Syrian refugees present an abundance of humanitarian and economic challenges to Lebanon – all well recognized by the global community.
Unrecognized is the challenge they present to Lebanese churches.
“The number of registered refugees from Syria is approaching 1 million and could grow to 1.6 million at the end of 2014 if current trends continue,” reported the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. “Lebanon already has the highest per capita concentration of refugees of any country in recent history, with nearly 230 registered Syrian refugees for every 1,000 Lebanese.”
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said that his country “cannot endure the arrival of even a few thousand additional refugees.”
Sleiman noted the enormous financial, health care, educational and food strains the refugees were placing on his country.
News reports note widespread malnutrition, the lack of education for children, girls exploited for sex due to economic insecurity, and a suspected case of the dreaded disease of polio.
The Syrian refugee crisis is being called the worst refugee crisis in decades, one that gets bumped off the front page of newspapers and from cable talk-shows for the mystery of the missing Malaysian airline and the crisis in Ukraine.
But sooner rather than later, world attention will return to the Syrian crisis – and rightfully so.
Little if any attention in U.S. churches will turn to how the refugee calamity challenges Lebanese churches.
Elie Haddad, president of Beirut’s Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, said at lunch last week in a Nashville restaurant that the “war is getting worse.”
He observed that the refugees didn’t see how life could ever return to normal in their home country.
Then, his attention turned to how the situation was affecting Baptists in Lebanon.
He shared that between 20 to 40 Sunni Syrian Muslims are visiting his 100-member Faith Baptist Church each Sunday. Most are women.
They present a number of challenges to the congregation, he said.
One is to encourage the Lebanese congregants to welcome the Syrians, those long considered enemies.
The 30-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon only ended after the assassination of Lebanese ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Lebanese protested so vigorously the Syrian government’s involvement in their country that Syria was forced to withdraw.
Given that contentious history, one can understand why congregants would be reluctant to welcome those from an adversarial nation.
A second challenge is that of communications, said Haddad, making the Christian faith understandable. Preaching and teaching must explain the foundations of Christianity to those of Islamic faith.
That, in turn, leads to a third challenge: making church appealing to church members, who already know the basics of Christianity.
Haddad explained that religion is not just about faith for Muslims. It’s also about community. Many of the women attend church in search of community.
Providing community, not offering material aid to refugees, is the church’s primary focus on Sundays, he said.
He added that his wife, an interior designer by vocation, works for a nongovernmental organization that does provide aid and that Baptists do work with refugees.
Baptist care for refugees has resulted in Muslims asking: Why are these Christians helping us?
For these church visitors – and other Muslims – Christianity is associated with the West. As such, Hollywood is seen as representative of Christianity.
The “axis of evil,” the phrase used to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, represents Christianity. Even a Lebanese militia group (the “Christian militia”) embodies Christianity.
Such associations require Haddad and other Christians to redefine themselves as being Arab Christians, not representative of Western or American or European Christianity.
That redefinition is at work at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), which has 45 full-time and 25-part time students from across the Middle East and North Africa.
The largest number of students comes from Egypt. But students attend the school from Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and even Yemen, with all courses taught in Arabic.
ABTS is a remarkable institution. It trains leaders to proclaim the gospel in a majority Muslim setting. And through the Institute of Middle East Studies, it promotes greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
ABTS and its parent organization, the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, deserve the support of goodwill Baptists – perhaps now more than ever before.
Imagine for a moment what U.S. churches would do if the American population increased by 25 percent over a short period of time by refugees from a nation with whom we had a contentious history.
What would we do if faced with a huge influx of refugees, most of whom were unemployed and in desperate need of aid and a welcoming community?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.