I am flying into Beirut, Lebanon, for a conference, and from the air the city looks to deserve its reputation as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Upscale shops and apartment buildings hug the hills bordering the turquoise Mediterranean.
On the ground, however, the city tells a different story. Holes made by artillery pockmark many of the downtown buildings, a remnant of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Lest Lebanon forget, a Hope for Peace Monument, encasing 78 military vehicles in concrete, stands as a vivid reminder of those dark days.
Modern Lebanon is a crossroads where European and Islamic cultures meet. In Beirut, church spires compete with minarets, and on the city’s beaches women in string bikinis sunbathe next to others wearing full-body burkas. A guide could go hoarse trying to explain to a visitor the nation’s checkered past. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, France, Syria, Israel—they took turns dominating this small country, and each left its mark.
“We’re entering the Hezbollah area,” says our host, pointing out the damage caused by Israeli jets in 2006. “Over there is an Armenian neighborhood, first a sanctuary from the Turkish genocide and now full of refugees from Syria. Soon we’ll cross the Green Line, bordering the Christian district. The Syrian army shelled this area nonstop for a hundred days, but failed to capture it.”
I listen to the confusing history, then ask if he has personal memories of the war. “I was nine years old as the conflict was heating up,” he tells me. “A bomb fell into our building, killing two neighbors. I remember the smell of smoke, the broken glass, the body parts that we found over the next few days. I became mute. For days I couldn’t speak. And then I began to stutter. All through school I stuttered, making me a target for bullies and a turn-off for girls. The war traumatized my father, too, who took it out on us kids. I don’t remember a single day without a beating. This was the war. Its effects continue, even today.”
Europe and the U.S. are trying to deal with a refugee crisis—but nothing like what the Middle East faces. One in four residents of Lebanon fled here from the war in Syria, joining several hundred thousand Palestinian and Iraqi migrants. Most of them live in sprawling tent villages supplied by the UN. Many of the tents have no bathroom, and open sewers run between them. Residents like to cover their temporary homes in the heavy fabric of used billboards for protection from weather, and toss old tires on the roof as a defense against the wind.
“Officially, there are around a half million Syrian refugees,” explains a staff member from Lebanon Youth for Christ who leads me through one of the camps. “But a million more have crossed the border illegally and joined them. They can’t work, can’t send their kids to school, can’t even get married because they have no legal status. What can they do with their lives?”
To complicate matters, he says, many Lebanese Christians view Syria as an enemy. “They remember the recent past when Syria occupied us, a time of rapes and violence and oppression. We had to pass through military checkpoints to go anywhere. So, at first it was hard to get Christians to care about the refugees’ plight. But now local churches and teams from other countries are stepping up. This month we have groups from Indiana and South Korea helping out with a summer camp.”
Besides the day camps and sports activities, Youth for Christ has built a center that offers training in such subjects as English, Computer Skills, and Sewing. When Muslim activists complained, the local imam replied, “They opened a school, and built a basketball court and an indoor soccer field. What have you done for the refugees?”
“But they’re teaching the kids about Jesus!” said the radicals. The imam shot back, “Of course they talk about Jesus—they’re Christians. What do you expect? But find me one kid who says they pressured him to convert.”
We enter a tent, bare of furniture except for a mounted flat-screen TV playing Syrian soap operas. We sit on the floor cross-legged and introduce ourselves to the smiling woman who lives here with her family. “How many children do you have?” asks the YFC director, in Arabic. He expresses surprise at her answer—“Only three?!” (Imams encourage large families, and households in the camp average eight children.) She clarifies: besides the three sons, she also has six daughters, a fact hardly worth mentioning in her male-dominated culture.
The woman tells us her story. “We had a three-level apartment in Aleppo, roomy enough for my parents to live with my own family of eleven. Then ISIS moved in. They were so harsh! We couldn’t even listen to music. I went outside one day, veiled but with my eyes uncovered, and an ISIS follower threatened me and took away my identity card. ‘Never show your eyes or the palms of your hands again!’ he warned. Another time, my husband got caught smoking a cigarette and ISIS guards gave him forty lashes. He still bears the scars.”
She pauses to wipe her eyes. “After I lost two brothers in the war, we gave our life savings to a smuggler to help us escape. Otherwise, ISIS would have taken my husband. My neighbors sent me pictures of the rubble that used to be my house. Now we live in this tent. Last winter, floods came and we had to raise the plywood floor on concrete blocks. We slept on the floor, with icy water running just beneath us. But at least we are safe here.”
Hers is the first of many sad stories I will hear from refugees. A woman who was forced to watch as her family members were sexually abused and murdered in front of her eyes. Children who looked on as men raped their mother. A father fleeing on foot whose three-year-old was killed by a sniper. To see such stories on CNN is one thing; to sit in a refugee tent and hear the accounts in person, something else entirely.
Christianity had its beginnings in this part of the world, and biblical reminders abound. Solomon purchased cedars of Lebanon to build his temple. Tyre and Sidon are just down the coast from Beirut, halfway to Jesus’ home town. To visit the refugee camps we drove along the “Damascus Road,” near the site of the apostle Paul’s conversion.
Christians who work in Muslim countries speak of “MBBs,” their abbreviation for people raised Muslim who decide to become followers of Jesus. Some keep their new identity secret, continuing to faithfully attend the mosque. Others declare their new allegiance, which often leads to family shunning and sometimes violence. Local pastors tell of murder threats against converts. Or, a woman may have her children taken away, and be held in a kind of detention, forbidden to leave her house.
In one city, I visit a church service that includes many MBBs. “Please don’t take pictures,” the pastor says. “The danger to Muslim converts is real.”
“Why do they take such a risk, if it’s so dangerous?” I ask.
“There are two main reasons why they become Christians,” he replies. “Many have visions or dreams of a man in white beckoning them, and they then discover the man is Jesus. I hear this story over and over from converts. The second reason is simply love. Not so long ago this city was besieged by the Syrian army, bombed every day. Six thousand died, with many more injured. You can understand why not many volunteered to help at the Syrian camps right away.”
He leads me downstairs, to an underground parking lot with spaces still marked in yellow paint. “Once our church got to know the refugees, though, we felt compassion for them. They have lost everything, and live in a kind of limbo, people without a country. So we converted this indoor parking lot into a school that now educates 650 kids. We also feed them, because the UN only got about 20 percent of the aid promised last year. Not all our neighbors approve—we’ve been to court many times. But love wins.”
Next he leads me to a chapel where two hundred MBBs are singing. Some of the women get excited and make the high-pitched trilling sound known as ululation. As we stand at the back he points to a few Syrians and tells me their stories in a whisper.
My visit ends in his office. “I have had some very low times,” he admits. “In this region we live with war and its terrible effects. I wish we could do more to help the refugees. There used to be a strong minority of Christians in places like Syria and Iraq—now they’ve fled to the West, decimating the church in the Middle East. Yet just as I get discouraged, I see God raising up a new church among the most unlikely people, Muslim refugees. I see Christians reaching out in love to their former enemies. God hasn’t given up on this part of the world, and neither should we.”
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