BEIRUT, Lebanon (BP)–Bold black banners dominate the walls of many buildings in Beirut these days. Emblazoned in stark white on each banner are two words: “The Truth.”
The truth — that’s what the Lebanese people want to know about the Feb. 14 car bombing that killed their popular former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. And with an aggressive United Nations investigation now reaching into high levels of the Lebanese and Syrian governments, they just might get it.
Hariri, a billionaire businessman and veteran politician, won the admiration of many Lebanese by investing his wealth to rebuild Beirut and unite the nation after Lebanon’s 1975-91 civil war. But his challenge to neighboring Syria’s long control of Lebanese politics may have sealed his fate.
His portrait still adorns countless shop windows. A large digital counter in the middle of town ticks off the days since his death. More than a million Lebanese from across the ethnic and religious spectrum -– Sunni Muslims, Druze (an Islamic sect), Maronite Christians, Catholics and Orthodox –- jammed together into Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square a month after Hariri’s assassination to call for change. Syria’s military subsequently withdrew from Lebanon. Now the Syrian regime itself faces mounting international pressure as a result of the U.N. investigation.
“The day of the demonstration, I was studying at a coffee shop,” a Christian worker who lives in Beirut recalls. “I stopped and went out to watch these vans loaded with 30 people hanging out the windows, people holding Lebanese flags, grandmothers, children, entire families coming from the villages. Within 30 minutes I must have seen 10,000 people go by. You had a sense that this is different; something is happening here. It was incredible.”
Enthusiasm has waned somewhat in the months since, the worker admits. Many older Lebanese who experienced the sectarian violence and hatred of the civil war years doubt that any real change will ever come, he reports. But like many Arab countries, Lebanon is young; about 70 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million people are under age 35. Some 75,000 university students live in Beirut alone. Too young for cynicism, they expect -– demand — a brighter future.
“They want to put hope into something,” the worker says. “They want peace and freedom. They wouldn’t have come out so strongly in support of Hariri if they didn’t want something different.”
Would political freedom be enough, however? What about material prosperity and the “good life” they see many Europeans just across the Mediterranean enjoying?
Young couples and families stroll nightly through gleaming streets filled with restaurants, cafes, shops and boutiques built over the bombed-out ruins of war-era Beirut. More than a decade beyond a civil war between ethnic Muslim and Christian militias that killed 150,000 people, Lebanon’s capital has regained its old reputation as the “Paris of the Middle East.” It radiates youth, energy, excitement.
But there’s a void behind the countless construction projects and the music blaring out of Beirut’s nightclubs –- a void that only God can fill. Sixty percent of Beirut’s 1.5 million people are from Muslim backgrounds; 32 percent belong to various traditional Christian groups. Fewer than 1 percent are evangelical followers of Christ. Most Lebanese have never heard a clear presentation of the Gospel. And a new “religion” -– secularism — has taken hold.
“The biggest obstacle to the Gospel in Lebanon is not necessarily Islam but secularism,” the Christian worker explains. “Young people of the next generation are the ones who are more open, but they’ve replaced religious belief with the pursuit of things. Their parents grew up during the war and didn’t have anything, so it’s like they’re making up for lost time. Maybe it’s expensive clothes, power, partying, whatever.”
But Lebanon is the only Arab nation with real religious freedom. And Lebanese who learn about the love of Jesus Christ are responding to Him:
— Mala, a young Muslim, was discontented with her faith and cried out to God, begging to know who He really is. She went to a bookstore and saw a shelf of religious books. Desperately, she grabbed one and opened it. It was a Bible. Mala gave her life to Christ and has grown in faith for several years, though her family forbids her from meeting with other believers.
— An entire Druze family became followers of Christ, despite persecution from a close family member who is a Druze religious leader.
— Another Muslim family in Beirut that embraced Christ as Lord has a Bible study meeting in their home and has helped start another study for spiritual seekers.
“God is doing something,” the worker says. “For some reason, there’s a window open in Lebanon that is allowing the Gospel to come into this country.”
He and other believers often pray for the modern fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about Lebanon: “In a very short time, will not Lebanon be turned into a fertile field and the fertile field seem like a forest? In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of the gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One…. ” (Isaiah 29:17-19, NIV).
“Lebanon is going to be used as fertile ground,” the worker says. “Right now it’s still a wilderness — a lot of weeds, a lot of rocky places. That’s why we’re asking people to come alongside and pray for the soil, that there will be a harvest when Lebanese catch the hope of Jesus.”
For more information, visit www.beirutandbeyond.com.