Shortly after the recent Israel-Hezbollah war broke out, Riad Kassis, the head of the J. L. Schneller School, a 146-year-old evangelical Christian institution in West Beqaa, Lebanon, wrote an internet commentary appealing to Western readers: "Imagine being forced to suddenly leave your home. Imagine that you do not know when you will return home and are unsure whether you will find a heap of rubble instead of a sweet home."
The subsequent conflict killed 1,300 Lebanese and 160 Israelis, and wounded thousands more. But after missiles and rockets stopped in August, Lebanese Christians realized the bloody conflict had renewed their deep commitment to the displaced. Habib Badr, pastor of the National Evangelical Church and perhaps Lebanon's most recognizable evangelical, told Christianity Today that his church's four schools took in 1,000 refugees. "We hope we were good witnesses of the love of God to those displaced." Dozens of Christian congregations in Lebanon welcomed displaced people and others in Jordan and Syria provided aid.
On the Spiritual Offensive
Lebanese Christians, during and after the conflict, opened their lives in an unprecedented way. Nabil Costa, who heads the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, said, "This war was like a wake-up call. It completely changed our agenda and showed us that God has a different vision for us."
"When the war started, at first we complained about our summer vacation," Costa admitted. "As things got more serious, we asked: How could this be happening when Lebanon was finally booming after years of civil war and Syrian domination?"
Costa said that although he and other evangelicals in Lebanon were taught they ought to love everyone, they felt they had been looking mainly after themselves until the massive influx of Shiite refugees caused them to look beyond their own needs.
"All of a sudden, we had refugees from different religions in our homes, our schools, and our institutions. Of course, Muslims have always studied in our schools, but this was different. We fed hundreds day and night, set up bathrooms and showers, provided everything from A to Z for them," he explained.
About 1,000 of the displaced were housed in the Beirut Baptist Center near downtown Beirut, while Christian volunteers visited people daily at shelters, including five camps in Mansourieh, near Beirut.
Eli Haddad, provost of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, worked alongside Costa in relief operations. He said, "We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a huge crisis with nothing prepared.
"It would have been natural to run or hide. But we were challenged to go on the offensivenot militarily or politically, but spiritually and on humanitarian grounds."
Twice daily, Christians gathered for prayer and worship at the Mansourieh-based Baptist seminary. "We prayed for people by name," Costa said, "and then went out into the different refugee sites to serve those who had to leave everything behind."
Making a DifferenceTogether
Baptists worked alongside Church of God, Armenian Evangelical, Brethren, Alliance, and Presbyterian leaders to reach as many of the needy as possible. They found that it wasn't easy ministering to desperate people who had lost everything.
The refugees expressed frustration with having to live with 30 to 40 strangers in a single room. "They were stuck with each other, and sometimes they fought," Costa said.
"We helped them solve their problems," he added. "We earned credibility. We didn't just bring food and water and say goodbye. We wanted to make a difference in their lives." Besides offering relief, volunteers listened, offered Christian-based entertainment, and provided counseling.
Costa recounted a story involving a Baptist youth minister who met the father of a 17-year-old Shiite youth killed in an Israeli air strike on a southern Beirut suburb. During the burial ceremony, Israeli jets attacked the funeral procession and sent mourners scurrying to safety.
Later, the father asked the youth minister, "Why are Christians helping Muslims?"
The minister shared the story of the Good Samaritan and asked, "Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The father responded, "The one who had mercy on him."
The youth minister then recited the words of Jesus in Matthew 5: "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven."
Touched, the father of the deceased boy said, "We have many Christian friends. But we never knew that you have these teachings."
Seminary provost Haddad said the Holy Spirit also worked on the hardened hearts of some Christians. "We served others that we never thought possible," he said, "people we were brought up to hate."
"We built relationships, and we loved them and learned to trust," he added. "We want this to continue. We plan to keep following up [with] these people."
Christians were also among the suffering. Thirty congregants from a church in the village of Deir Memos, about nine miles north of Israel, sought shelter with the Baptists. One Sunday, displaced villagers of all faiths were invited to join in prayer together. It was the first time they had met in one church and prayed. The village is 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim.
The Schneller School in West Beqaa focused on helping children aged 15 and younger face the trauma of war. They distributed toys and invited them to watch a feature film on a big screen. A psychologist was on hand to help the children address their fears, deal with the stress from the bombardment, and grieve for relatives killed.
Evangelicals, like Youth for Christ Lebanon director John Sagherian, and other volunteers visited refugee centers in Beirut's southern suburbs to play with Shiite kids. "We had the best time on the basketball court with young boys and teenagers. We prayed that our love and smiles would reflect him. They know that we are Christians."
But Kassis and other Lebanese evangelicals expressed concern that their very witness as Christians in the Middle East may be undermined by perceived Western, particularly American, evangelical support of Israel and its military actions against Hezbollah and Hamas.
"We evangelical Christians are working for peace and reconciliation in our landalso for understanding and tolerance. This war has shaken us to pieces. I was shocked to see some of our American brothers and sisters supporting Israel's disproportionate response," Kassis said.
"The father of one of our students, a 10-year-old Shiite girl, was shredded into pieces by a bomb that exploded at a mosque. How can I say to that girl that many evangelicals in the U.S. support what Israel is doing?" he said. "We are in a very hard position because of the killing of so many civilians."
"We support the war on terror, but it seems to be mixed with other things," Kassis said. "These other situations must be addressed separately. This was our problem here."
YFC's Sagherian said the situation in Lebanon and the Middle East is complex. He urged evangelicals in the West to realize that "there is an active evangelical church in the Middle East which needs prayer, understanding, and support."
No Hope Lost
If the conflict has provided any benefit, it has offered Christians a fresh chance to bring about lasting change. Baptist coordinator Costa said overseas Christians provided $130,000 to aid local relief efforts for Lebanon's displaced, while evangelicals in neighboring Jordan nearly matched that amount.
Nabil Shehadeh, who manages the Jordanian Evangelical Committee for Relief and Development, said the aid, which was raised by the Assemblies of God and other evangelical churches, was disbursed among six evangelical churches in Lebanon. "This aid was not meant only for Christians. It helped those displaced from the south, mainly Shiites. We want to minister to all these people," Shehadeh said.
Schneller School director Kassis pledged that Lebanese Christians would carry on their witness despite the difficulties.
"The psalmist writes: 'If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?' [Psalm 11:3]. My response to him is: The righteous do not lose hope," Kassis said. "The righteous will rebuild the foundations again. The righteous will work hard to let the displaced feel at home even away from home. The righteous will continue to build a destroyed nation and to uplift the broken souls. We will build the foundations of Lebanon again.
"By God's grace we will have, in the near future, a sweet, sweet home for every Lebanese!"
Journalist Dale Gavlak is based in Amman, Jordan.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's full coverage of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict includes several articles by Christians in the region.
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