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A lot to learn from Lebanon

The iconic statue of Our Lady of Lebanon stands on a hilltop at Harissa, about 30km north of Beirut. Photo: Tanas Alqassis/CMS

When people once considered enemies move in next door, how do you resist revenge and show grace instead? We go to Lebanon to see how Christians there are overcoming enmity and showing love to countless Syrian refugees.

By Naomi Rose Steinberg 

I have been working at Church Mission Society for almost 12 years and during that time, there have only been a handful of circumstances that have made me cry at the office. I won’t go into all of them, but the most recent was about a month ago, when Tanas Alqassis (regional manager for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa) and Philip Mounstephen (executive leader) gave a report on their recent trip to Lebanon. As they shared how God is at work there, I couldn’t help it – the tears appeared. It’s so easy these days to succumb to fear, cynicism and disillusionment, so to be honest, it was rather wonderful to be confronted with a scenario where I could do little but say, “Wow, that’s God.”

As you might know, in recent years close to two million people from Syria have sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, a number equivalent to about a third of its population. As two of our partners in Beirut, Amy and David, have explained: “Imagine the impact if the UK had a sudden influx of the same percentage of refugees (around 20 million people). Especially when these people have had to run from war.” The volatile history between these two countries further complicates the situation. I first became intrigued by this dynamic back in June 2016, when I read the following account from Audrey and Colin, two other CMS people in mission in Beirut.

“The [Syrians] killed my pregnant wife and my mother” were the opening words of a testimony we heard a little while ago from a pastor here. We have heard similar testimonies from others, referring to events that took place during the civil war (1975–1990) and the occupation by Syria that continued to 2005 – not that long ago. It is all the more remarkable therefore how the church here has responded to the influx of refugees from Syria. The church where we heard the quote is now very active in bringing aid to many refugees. And this is not an isolated instance. God has done an extraordinary work in the hearts of so many Lebanese Christians who are willing to do so much to help those who not long ago were considered to be enemies.

This was the focus of Tanas and Philip’s presentation: how God is working through Christians in Lebanon – who have every reason to hate Syrians – to bring hope and healing to thousands of refugees.

If this is true, I thought, then it seems we in the West have much to learn from our Lebanese brothers and sisters.

Three pre-school girls draw chalk pictures on the pavement
Syrian refugee children playing at the school started from scratch by CMS partners Emil and Reem.

Lesson number one: accept obstacles, but look for opportunity

The words above may paint a glossy picture but of course the reality is far rockier. Lebanon, a country about the size of Wales with an already-strained infrastructure, has taken in more Syrian refugees than almost any country in the world. It’s not like they had much choice, thanks to the country’s porous borders.

Alia, who works at the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD, where Audrey and Colin also work) explained: “The reality is that here it’s not like Turkey or Jordan, there are no official refugee camps where Syrians can stay, so some stay in tents, some in unfinished buildings; some apartments have three or four families living in them.” There are limited opportunities for work and many of those who get jobs do so because the employer knows they can pay a refugee less than a Lebanese worker. Predictably, over time this has led to increasing tension between Lebanese and Syrian people, with the former feeling the latter are stealing their jobs.

There are religious tensions too, as many of the refugees are Sunni Muslims, which makes the Lebanese Shiite population nervous. And many Christians, too – the temptation to leave the country is great.


Emil and Reem, who started a school for refugee children from scratch

For Emil and Reem, a couple who are supported by CMS as local partners, it’s the opposite story. They returned to Lebanon in 2014, after living in North Africa for several years. When they got home, they saw their house was surrounded by at least 20 Syrian families living in tents. “I remember it was the coldest winter in Lebanon for years,” said Reem. “These people had no furniture and very little food. Some of the children didn’t even have shoes.”

“They had nobody to care for them,” said Emil, an ordained Anglican priest. “I started asking local people what they were doing to help these poor people. Most of them weren’t interested. So I asked God what he wanted me to do. I felt him say to me, ‘Emil, one day you will stand before me and I will say to you, I was marginalised, what did you do? I was a stranger, what did you do? The next day I said to my neighbours that I respect how you feel but I’m going to go to them. And that’s how this ministry started.” Reem started spending a bit of time with some of the children, telling them stories under a tree.

One day she asked one girl, who was about 10 years old, “Farrah, if you could ask somebody to give you something what would you want.” Farrah answered that she would want a pencil and paper. “I was so affected by this,” said Reem. “I went and bought some notebooks for the children and started teaching them to write a bit.”

Alia at LSESD pointed out that a vast number of Syrian refugee children are not in school. “Many are working. Because it’s hard for adults to find work, it’s more feasible to send the children to beg or steal or do manual labour.”

“I’ve seen children as young as four years old working on farms; the farmer will make them work all day in exchange for a place to stay,” said Reem.

Reem and Emil began looking for a place to start a small school for refugee children. “But as soon as people heard it was to help Syrians, everyone said no; they felt enmity with the Syrians because of the past, the war is alive in memories,” said Emil. After a couple of weeks of fruitless searching, Emil’s brother offered his garage.

Using it as a base they dug out a slightly larger space and arranged it into a classroom. “We started with five, then 20, then 40, now sometimes up to 80 children,” said Emil. Most of the teachers are Iraqi refugees who came to Lebanon to escape ISIS. Emil had been doing Bible study with them and when they heard about the school they wanted to help.

“It’s normal school, but we also teach them the love of God,” Emil said. “The children come from Muslim backgrounds but their families are so happy they are learning, they have no problem with our faith – though it’s probably something they would never do back home: send their children to a priest for education. “This is a special time. You can look at the refugee issue and see it as either a problem or an opportunity. They are coming to us now, so we can ask, do we have something to give? And of course we have a lot to give.”

Child's drawing in felt tip pen
“An ideal life” drawn by one of the children at the school Emil and Reem lead

Lesson number two: love with no strings attached

When Emil says opportunity, some might think “opportunistic” but the Christians we have spoken to insist that compassion isn’t contingent on conversion. Alia said, “Our support is a practical reflection of the non-conditional love of Christ. Hence it has to be non-conditional, and should preserve the dignity of the recipient.” LSESD is involved in equipping the Arab Church through leadership development and publishing, as well as education, community development and relief.

This doesn’t mean that refugees aren’t coming to faith in Jesus; they are. “It used to be that if there was one Muslim-background believer in a church, everyone knew who that person was,” said one local Christian. “Today, there are countless numbers of Syrian Muslim-background believers and seekers in Lebanon.” Two of the pastors Tanas and Philip spoke with in Lebanon stated that a majority of their congregations consisted of Syrian refugees; many of them have come to faith in Jesus since moving to Lebanon.

“Many became disillusioned with Islam, some had dreams or visions of Jesus,” said one pastor. For R, it was a number of factors. She and her husband and children left Aleppo five years ago after an invasion by opposition forces. Their house was destroyed. A couple of years ago when she was pregnant, it was discovered that her baby had hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid on the brain). “I went to many doctors, who said there was no hope,” R told Tanas and Philip. Desperate, she went to a local church and asked for prayer. “The whole church prayed for me. Now, our little girl is 10 months old and very healthy. Thanks be to God.”

R put her trust in Jesus; the other children in the family now attend the church school, which is constructed out of shipping containers, after having a hard time at a government school. “They didn’t like the first school; at the church school, they are happy, treated better and they are learning.”

It seems quite a few Christian schools in Lebanon have a student population with increasing numbers of Syrian refugee children. As one local teacher put it, “The stories from the children are heart-breaking, especially when you see where they are living. I think of how we as parents often forbid our children from watching films that are too scary; these children have experienced many times more in their short lives than we would ever allow our children to watch.”

While at some government schools, Syrian children can face indifference or discrimination, at Christian schools, they find people who care about them unconditionally.

Lesson number three: to forgive is divine 

There can be little doubt that the unexpected charity many Syrians are finding from Lebanese Christians is contributing to their curiosity about Jesus. Yet, it would be disingenuous to suggest that overcoming fear, resentment and enmity towards their former occupiers has been easy for Lebanese Christians. And not all Christians have reacted magnanimously.

One pastor of a Baptist church said, “My family doesn’t like what I’m doing because the Syrians did bad things to Lebanon; our village was destroyed, they destroyed churches. I was with the militia back in those days fighting them; I spent 90 days under shelling day and night. And now I’m pastoring a church with lots of Syrian people. Some people get mad when you say you love Syrian people. But I believe God has sent them here.” His wife agreed: “It’s still a challenge to some Christians here to serve and show love for Syrians but it’s God’s love through us that does this.”

Her words reminded me of a passage in The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom, when she is speaking at a church about forgiveness and then recognises a man who was a guard at the concentration camp where she was imprisoned for helping Jewish people during the Holocaust. The man wants to shake Corrie’s hand but she recoils:

Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. … I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.

And in Lebanon, while many Christians might not have chosen forgiveness, it seems forgiveness has come to them. A pastor named Elie said: “Before I was a believer I had bad feelings for Syrians because of the war. I’ve had many incidents where Syrians held me at gunpoint. It is difficult. But God moved me from one side to the other. I know he has prepared me and is calling me to work with them. I need to work with them.” Another pastor who used to fight in the militia said, “God changed my heart, he took away my hatred. God started to use me. “

Alia from LSESD told another story about a woman who was lined up with her family on a wall at gunpoint during the war. “She was praying, ‘God I don’t want to see my husband killed in front me.’ Just then a man from the Lebanese army came and shot the Syrian captors. When her church started working with Syrians she didn’t want anything to do with it. Now she and her son help head up a relief ministry. God is helping people to forgive. That is what is touching Syrians. They know the history. This speaks volumes.”

“I don’t really understand what’s happening with all these Syrians coming here,” one pastor admitted. “Had God consulted with me I would have advised something else. But God has a plan. People have been praying for a long time for God to touch the hearts of Muslims. So if God answers, who are we to not be happy about how it happens. We have to obey, to love.”

Lesson number four: God is big

Said, leader of the Life Centre in Beirut, where CMS is getting ready to send a new mission partner couple, said, “I used to fight Syrians, I was a refugee twice because of them. I ended up taking shelter at a military base with my father, then they took the base and we were displaced. Many in the Christian community here still feel threatened. I see it differently. The Syrians are coming to us. Instead of hating them, we should preach the gospel. Where others see horror, I see children of God; I see future pastors and apostles among them.”


"God has sent them here": Syrian refugees in Lebanon have increased the popualtion by almost 50 per cent

As it turns out, Said is right. As astonishing as it might be for Lebanese Christians to find themselves caring for Syrians, it has been a further surprise to see Syrian refugees turn around and minister to others. R, mentioned above, has a thriving evangelistic ministry, going door to door, telling everyone she can about Jesus.

Pastor Elie shared a story of another woman, N, who started attending church, assuming that the people wouldn’t accept her. “She came here, was accepted, she saw the love of Jesus and got baptised and then her husband did the same after a month. They are now in another country, sharing about the Lord with Muslim people there.”

“I thought I was coming to help refugees,” he continued. “But I see now they are helping me, praying for me. All the relief work this church does is now done by Syrian people. It’s like living in the book of Acts. I’ve learned not to put God in a box; I knew he was big; now I’m seeing this with my own eyes.”

Alia is still amazed at the change she’s seen in the Lebanese church. “For years in Lebanon, churches were inward focused, more isolated. Today, we can say to the Syrian refugees, we can support you, we know what it’s like, we have been there. We are standing by people in need and we are seeing a totally new church emerge which we never dreamed of. God is working in the churches. Those who have tasted what it means to stand by the vulnerable – I don’t see them stopping.”

“I feel blessed to be born in this place, in this time,” said Elie.

And hopefully now you can see why I wept.

The Call in Action: Pray

  1. Pray for Christians in Lebanon, including CMS people in mission, as they show love to refugees
  2. Pray for true and lasting peace in the Middle East
  3. Pray for internally displaced people within Syria, including a number of Christians who are ministering to others

Please note: some names have been changed for security reasons.