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Arab seminary & Southwestern forge ‘fraternal relationship’

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, signed a “historic” agreement April 3 with a seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut is the only Baptist seminary in the Middle East-North Africa region and the only Christian seminary that can openly train converts from other religions.

“This is a historic agreement,” said Ghassan Khalaf, president of the ABTS.

The “agreement of fraternal relationship” signed by Khalaf and Southwestern Seminary President Kenneth S. Hemphill encourages “faculty enrichment through mutual use and cooperation.” Southwestern has similar agreements with educational institutions in Tokyo, Korea and India and is trying to respond to requests from other international institutions.

The document also calls for “student enrichment through mutual cooperation” and the sharing of library resources. Southwestern professors and students have already served at the Beirut seminary, and the first student from ABTS will enroll in Southwestern this fall.

Hemphill said the partnership will benefit Southwestern’s faculty and students by exposing them to a unique missions setting in a different culture.

“It will expand the worldwide influence of Southwestern in terms of our faculty and graduates being in many of the critical mission posts around the world,” Hemphill said. “The agreement is another step in the globalization of Southwestern Seminary.”

Scotty Gray, Southwestern’s vice president for academic administration, called Beirut one of the most metropolitan, international areas in the Middle East and a tremendous missions training area for students.

Asked why his seminary chose to partner with Southwestern, Khalaf said, “We have a long history of friendship with Southwestern. As the only seminary in the Middle East, we feel it is important to be related to an institution as well-known and established as Southwestern.”

That relationship began in 1960 when the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) opened ABTS. Southwestern graduate Finlay Graham was elected as its founding president.

The Foreign Mission Board transferred ownership of the seminary to Baptists in Lebanon in 1993, and Khalaf was elected president. Today the school has 10 professors and 50 to 60 students, Khalaf said.

“Among our students are some who have converted from non-Christian religions,” Khalaf said. Attempts to “convert” Muslims are illegal in Lebanon, but the country already has a large Christian population, he said.

“It is an Arab country with a Christian face,” Khalaf said.

Baptist work began in Lebanon in 1895 after a Lebanese citizen traveled to Chicago to purchase a large format camera. He met a pastor there who challenged him to become a Christian, and after he did, he returned to Lebanon and began preaching.

His converts started the first Baptist church within a few years, and today 25 Baptist churches dot the Lebanon landscape. Khalaf said the churches have about 1,800 members.

In part to help Baptists in those churches, Southwestern recently obtained approval to begin a new Islamic studies degree.

The degree program is under the direction of Samuel Shahid, an Arab-born American and a professor in Southwestern’s theology school. Khalaf said Shahid is well known in Lebanon because he has written 40 books in Arabic and English and has translated the Old Testament into the modern Arabic language.

Shahid said the new master’s degree will equip students to dialogue with and make Christian disciples of people with non-Christian backgrounds in the United States and abroad.

Gray said the new Islamic studies degree and the new partnership give Southwestern “a phenomenal opportunity to have an impact on the Middle East that we haven’t had before.”

The Arab seminary “will provide a base of training for your students,” Khalaf said. “We will be like a base for your students and faculty.”

Shahid and Khalaf became friends in 1965 when they worked together in youth ministry in Beirut. Khalaf’s brother, Sam, is a Southwestern student, and Sam’s wife has already earned a Southwestern degree.

Shahid taught at ABTS before coming to Southwestern. Three other Southwestern professors have taught at the seminary during sabbatical leaves over the years: T.B. Maston, Franklin Segler and Jack MacGorman.

“And we hope more and more cooperation will happen,” Khalaf said.

Seminary administrators said students who obtain dual enrollment status will earn degrees from both schools.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TO THE ARAB WORLD and NEW PARTNERS.

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  • David Porter