lebanon in particular, and many of the moderate Muslims are also scared of Christians leaving as they sense that areas will become more fundamentalist if that happens. Many are shocked by the new teaching that is being brought, and in that sense, education is hugely important to enable the young people of today to grow up with a strong and open mind.
From a Scottish point of view, we recognised that learning from our Middle East partners will be very important as we seek to understand Scotland in the future – a multi-faith and inclusive country, which will face many challenges on the religious side.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis is having a major effect on the life of Lebanon. There are currently around 1 million refugees in Lebanon. The Syrians are offering a cheaper labour alternative, meaning many Lebanese are now finding themselves out of work, whilst in places like Dbayeh where there are now 85 Syrian Muslim families amongst the thousands of Christians, tensions are starting to appear. Whilst the population of Lebanon has generally been made up equally of Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Christians, change is happening as more refugees come to the country, and many Christians decide to leave. The country is tense, and it is not difficult to see the war in Syria spreading deeper into Lebanon, which would be a disaster.