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Workers in Lebanon see new day as ban expires

BEIRUT, Lebanon (BP)–Workers for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board see the lifting of a 10-year travel ban in Lebanon as fuel for their efforts in one of the most open and responsive nations of the Middle East.
The U.S. State Department announced July 30 its ban on Americans in Lebanon would expire. That effectively legalizes the presence of thousands of Americans who have been visiting and living in Lebanon anyway after a bitter civil war trailed off in the early 1990s.
It also makes it possible for International Mission Board workers to invite Southern Baptist colleagues to help bring the gospel to various people groups in Lebanon.
The United States imposed the travel ban in 1987 as murders, kidnappings, bombings and plane hijackings became common methods of terrorist warfare there. Formerly a popular tourist spot considered the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut had become a dangerous, war-racked city pockmarked by mortar blasts and beset by terrorism.
In recent years, as peace has settled in, workers such as Arab-born IMB field representative Raouf Ghattas and his wife, Carol, have helped rebuild the country, both physically and spiritually.
Still, they have been stymied by their inability to bring in more workers as their efforts have taken root.
“We’re ecstatic. It’s a new day in Lebanon,” said Ghattas upon hearing the State Department announcement. “Now Southern Baptists can openly join in the work that has already been taking place in Lebanon for about the past four years, since the end of the Lebanese civil war.”
The Ghattases and other evangelical workers from outside Lebanon have witnessed a great openness in southern Lebanon. Workers have shared in large groups and person-to-person, leading many to saving faith in Jesus Christ, Ghattas said.
One small Baptist church in southern Lebanon has given out thousands of copies of the Bible and New Testament to Lebanese living near them. “Hearts are open as never before,” Ghattas said. “We are excited about the opportunity for future ministry in the area.”
And recently 13 new believers gathered for worship and Christian training in a village near Beirut. Earlier that week, a team of Arabs from throughout the Middle East had rented a 400-seat movie theater to show the film, “Jesus.” The new believers were among those who made decisions to follow Jesus.
While much work in the country is new, Baptist work in Lebanon is more than 100 years old. International board workers came in 1948 and began many of the ministries and churches that continue today. Lebanese Baptists were forced to continue the work alone after international board workers were banned with other Americans in 1987.
The Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, now led by Lebanese Baptists, continues to train future leaders from all over the Middle East and North Africa. It’s the only Baptist seminary in the Arab world of more than 300 million people.
Twenty-three churches belong to the Lebanese Baptist Convention. They are working to strengthen already effective outreach programs — especially among people who consider themselves Christian but who practice their faith only nominally.
One outreach tool Lebanese Baptists use is Beirut Baptist School. The war turned the area around the school into a predominately Muslim neighborhood. Still, all 1,200 students are required to take Bible classes and attend Christian chapel services. Every week, as Ghattas shares the gospel there, more students decide to follow Jesus Christ.
The five IMB workers in Lebanon are asking for a youth worker to provide Christ-centered extra-curricular activities for the students, Ghattas said. They also want teachers, a coach and teacher trainers and coordinators in various positions in and out of Beirut, including an outreach effort among the Bedouin people in the Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria.
They also are asking for student evangelists and an outreach director to work near the campus of American University of Beirut. “As a new day for Lebanon has come with the rebuilding of the country, so have new methods of evangelism to reach students at the most important university in the Arab world,” Ghattas said.
“We anticipate great things as the door for Americans is now open in this, the most open country in the Middle East,” he added.

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  • Marty Croll