Beirut National Evangelical Church pastor Revd Dr Habib Badr tells Wazala why he sees “quality Christian presence” as the key to future peace and inclusion in a fragile and volatile country.
A wall of coiled razor wire stands guard over the entrance to Evangelical Church Road in Central Beirut. It’s there not to protect the church but to control access to the expansive Ottoman-built government buildings over the road. So the National Evangelical Church, from which the street takes its name, sits only metres away from this heart of government.
The razor wire was added only last year during a series of growing protests over the government’s handling of a bundle of issues – from rubbish piling up on the streets to the prolonged failure to elect a president.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Revd Dr Habib Badr, the church’s senior pastor, is very conscious of the country’s tensions and its fragile position in the region. At 65, he has witnessed Lebanon’s bitter 15-year civil war (1975-90), a 2006 war with Israel when “our country was almost destroyed”, and has seen decades of emigration. Today he sees the country struggling with pressures from increasing fundamentalism and the risk of Syria’s war overspilling Lebanon’s borders.
“I have often described our situation as similar to people living near a volcano”
“I have often described our situation as similar to people living near a volcano,” Dr Badr says. “The volcano many not erupt for years but you can never set your mind at ease because it may erupt. And when it does erupt, you have to be careful it doesn’t reach you.”
The latest eruption occurred in November 2015 when a twin suicide bombing in a southern Beirut suburb claimed 43 lives. “We expect more,” Dr Badr says.
Despite this, he says he is ultimately “hopeful” because he “counts on” what he calls “quality presence” by Christians in Lebanese society.
By “quality presence”, Badr means the holistic witness of Christians in Lebanese society. When his church was founded in 1848 – making it the oldest Arabic-speaking Evangelical Church in the Middle East – it was one of a broad range of services brought by Protestant churches. These included hospitals, schools, seminaries and universities. (The prestigious American University in Beirut was founded by Protestant missionaries.)
Dr Badr sees education as vital for the church’s ministry and existence in the region. “The more we as Christians lose a grip on education services, the more we risk being squeezed out of the region by sheer numbers,” he says.
On the other hand, “As I see Christians still hoping to open more schools, hospitals and I see the work of SAT-7, that makes me hopeful, expectant of better times to come.”
It’s his passionate commitment to education that led Dr Badr to support and become International Board Chairman of the Christian TV network, SAT-7.
“For me SAT-7 is as important as the entry of universities and schools into the Middle East in the 19th century,” Badr says. “I have always likened SAT-7 to a great educational enterprise. SAT-7 is a very important instrument of educating and enlightening families – Muslims and Christians – to the great values of Christianity and the good life Christ came to give us – ‘I am come that you may have life and have it in abundance’.”
“I have always likened SAT-7 to a great educational enterprise.”
This good life touches everything, he says. “In SAT-7 we address all these things – the value of women, of children, education, social awareness, hygiene.”
Badr is especially enthusiastic about My School, SAT-7’s new stream of education programmes for displaced and refugee children. “I think that’s a fantastic programme,” he adds. “Education is extremely valuable the way the Middle East now is with the rise of fundamentalism, uneducated generations, Sunni-Shia tensions; it seems like whatever we do we do not do enough.”
Contrasts and confessions
Lebanon is a country of sharp contrasts. For example, South Beirut is under the control of Hezbollah, a radical Shia Muslim party, while everyday life in many other districts is westernised and secular. Behind these contrasts is a confessional system established since Ottoman Times. It means that the country’s 18 different religious and ethnic groups have their own legal systems sitting beside the secular state system. Traffic laws, land-owning laws, most criminal law is secular, but laws of inheritance, marriage, divorce and child custody and adoption vary according to the different confessions. Parliament, too, is composed proportionately to these confessions, which Badr says, gives everyone “a feeling of power sharing”. Protestants – around 1 per cent of the population – have one MP and sometimes a minister, while the President is usually a Maronite Christian.
In many ways, this has worked, Dr Badr says, keeping peace in society and allowing a “flow of ideas and understanding” that is rare in the region. Lebanon is the only Arab country where there is freedom of religion and a Muslim can become a Christian and vice versa. But moving between confessions becomes a “dramatic event” because in doing so, you forfeit the privileges, for example, relating to child custody, that you held in your previous confession. The rise of fundamentalism has also made conversion more intense in terms of stigma, Badr says.
“Some of us are half asleep and being awakened constantly by Christ, saying ‘Wake up, keep your vigil’.”
Asked how he sees the future for Christianity in the region, he says, “I’ve often likened our situation to those few hours on Thursday evening before Christ was arrested. Some of us may be asleep as nine of the disciples were. I think some of us are half asleep and being awakened constantly by Christ, saying ‘Wake up, keep your vigil’. That’s what we have to do, knowing the times are not easy. They are filled with danger, bad things are coming, but we are with Christ so we have worries but no fear”.