A special part of our Awareness Forum is our Delegation programme, bringing Western thought-leaders to the Middle East to experience life, faith and culture there and to spend time with Christians and Muslims. In addition, this is an ideal opportunity for us to introduce our own work to Middle Eastern leaders and seek their help and cooperation.
Our week-long trip to Lebanon in April 2017, with a mix of Canadian and British business, civic and religious leaders, was many months in planning. We should like to thank all of our friends in and around Beirut, especially Mrs. Soulaf Kanaan and The Revd Dr Habib Badr, who worked so hard to make this a great success.
The delegation had a very auspicious start: on the day we arrived, we were very fortunate to meet Patriarch Moran Mor (Bechara Boutros al-Rahi) the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, the head of the Maronite Church. He was very welcoming, he listened to our message and he talked about the situation of Christians in the region. We were delighted that the Patriarch offered his support for our work in the future.
On Friday we met The Revd Joseph Kassab, the General Secretary of the Synod of the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Syria and Lebanon. He spoke to us about the mission of the Church there, especially their involvement with the Syrian refugees. We were then taken by The Revd Ramzi Abou Assali to the Bekaa Valley to visit a Syrian refugee family. There, we heard first-hand about this family’s journey and the great suffering and loss they had endured.
We also visited a school for refugee children where the Baptist and the National Evangelical Churches are working together to bring hope, love and a sense of security back into the children’s lives. The delegates were greatly moved by the children’s stories.
In the evening, we were invited by one of our Trustees, Mr George Kanaan, and his wife Soulaf for a formal dinner at their home with some of their closest friends. It was wonderful to see Dr Sami Khiyami, the former Syrian Ambassador to London, and to talk about our work to such an encouraging audience.
On Saturday, we met Abdul Latif Deryan, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon. Dr Mohamad Sammak, a Muslim scholar, and The Revd Dr Habib Badr, Chair of our Middle Eastern international consultants, joined us for this meeting. We discussed the Al-Azhar Declaration on Citizenship and Coexistence, and we learned much about how religion plays a central role in maintaining community harmony and stability in Lebanon. We are very proud that Dr Sammak was appointed as the Grand Mufti’s personal representative to the Foundation.
We wanted the delegates to experience the life and culture of Lebanon; after this important meeting, we visited the Gibran Khalil Gibran Museum and then travelled on to the Forest of the Cedars of God and the ancient city of Byblos. Beside the sea, we had a wonderful dinner and time to reflect on all that we had experienced so far.
On Sunday, we worshipped at the National Evangelical Church of Beirut. The service was led by The Revd Dr Habib Badr and one of our Canadian Delegates, The Revd Canon Peter Walker, was invited to preach. Revd Badr’s church invited us to join them for a traditional Lebanese lunch.
After lunch, we went to the world-famous Jeita Grotto, a series of breathtaking limestone caves carved over millions of years by the Nar el-Kalb river, and Harissa, a key Christian pilgrimage site with a shrine dedicated to the Lady of Lebanon. We returned to Beirut via the Teleferique cable car system; the views were amazing!
On Monday, we met with Mr Habib E. Ephrem, a highly respected Christian businessman who is the President of the Syriac League in Lebanon. He told us about his wonderful work with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. He brought a special treat, Al Man wa al Salwa, from Iraq for the Delegates to try. This is the same food that was called ‘manna’ in the Old Testament! Mr Ephrem also presented the Foundation with an icon of St. George.
We then had the pleasure of taking lunch with HE Michelle Cameron, Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon. We spoke about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and how religion plays a big role in the life of the Lebanese.
Our last meeting of the day was with The Revd. Professor Fadi Daou, the chair of the Adyan Foundation and one of the Awareness Foundation’s international consultants. We learned much about Adyan’s work to promote a culture of acceptance of difference and appreciation of diversity, which stimulates creative interaction and social cohesion.
On Tuesday, we visited the Near East School of Theology (NEST), an Protestant seminary serving the evangelical churches of the Middle East. We were hosted by Dr George Sabra, the President of NEST, who introduced delegates to the work of NEST, in particular their role in the Christian-Muslim dialogue in the region. This was a very special connection for us, as this is where Nadim trained in theology in the 1980s – and Dr Sabra had been his teacher!
We then joined the NEST students for a short service and then lunch together.
After lunch at NEST, we travelled to the remarkable museum home of Princess Hayat Arslan to meet some exceptional people who are active in the community. Princess Hayat talked about empowering women to play a political role in Lebanon in addition to their multi-social, economic and humanitarian role. Linda Ghaddar of the Interfaith and Interreligious Forum spoke about her school programmes to educate students about pluralism and the acceptance of the other, and Dr. Husen Aboud told us about Mary’s Path, an Islamic-Christian movement that aims to spread a culture of friendship and peace among the Lebanese.
Wednesday began with a meeting with The Revd Gabriel Hachem, one of our international consultants, who welcomed us and led us to our audience with HB Gregory III Laham, the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and Alexandria and Jerusalem. The Patriarch emphasised the important role of peacemakers and reconcilers that Christians should fulfil in the Middle East.
We then visited the Liqaa Centre, an extremely well equipped centre for international, interreligious dialogue.
Afterwards, Father Boulos Wehbe, a priest at a local Greek Orthodox Church, told us about his ecumenical work. We were very moved by his words and his generous spirit.
Finally we met with Elie Haddad, the President of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He showed the breadth and openness of the vision that the seminary is following, focusing teaching on Jesus Christ rather than on ‘Christianity’.
On Thursday, it was, sadly, time to say goodbye to Lebanon and split up, four of us going home to Canada and the rest of us flying back to the UK.
Throughout our time in Lebanon, we stayed at the Deir El-Chir Convent of St. George in Aley. We had a wonderful and unfortgettable time at the Convent; we genuinely cannot thank Fathers Tony and Joseph enough for their generosity and hospitality.
Special thanks are due to Mr. George Sara, who made us all so welcome when we visited Chateau Ksara in the Bekaa Valley. It was a unique experience.
Finally, we should like to thank all of our hosts for making us so welcome and for sharing their time with us, and our delegates who who were brave enough to take our challenge! Each delegate went home with a wealth of experiences and stories to share with friends, family and colleagues, stories of people of faith who live side-by-side, working together to defeat sectarianism and preserve Lebanon’s famous multi-cultural and multi-faith diversity.