Bold initiatives are taking place in Lebanon to build peace between Christians and Muslims in a society where religious identity often defines where you live and go to school, as well as where you worship.
Dr Martin Accad, a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, spoke on SAT-7 ARABIC’s On the Go programme about the initiative “Bread and Salt”, an exciting project that promotes respect and understanding between teenagers from the two faiths.
On the Go, now in its second season, is hosted by Yemeni presenter Ashraf Elsamey. Each week Elsamey interviews representatives of the Arab world’s diverse communities in order to promote tolerance and acceptance. In doing so, the show attracts new audiences who haven’t discovered SAT-7 before.
“In countries like Yemen and Syria, for example, there is so much division between the different groups,” Elsamey says. Viewers of the programme are “looking for the common humanity. So we speak about listening, getting to know one another and learning from one another.”
The episode with Martin Accad, the Chief Academic Officer of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Lebanon, explored how “Bread and Salt” is doing this with Lebanese youth between the ages of 14 and 17.
Accad explained how “Bread and Salt” draws together Christian and Muslim teenagers who live in the same neighbourhood. Despite this, their lives don’t often intersect, and they would never otherwise be encouraged to dialogue about their faith. “Bread and Salt” helps them to engage with each other on a deeper level, to talk about their different beliefs and to break down stereotypes.
“The name ‘Bread and Salt’ reflects that sharing food together creates a strong bond that no external factor can break,” Accad said. “Sharing food is much more than a social custom: it’s a divine principle. Jesus lived on earth and participated with people by eating together.
“The main principle in dialogue is to recognise that we are different,” Accad continued. “Religious practices separate people because in their nature they are exclusive of the other who is of a different religion.”
Reaching the grassroots
The idea for “Bread and Salt” came from Accad’s seminary teaching. “When I teach “Introduction to Islam”, I try to do it as objectively as possible, but it is difficult to show the whole picture as I am myself a Christian,” he said. He supplements his teaching by taking Christian students to a mosque to observe what happens and hold discussions with the imam “so the walls of fear and misconceptions collapse”.
But experiences like this, and the good relations that often exist between Christian and Muslim leaders in Lebanon, aren’t usually found at grassroots. “Bread and Salt”, therefore, plays a vital role in building a foundation for peace and social integration among those who will soon be young adults.
In practice, the Christian group of young people go to the mosque on Friday morning to observe prayers. They don’t participate, but they watch and listen to the message. Similarly, the young group of Muslims attend the church service on Sunday, watch their Christian colleagues pray and listen to the sermon.
This is all done with the collaboration and agreement of the leaders of the mosque and church.
Religion and faith are at the core of the Arab culture. They cannot be ignored or sidelined in any social initiative towards peace.
“The basis for peace comes from personal relationships,” Accad said. “The aim of the initiative is to create personal relations and friendships. This doesn’t solve differences but instead highlights them. Through the art of dialogue these youths learn to respect and tolerate the other,” Accad explained. “This is the secret to a peaceful society.”
The response to the On the Go series is convincing proof for Ashraf Elsamey of the value of genuine listening and respectful dialogue. One viewer’s message stands out for him.
“One of my Yemeni viewers texted one of the most interesting messages I have ever received in media,” Elsamey says. “He hasn’t come to the Lord, but he is open.
“He told me, ‘I saw you on a Christian channel. I was very angry with you [as a Yemeni for being on a Christian network], and I judged you a lot. But later, when I heard the message you gave to your country, to your people, that made me feel you are a genuine person.
“’You love this country, and you love this people. Now I follow you. If anyone who becomes Christian and has a message like you, I pray that all my country will be Christian!’”