Opinion & Features

Baptists offer Muslims a safe haven in Lebanon

A camp for Syrian refugees near Zahlé. They hope one day to go home (AP)

Zahlé, eastern Lebanon

Lebanon has a long Christian tradition. That is why many of the Christian refugees from neighbouring countries – notably Syria and Iraq – have a better chance of finding shelter and asylum there than they might do elsewhere.

Thus, I was told during my recent visit to Lebanon, many Christian refugees are sheltered in homes or colleges. Life is still hard for them and, said one outreach worker, “food distribution is still the biggest need”.

“We must take care of the Syrian people – but we must not forget the needs of the Lebanese people too,” said a Christian pastor.

The road to Damascus – or, anyway, the road east of Beirut towards Damascus – is a beautiful journey, with Swiss-type mountain scenery and Mediterranean flora. There are many wayside shrines to Our Lady and to St Thérèse.

At Zahlé, near the Syrian border, there is a tall column and a statue to Notre Dame de Zahlé. The town is home to many refugees. Some have found shelter and asylum at the very active Baptist church, which is filled with the sound of children playing. There’s a busy Sunday service there and family events all week.

A young woman in a traditional headscarf served us coffee. She had fled Syria because she lost her home in the bombing. She dissolved into tears as she mentioned that her brother was still missing. But she had her three children with her, and she felt a sense of peace because she had now converted to Christianity.

At the nearby refugee camp we met families who were living in one-room temporary dwellings, constructed in concrete with tent-like covers. Most of the refugees are mothers and children: the men are working, or seeking work, although work may be low-paid. One mother of eight said that her son had a job at a nearby garage for $26 a week (Lebanon uses the American dollar as a parallel currency).

The mothers do their best to organise their makeshift homes (which, however simple, always have a television rigged up – a powerful influence.) They pay $100 a month in rent: sometimes the men can earn the money and sometimes they are helped by UN agencies.

The families we met were all Muslim, mostly from Damascus and Aleppo, and large families were usual. These people had no interest in politics. They worried about warm winter clothes for their children and they wanted education for their children – often difficult for refugees. They hoped one day to go home.

They had few possessions and almost no money, but they showed the gracefulness of simple people by making us visitors welcome. “We can’t think about the future,” a mother of four said. “But we pray to God for hope.”

It is cheering to see Muslim and Christian teenagers laughing and joking together, arm in arm, as you do in Beirut’s seaside promenade. And at the College des Soeurs Antoines, at Roumieh just outside Beirut, the principal, Soeur Bacima El Khoury, emphasised the respect for different faiths maintained at their high school. There are 1,400 pupils attending. Although Maronite Catholic, it is “open to other cultures”. Muslim families also choose to have their children educated there. The Sisters have 18 such schools in the Lebanon. The order was founded in 1922 and named after St Anthony of Egypt.

“We’re trying our best to help people from other cultures – we regret there aren’t always enough resources,” said Soeur Bacima, who is a noted biblical specialist on the Gospel of St John. “We were one of the first to help the Iraqi people.” But, she says, “Christians are suffering [in the Middle East], and will suffer more.”

The nuns’ mission is to maintain a Christian presence, and a teaching order, while remaining “open to all”. The children are taught in French, English and Arabic – the French influence remains strong here, in culture and language.

The Lebanon is holy because it is a biblical land, says Soeur Bacima. The cedars of Lebanon are mentioned 75 times in the Bible, and they are proud that the symbol still adorns the Lebanese flag.

Mary Kenny was the guest of SAT-7 Christian satellite television station. Follow @MaryKenny4 on Twitter