Despite a year of political instability and strife, Baptists in Lebanon are proceeding this week with an annual conference aimed at bringing Christians from North America, Europe and the Arab world together to better understand Islam and the Middle East.
Arab Baptist Theological Seminary's annual Middle East conference provides an opportunity for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs.
Sponsored by Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, the fourth annual Middle East Conference is underway June 18-22.
That is despite a 33-day war last summer between Israel and the Lebanon-based Islamic group Hezbollah, which killed 1,200 Lebanese civilians and displaced 1 million.
More recent combat pitted Lebanon's government against the militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon that was home to 30,000 Palestinian refugees before many fled to avoid the fighting.
"We are quite excited to see how God multiplies the invested efforts and so brings fruits to His glory," said Nabil Costa, head of the Lebanese Baptist Society, which runs both the seminary and other ministries including Beirut Baptist School and a publishing house named Dar Manhal Al Hayat Publications.
"Indeed, it is His hand in our midst that keeps us encouraged amidst the very frustrating--and at times quite alarming--conflicts and explosions that shatter our country's peace."
Founded in 1960 by a Scottish-born Baptist missionary named Finlay Graham, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary trained Christian leaders from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Iraq, who later returned home to serve in their own communities, before Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Since then, a majority of students have been from Lebanon.
Four years ago the seminary began an annual weeklong conference to not only bring in Christians from around the world, but also to link them with Muslim students in a setting to ask "questions we both always wanted to ask each other but never dared."
This year's conference, titled "Protestant Missions to the Middle East: A Reflective Pause with History," features papers on defining moments and approaches in Christian/Muslim relations and diversities and challenges facing peoples of the Middle East. Conference speakers are simultaneously translated via headset in Arabic and English, according to need.
Martin Accad, director of the seminary's Institute of Middle East Studies, said the conference provides an opportunity to "learn in an atmosphere of academic excellence and Christian love, going beyond the widespread stereotypes about the Middle East and Islam."
Costa said in a Baptist World Alliance press release it is a challenge for Lebanese Baptists to remain focused on God amid sectarian conflict. "May God help us to see the aggressors through His eyes, to pray for them, as well as to reflect our true identity in Christ in times of peace as well as in times of difficulty," Costa said.
In a May 31 dispatch Costa described a tenuous security situation in Lebanon, as extremist militants in the north threatened to expand into other parts of the country.
"Please pray that God may intervene and prevent further loss of lives and property," Costa wrote. "Pray for the leadership in Lebanon that they may put their differences aside and find solutions. Pray that the church may be alert and reflect the love of Christ to those who are weary and broken-hearted amidst this troubled period."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.