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Advancing Peace as Divided Lebanese Christians Stockpile Weapons for War

Lebanese Christians are divided with factions stockpiling weapons and preparing for a civil war, according to a New York Times article last week.

A Lebanese Baptist leader has a different perspective on the situation, however.

“Many Lebanese say another civil war–like the 15-year one that started in 1975–is imminent and that the most dangerous flash points are within the divided Christian community,” reported the New York Times on Saturday.

“Christian youth are signing up for militant factions in the greatest numbers since the end of the civil war, spray painting nationalist symbols on walls and tattooing them on their skin, and proclaiming their willingness to fight in a new civil war–in particular, against fellow Christians,” said the newspaper article.

The intense disagreement is over how Christians, a religious minority, should work with Muslims, the religious majority, and who will be the next Lebanese president, a position reserved for one of the Christian faith.

Lebanon has historically advanced religious liberty with a power sharing arrangement that has the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of parliament reserved for a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim respectively.

Estimates on the number of Lebanese Christians range from as low as 23 percent to as high as 39 percent of the population. Within Christianity, the largest group is the Maronites, who have both their own liturgical and ecclesiastical tradition and a long association with the Roman Catholic Church. The Greek Orthodox Church is second in membership. Other Christian groups include ethnically based Orthodox bodies, Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists.

According to the New York Times, one side of the Christian divide favors General Michel Aoun and the strategy of working with the Muslim majority as a way to protect the Christian community. This wing aligns itself with Hezbollah and is called pro-Syrian.

On the other side are Christians who consider themselves as pro-government and are loyal to the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces.

In an email exchange with EthicsDaily.com, Nabil Costa, agreed with the Times’ analysis about the division of the Christian community but disagreed with the prospects of an imminent civil war.

“I don’t think there will be fighting, only because Hezbollah does not want to fight internally and wants to prove to the world that they are not terrorists,” said Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development.

In meetings with Lebanese and Jordanian leaders, Costa said Baptist leaders had communicated their desire to be part of the peace process and that they were promoting peace through their educational institutions.

He said visits to Lebanon and support for Lebanese institutions were ways for global Baptists to support the peace process in that region.

Baptist World Alliance President David Coffey met with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud in late September, expressing “sincere condolences” over the previous week’s assassination of Christian politician Antoine Ghanem, 64, and innocent civilians.

A European Baptist Federation delegation met separately in September 2004 with Lahoud and then prime minister Rafic Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, who was later assassinated.

“Christian evangelical schools, seminaries and universities” are “a great platform to promote real peace and concept of accepting others,” Costa said.

He called on American and European Baptists to support the work of Lebanese Baptists who “live and cooperate with Moslems.”

Global Baptists could indeed do more to advance peace in that cauldron of competing interests through greater support for the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and the humanitarian work of the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development.

Goodwill Baptists did respond with humanitarian aid during last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel that devastated much Lebanon, creating a refugee crisis to which Lebanese Baptists provided shelter, food, water and medical supplies to mostly Shiite Muslims.

A year later, global Baptists need to remember their fellow Baptists in Lebanon. They are, after all, our closest spiritual and theological kin in that nation. But they are more than that. They are our best representatives giving witness to and working for peace.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.