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Lebanon’s Christians Resist Exodus from Worst Economic Collapse in 150 Years

Their middle-class salaries now worth peanuts, evangelicals struggle to maintain a faithful presence amid debate over serving God elsewhere.
Lebanon’s Christians Resist Exodus from Worst Economic Collapse in 150 Years
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons / Nick Ut / Getty Images

In 2019, as Lebanon witnessed an unprecedented uprising against its entire political class, evangelical sermons grappled with applied theology:

Whether to join in for justice or honor the king.

Two years later, amid an economic collapse the World Bank says is the worst in 150 years, Lebanese Christians face an even greater pastoral challenge:

Whether to stay and help or escape abroad.

The nation has largely made up its mind.

Estimates indicate as many as 380,000 people have left Lebanon. Every day witnesses another 8,000 passport applications. Food prices have increased 557 percent since the uprising, as the inflation rate has now surged past perennial basket cases Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Once featuring an economically vibrant middle-class, Lebanon now has a poverty rate of 78 percent. The minimum wage of $450 per month has devalued to almost $30.

“Ask first, ‘Where can I love the Lord, obey the Lord, and serve the Lord—me and my family?’” Hikmat Kashouh, pastor of Resurrection Church Beirut, preached in his recent sermon. “Praying faithfully, we may come up with different decisions.”

Kashouh urged people not to emigrate easily, to seek counsel with church leaders, and to help the suffering whether they stay or leave.

Fellow evangelical pastor Walid Zailaa, however, was blunt in his assessment.

“Your presence is important. How can we enact God’s will if you are not here?” preached the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Mansourieh. “If you want to search for a better life for yourself and your children, it is your right. But it says to God, ‘You are not able to provide for me in Lebanon.’”

Even the lions and tigers are leaving.

“Lebanon is not fit for man or animal,” said Bassam Haddad, who runs discovery Bible studies alongside relief efforts. “But I am optimistic—not for the country but for God’s work.”

Since 2012, his lay-led church services have met every evening, primarily serving Syrian refugees in the Bouchrieh neighborhood of Beirut. But since the economic crisis began, the number of Lebanese seeking monthly food packages—and spiritual counsel—has more than doubled.

“Our middle class is suffering now,” said Haddad, noting how much donated aid is still conditioned primarily for the Syrians. “We don’t have enough for everyone.”

Also staying amid the crisis is Cybelle Ghoul, a 22-year-old deputy country manager of DT Care, a US-affiliated NGO. After the Beirut explosion, she coordinated the removal of 350 tons of debris every day, while distributing essential relief to the displaced.

“If everyone leaves, no one will remain to help,” she said. “I see it as my responsibility to fight and make Lebanon a better place.”

It is in her blood. A Maronite Catholic, her father was a fighter with the Phalange, a Christian militia during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. An estimated 1 million Lebanese fled during the conflict, so emigration is nothing new.

And that was the fourth such wave. Prior to the 1923 mandate that carved Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire, the first wave began in 1880 when sectarian strife and the economic collapse of the local silk industry drove abroad 45 percent of Mount Lebanon’s population.

But even prosperity does not stem the tide. A fifth wave followed the civil war, when increased opportunity and advanced education led 1 in 5 Lebanese men to emigrate over the following 15 years.

There are approximately 5 million Lebanese within their Connecticut-sized eastern Mediterranean state. The diaspora, counting descendants, is 15 million.

Of Ghoul’s 30 closest friends, 15 have left Lebanon. Another 10 are trying.

“People are getting more and more depressed,” she said. “With a friend it is always better, but I have to adapt.”

Her faith in Jesus sustains her to stay. But others are suffering mental health issues, with essential anxiety medicines difficult to find amid an overall medical shortage. As the “bulk” of mental health professionals have emigrated, the national suicide hotline receives over 1,000 calls per month.

They are not the only ones leaving. Over 2,500 doctors and nurses have left Lebanon, 40 percent and 30 percent of the total sector, respectively.

Rana Costa is one of them—and never imagined she would be. An evangelical cardiologist and clinical associate with the American University of Beirut (AUB), she had multiple opportunities to leave, including for medical school. Every time, she chose Lebanon.

After the explosion, she felt an Esther-like sense of purpose that she was there for “such a time as this.” Volunteering frequently in both secular and evangelical NGOs, her professional skills ministered to many who could not afford it.

But her chief ministry is to her children.

“As a mother, I can’t imagine having an option to leave but instead forcing my kids through a trial, just so they can learn a lesson,” said Costa.

COVID-19 had already disrupted two years of schooling for her sons, ages four and seven. And as the crisis snowballed over the summer, she feared that education would be the next casualty.

The government provided only a few hours of electricity per day. Gas station lines stretched for miles. Internet service had been spotty. The AUB medical center warned 150 patients would die if no fuel was immediately supplied to run their backup generators.

“We had to close down our clinics, and without gasoline I couldn’t get there anyway,” she said. “Whatever ministry you purposed to do, you couldn’t do it.”

Now her family lives in Jordan, where God has blessed them with further ministry. Costa is working as the school doctor for the Baptist school in Amman as she explores new volunteer opportunities. And her husband, the chief operating officer for NEO Leaders, has been able to work beyond the office, hands-on in their local projects.

“God doesn’t call us to a life of luxury, but neither to suppress our comfort,” she said. “Serving him can happen anywhere, and least important is the location.”

Costa plans to return to Lebanon after the school year and, in any case, is still in the Arab world. The diaspora, however, is predominantly in Latin America, the US and Canada, and France.

“I have long been bothered when people say God leads them to leave,” said Elie Haddad, president of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS). “They always seem to go to the West—and not to places like Yemen.”

At 1 percent of Lebanon’s population, evangelicals are a small community. Anyone emigrating, he said, leaves a “huge gap.” He counsels a sense of calling and a recognition of the gospel opportunities that multiply in times of crisis.

And it is “critical,” he said, that leaders do not leave.

So far, they are not. ABTS’s 35 staff members remain in Lebanon. So do the Presbyterian synod’s 28 pastors—including 14 in Syria. And the Baptist convention’s 21 pastors continue to serve their struggling churches.

“When you know your purpose, it is less easy to jump on a plane for a better life,” said Tony Skaff, pastor of Badaro Baptist Church in Beirut. “We believe ours is to be here as a church, serving Lebanon and the Middle East.”

About half of his 200-person congregation are active in service, blunting the pull of emigration. But 10 have left so far, and another 10 are in the process. Many more are waiting for an opportunity, disproportionate by generation.

“The youth want to leave,” Skaff said. “We would become a church of old people.”

So while the leaders are holding on, it is the second level of service that is shrinking. Of 31 young volunteers trained by Youth for Christ (YFC) since the uprising, five have emigrated.

“I am angry, and people should be angrier,” said Elie Heneine, a YFC staff worker, speaking in his personal capacity. “It is a sellout to pray for the country one Sunday and then to apply for emigration during the week.”

None of YFC’s salaried staff have left, but as volunteers age, they increasingly do. Heneine is working with three in a particular church who are planning to pursue master’s degrees abroad. If so, there will be no leaders to run the church’s youth ministry.

“We cannot drain the country of Christ influence,” he said. “But all I hear back is awkward silence.”

Costa said more evangelicals would emigrate but are reticent to be judged. A recent ABTS blog post warned about the glorification of those who stay. And Nabil Habibi, a seminary lecturer in New Testament, said that some shame those who leave.

But another factor is money.

“We are not heroes who stay, if we work for an evangelical organization,” he said. “Getting ‘fresh dollars’ is like getting gold.”

Lebanon’s economic stability had long been pegged to the US dollar, which circulated freely in the local market. But propping up the stability was a pyramid scheme of national debt. When the government defaulted last spring, the structure collapsed.

Dollars became scarce, and banks would not release deposits. A physical greenback—now available only if sent “fresh” from abroad—has a black-market value over 10 times the official rate, making it possible to keep up with inflation.

Many evangelical institutions in Lebanon are connected to Western churches, mission organizations, and aid agencies. Habibi, previously a Nazarene high school teacher, gets his salary from ABTS partially in dollars. He said he would be a “phony” if he counseled others to stay.

Teachers are among the hardest hit—and without fresh dollars. In many schools, their full monthly salary pays only for a tank of gas. At AUB, better off than most, 15 percent of professors have emigrated. The Association of Evangelical Schools in Lebanon estimates that the private-education sector has lost 10 percent of its teachers, though only 5 percent within their own Christian network.

Similarly, most churches are dependent on local tithes and offerings. Raising money abroad, the Baptist convention has secured two years of support for 12 of its pastors. The Presbyterian synod hopes to do so in the new year.

Habibi’s Nazarene church has received help from its members who have previously emigrated. Such gifts are irregular but do help to provide aid to his 120-person congregation in the lower-class Beirut neighborhood of Sin el-Fil. The poor have few opportunities to leave Lebanon, he said. However, in the last 18 months, five of his church’s leaders have done so.

The frustration fuels not only his ministry but also his political activism.

A member of a left-leaning party that enthusiastically embraced the uprising, Habibi rails at the corruption of Lebanese politics. The national board for public development channels 60 percent of investment through 10 well-connected companies. And of the banks—freezing customer deposits—18 of the top 20 are linked to prominent political elites.

“I fight for justice as a Christian ethic,” Habibi said, “but I don’t believe in my country anymore.”

But where Habibi stays, many other Lebanese believe in their second passport.

Ralph Zarazir fights exactly this spirit.

“I hope they find the light at the end of the tunnel, and still believe in this country,” said the representative of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) to the National Dental Board. “They should stay and vote.”

The FPM is a right-leaning Christian party within Lebanon’s democratic but sectarian political system. Executive and legislative positions are apportioned by religion, and the FPM currently controls the presidency and has the largest share of parliament seats. With such prominence comes the ire of both political opposition and revolutionary activists.

But Zarazir looks toward upcoming March elections for validation of their leadership. While recognizing the limitations of the sectarian system, FPM considers itself a defender of historic Christian rights. With due respect to Muslim contributions, he says the nation’s democracy and human rights link back to faith.

“Lebanon exists as it is because of the presence of Christians,” he said. “Otherwise, we would look like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or even Yemen.”

No official figures exist, but Christians represent roughly a third of Lebanon’s population, as do both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Previously a majority, Christians are still guaranteed half of parliament. The diaspora is majority Christian.

With earlier access to missionary-developed education, Christians disproportionately rose to business and political prominence. This facilitated not only their means of emigration but also financial remittances to the poor back home.

Zarazir’s office provides discounts for cleanings and cavities. Through connections in Europe, he organizes medical convoys. But today, even the upper class is stretched.

“If they don’t get their quality dental implants, they will leave the country,” Zarazir said. “It sounds foolish to help [the upper class], but if they go, this would devastate the Christian community.”

The economy is devastating everyone, rich or poor. Evangelicals are holding on, struggling to stay. Their personal circumstances are known only to God.

But they are divided about emigration.

From Isaiah 10, Zailaa compared the church to the remnant of Israel, through whom God wishes to rebuild the nation. Drawing from Nehemiah’s broken walls in Jerusalem, he preached that the godly pattern is to run into a crisis, not away from it. And Ruth provides a picture of staying with the people of God, despite suffering.

“God does not have us here by accident,” he said, “and is preparing us for what is necessary.”

The cross calls us to suffering, Kashouh agreed. And he urged people to view their decision as part of the whole church, rather than through an individualistic lens. But overall, he found no clear biblical answer to the question of emigration.

“If you decide to leave Lebanon, we bless you,” he said. “[Whether you are] with us or without us, the Lord shepherds his church.”

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