BEIRUT, Lebanon (BP)–While many observers fear that regional conflict in Lebanon will reopen ancient animosities and plunge the country into civil war, one Southern Baptist worker believes God could use the current crisis to bring healing and unity instead.
Violence between various Christian and Muslim groups has plagued Lebanon for hundreds of years. In a country of less than 4 million people, no fewer than 14 separate religious sects compete for social influence and political power -– struggles that often have led to violence. In 1860, for instance, 10,000 Maronite Christians were massacred by Muslim Druze militias. When the country’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the price of peace was an awkward arrangement that gave equal power to a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister and a Shiite Muslim speaker of the house.
Exploiting religious tensions is a favorite strategy of those who would benefit by plunging Lebanon even deeper into chaos. Hezbollah militiamen who have been using Muslim villages to launch missiles into Israel recently moved some operations into Christian villages, hoping that Israeli retaliation against Christian villages would work in Hezbollah’s favor.
In Lebanon, “Christian” and “Muslim” are as much political labels as religious affiliations, says Keith Logan*, a Southern Baptist worker in the United States who is close to the situation in Lebanon.
“In the eyes of some people, ‘Christian’ means the people who have that stamped on their identity cards,” Logan said. “During the civil war, people were killed indiscriminately based on what was on their identity card. Beneath the surface, there is a lot of deep-seated bitterness over what happened during the civil war. These people shot at each other across the street for 15 years.
“Over the past year and a half, groups have used political assassinations and bombings to try to stir up the kind of sectarian strife that started the war in the first place,” Logan continued. “But the Lebanese people have resisted that. They have shown that they have learned from their history, and they have stood tall and refused to allow themselves to be pulled into that kind of conflict again.”
The situation is particularly difficult for evangelical Christians, who comprise less than 1 percent of the population and often experience as much persecution from the politically established Christian groups as from Muslims, Logan said. For example, a Baptist congregation that outgrows its facility might find efforts to acquire new property blocked by traditional Christian leaders in the community.
Evangelicals have had to learn to exercise great care in relating to other groups, Logan observed.
“Beirut Baptist School is in a Muslim-majority neighborhood -– probably 95 percent of their students are Muslim. When this crisis began, the school wanted to open its doors to refugees, and their leader was negotiating that with officials from Hezbollah!”
Evangelicals have done a good job of living and working with such tension, Logan said, “but it really affects the way they relate to others in terms of boldness in evangelism and in church growth.”
A great danger in this present situation lies in the possibility that civil war might break out inside the regional conflict, he added.
“We need to pray for all the hurting people of Lebanon,” Logan said. “They didn’t start this conflict; they didn’t want it. They have gone to great lengths to promote unity in recent years and now they have had war imposed on them. Peace is so fragile in this region. We need to pray that people will discover there is no true peace outside of Christ.”
That peace of Christ is being vividly demonstrated as displaced Muslim families are taking refuge among Christians and experiencing compassion instead of rejection, Logan noted.
“People think that a conflict like that this would divide Lebanon and maybe even cause another civil war, but God has shown in the past that He will use foreign people and forces and difficult circumstances to bring His people into contact with the lost,” Logan said. “What if God used this war to unite people and further His Kingdom?
“It has been very exciting to see how people are responding in this crisis. It’s actually drawing people together and not stirring up sectarian strife,” he said. “This is God’s design –- even in this war He is going to be glorified.”
*Name changed for security reasons. To contribute to the International Mission Board’s relief efforts in Lebanon, checks with “Lebanon -– General Relief” on the memo line can be sent to the International Mission Board, World Hunger and Relief Ministries, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA, 23230-0767. For more information, call 1-800-999-3113.