|BEIRUT, Lebanon--A European Baptist Federation delegation held rare meetings with two of Lebanon's most powerful political leaders.
The delegation met with Emile Lahoud, the president of Lebanon and a Maronite Christian, at the presidential palace. The same day the group met with Rafic Hariri, the nation's prime minister and a Sunni Muslim, in his home.
Meeting last week in Beirut in its annual session, the EBF includes Baptist unions in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The prime minister told Baptists the "Iraqi war is not between Christians and Muslims."
The conflict rather is between those who want democracy and those who want things to stay as they are, Hariri said from his luxurious home in West Beirut.
Hariri said the United States "made a fatal mistake" by dismissing the Iraqi army, police and intelligence service, assuming they were all loyal to Saddam Hussein.
He said Christians outside of Lebanon "have huge obligations" for the situation in the Middle East," explaining, "There is a campaign against Muslims by saying they cause terrorism."
"In the dark ages, Christianity was encouraging terrorism through the crusades," Hariri said. "Hitler was a Christian."
One Baptist European murmured disagreement, and Hariri replied that Hitler was a member of the Christian church.
"I'm a Muslim, born a Muslim," he said. "I understand it as a religion of tolerance."
Hariri said, "It is a matter of belief that this country is for Christians and Muslims."
Driving through Beirut to the meeting, past Islamic worshippers at prayer and a few badly shelled buildings, Nabil Costa, a leader of the Baptist convention of Lebanon, described his nation as a "country of ghosts."
Costa credited Hariri for helping to rebuild downtown Beirut following the nation's 15-year civil war, which claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Earlier in the day, Costa shared with his passengers that Muslims and Christians in Lebanon were very upset about the statement by a prominent Baptist preacher in 2002 that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile," a comment that roiled through the Arab and Islamic world.
"Christians here were astonished by the statement, especially since Lebanon has a diversity of religion, and Lebanese respect one another," Costa said.
Lebanon has some 4 million people with 19 officially recognized religious groups and a commitment to religious freedom.
According to a country profile about Lebanon on the United State's Department of State's Web site, the "unwritten 'National Pact' of 1943 stipulates that the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of parliament be a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim, and a Shi'a Muslim respectively. The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the country's 15-year civil war, reaffirmed this arrangement."
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud welcomed the same delegation into his office in the presidential palace in East Beirut.
Sitting behind an abundant spread of yellow roses, Lahoud said Beirut is the "gateway to the Middle East."
The Western world still thinks that "we are at war," he said. Yet "we are ranked No. 1 by Interpol for security."
"Whoever wants to pray the way he wants can do it," the president said. "Baptists are doing a lot for Lebanon."
Ghassan Khalaf, president of the Convention of the Evangelical Baptist Churches of Lebanon, told Lahoud, "We are proud of our president as an ethical and moral man."
In addition to Costa and Khalaf, seven other Baptists attended the two meetings. They included EBF president Billy Taranger; General Secretary-elect Tony Peck; outgoing General Secretary Theo Angelov; and Denton Lotz, head of the Baptist World Alliance.
Samuel Kharrat, a Lebanese pastor, also was present.
After leaving the meeting, Costa, the director for the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development, called the meeting a "very good one."
"I want the president to remember that there are Baptists in Lebanon, not only evangelicals," said Costa. "I want to thank him for remembering this minority."
"We prayed for the president," Costa said. "What could be better?"
Robert Parham is the executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.