When the vote on bombing Syria was going through the House of Commons last week, I thought about all the people I had met in Lebanon, where I had just spent five days.
I met some inspiring individuals there – Lebanese, Syrian, British, American and others – but the one thing they had in common was that they seemed most reluctant to talk about the politics of war.
Everyone I encountered was very concerned about the humanitarian aspects of the region’s troubles, and especially about the refugees from stricken Syria. Christian activists in Beirut were involved in supporting, bringing succour and, notably, providing educational opportunities to all those who had fled from Syria, usually homeless and with few possessions. But politics was not on the menu.
Dr Habib Badr, the Lutheran leader of the National Evangelical Church – the oldest Arabic-speaking Protestant church in the region – and a cultivated Lebanese intellectual, explained that Lebanon was a country of 18 different faith denominations all co-existing. “And in a strange way, our system works.”
The ethos of Lebanon is to be tolerant of others and to allow differences to exist respectfully: perhaps one of the ways in which to keep this society together is not to talk politics to visitors. (Maybe the long tradition of being traders – notably among the Christian Maronites – has helped to keep the Lebanese focused on the practical aspect of co-existence, too.)
But on meeting a group of Syrian students at a Baptist college in Beirut, none wished to express a view on whether the Western powers should bomb targets in Syria. Christians, they emphasised, were always vulnerable to persecution by the regime and many Syrian Christians could only share their faith in the privacy of their homes. But once in Lebanon, Syrians were also free to share their faith with Muslims, which many were now doing.
I was the guest of a successful Christian Evangelical television service called SAT-7. The channel, started in 1998 with a $12 million grant from an American donor, now broadcasts all over the Middle East and North Africa, with a special emphasis on children’s education, usually with a Christian element, done in an entertaining and wholesome way. (They get a lot of feedback from families in Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Yemen).
SAT-7 do some fine information broadcasting: one clip I saw was from a startling report about the scandal of child marriage – pitiful little girls of 11 and 12 becoming forced brides – in Yemen.
Yet the tone of much of their broadcasting is cheerful and uplifting, with a strong contribution from attractive young women presenters, all of whom are, or have become, Evangelical Christians.
Dr Badr thinks that the mission of educational television is a crucially important development for the Middle East, because education has the potential to defeat fanatical and suicidal movements. (There is also a Catholic television station called Télé Lumière, which I did not get the chance to see.)
At SAT-7 studios, in each room and office, I noticed a small cross, with the words “Jesus is risen” – in Arabic.
Education is certainly a primary need (along with other more obvious ones, such as shelter and food).
And the appetite for spiritual comfort was palpable in a Baptist Sunday worship ceremony I attended in Beirut. The hall filled up with people of all descriptions: old, tired faces, weary from the afflictions of war, and young, bright faces, too, hopeful for the power to change. Muslim women wore headscarves – about 85 per cent of the congregation were from a Muslim background – alongside Christian Lebanese, Europeans and Americans. There was a lot of music, sung in Arabic, with children involved, and a somewhat intense sermon from St Paul’s letters.
It struck me that the way to combat the ideology of ISIS is to provide people with an alternative spirituality, based on the message of the New Testament. But it does have to be truly “evangelical” in the sense of being committed to spreading the Christian Gospel; while, at the same time, honouring the Lebanon’s traditions of tolerance and co-existence.
Next week: a refugee camp on the road to Damascus. SAT-7’s website is sat7uk.org.
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