Beirut, Lebanon.

Christians in the Middle East

Two months after the August 14th cease-fire, we offer the testimonies of three Christians who live in Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, and an overview of AVSI’s renewed commitment in Lebanon through five programs
Anna Leonardi

Beirut Speaking
by Emilio Maiandi

Jounieh is a small town on the sea, 35 miles from Beirut. It has always been a safe area and is considered “the Christian capital” of Lebanon. In fact, since the late 1960s it has gathered all the Christians fleeing from the Chouf (the region southeast of Beirut) and now the population is almost totally Christian. I have been living here with my family for over four years, after having lived three years in a town in the mountains above Beirut. Our life has been peaceful. I am and engineer and work as a director for the NGO AVSI in Lebanon; my wife is home with the children (the older two have already begun school).

When the war broke out on July 12th, we thought that it was the usual border clashes. But after two days I understood that we couldn’t continue to risk staying–the airport had been bombed, and they were beginning to bomb the roads leading to the border as well. I booked taxis and at dawn of the following morning, together with our friends Andrea and Romina, who had arrived only two weeks before from Italy, we fled toward Syria, and from Syria to Jordan, where in Amman we boarded the plane for Italy. Suddenly leaving the friends with whom we were accustomed to sharing everything–days on the beach, School of Community, our home and work–made us understand how deeply attached we’d become to them during the years spent here.

An example is our friend Ferial, a woman of 45 with five children. Ferial, who has a Canadian passport, had the opportunity to escape at the first signs of war, but she surprised us by saying, “Look, I would rather stay here in the war, as long as I am able to continue living this experience of the Movement. I’ll go to Canada only if you give me the name of someone in CL I can meet there!” She decided to leave the last week of July, and in her bag had the phone number of our Canadian friend John Zucchi.

For the few who have remained in Lebanon, instead, the sacrifice is great. They are conscious that their presence serves the good of their country and also of the Church. The Christians provide a very strong social balance, and are an incomparable binding force within the population. Even though the Christian presence in Lebanon has diminished from 60% to 40% in the past 15 years, because of continuous immigration, I am always surprised when my work brings me to the Bekaa Valley, where the villages are almost always mixed, with Sunnis and Christians, Shiites and Christians, or Druses and Christians. Truly, the Christian presence is an objective factor of peace, not just an ideological one. People trust the Christians and, for this reason, many want to work with them; those with the means send their children to the Christian schools. For example, in Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold, there are Christian schools where 80% of the students are Muslim. This is empirical proof of how the factor of education becomes the first factor of peace.

Jerusalem Speaking
by Marta Zaknoun

This is not the first time that the Christians of the Holy Land, like those throughout the Middle East, find themselves in the middle of a conflict they did not start, but whose anguishing consequences they must suffer. Here in the Holy Land, during the conflict with Lebanon, the populations worst battered by the war were obviously those of the north, in Galilee. Even though war has unfortunately become a fairly familiar reality, the impact with the unpredictability and the uncertainties it brings has left a concrete mark.

As is the case for me, many Arab–Israeli Christians live in Jerusalem, but the rest of their family–their grandparents, uncles and aunts and other relatives–live in the north in cities such as Acri, Haifa, Nazareth, and other small Arab villages near the Lebanese border. For them, the war was an experience marked by fear and tension, but at the same time it demonstrated their endurance and attachment to their homes, families, work, friends, and, above all, faith, in a continuous attempt to entrust themselves to God.

For many of us who live in Jerusalem, this war was a period charged with anxiety and fear for our loved ones. For a short time, we hosted some of them in our homes, those who were willing to leave their own dwellings for a bit of tranquillity which, this time, ironically and paradoxically, was to be found here, in the country’s center.

In the attempt to keep in close touch with friends and relatives in Galilee, we in turn were surprised to see that we were accompanied during those days by our community, by the friends of Jerusalem, both when they were still in Israel and when they were forced to leave. We received comfort and support from the people of the Movement in Italy and elsewhere. Simple phone calls and promises of prayer for us and our families were of great help, reminding us continually not to give in to the uncertainty and fear.

As in all wars, it was painful to see the television news images of the victims of both countries, and in those days our thoughts were also with the friends of the Beirut community whom we had met in Amman during the Spiritual Exercises for the Middle East. We knew nothing about their situation, but felt a great need to pray for them and for peace in the region. Our communion with our nearby friends, as with all the other communities during the war, was and still is a confirmation, a further sign, of a good that has been given us, that is greater than us and stronger than any circumstances that may be in store.

Bethany Speaking
by Samar Sahhar

Once upon a time, there was a prince who, when he became king, called all the intellectuals to his court and said, “I want to learn the meaning of history and life. I don’t want to commit the same errors as the others.” The years passed by and the young king grew, thinking of his questions. When the intellectuals returned to the court, they brought with them many history books. The king told them, “I could never manage to read all these books. Please, summarize them for me.” One of the oldest responded, “We will do so. Up until now, no one has learned all the lessons we have had from history. Many people have been born, have suffered, and died without learning anything from their experience.”

I believe that no one has learned from history yet, from the cruelty of war, from the horrors and pain it has always brought into the world. Last July, when dreams and hopes were crushed underfoot, when so many lost their homes, when so many children ran directionless without understanding why, the eyes of these children began to ask the questions about the tragedies of life and how to face them. The never-ending questions are these: When will all this cease? What is the value of life?

My Lazarus Home children refused to watch television or listen to the news. Their motive was clear: they had already suffered so greatly and undergone so many abuses at the hands of adults that they refused to undergo all this once again.

I prayed a great deal, and my thoughts were with my family in Gaza. I wondered how they could manage without water, electricity, and food. My thoughts also were with my Israeli friends of the Sassa Kibut. I tried to contact them, because I knew that at some point they would have to leave their homes.

This is what I prayed for them: “Father in Heaven, Merciful Lover of life, look kindly on those who are suffering during these difficult times. Father, look upon the Palestinian people, the Israeli people, and the Lebanese people. Look upon the entire human family. Holy Father, look upon all those who have lost their loved ones and their homes. Father, look with compassion upon those who are in the hospital, and support them in this time of suffering. I pray for the children–help them to hope for a better future in this world. Where the love and justice of men have failed, may Your Love and Your Justice prevail.”