Beirut Update #1, 2019

Dear Friends,

It’s January 11, 2019, and I am writing this from my room at the Gems Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon.  There is a crazy man on the street below hurling insults at passersby’s and I’m trying not to get distracted.  I see that he is well known in the neighborhood because many of the people on the receiving end of the insults are also good-naturedly bumping fists with him.  Arabs yell and scream at each other a lot, even when they’re friends, so maybe he’s not actually insulting them after all.  Who knows!
 
I have so much to tell you about what I’ve discovered here, how I have been received, and what my plans are for work here that I can’t possibly do it in one email.  It will surely take several to make the points I feel compelled to make.  I hope you will read all the installments so that you come away with a better sense of what it’s like here and what is needed.  Hopefully, you will be moved to work with us.
 
So, I thought I would start this series of updates by giving you some background.  Lebanon is a very ancient and complex civilization going back literally thousands of years.  Beirut is the tenth oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, dating back to at least 3,000 BC.  It is even older than Jerusalem according to the list before me.  Three other cities in Lebanon are in the top twelve oldest cities in the world, with two of those being even older than Beirut.  The three are Tyre (2750 BC), Sidon (4,000 BC), and Byblos (5,000 BC).  Although much of Beirut is now ultra-modern, the skyscrapers and luxury hotels belie the fact that Beirut is ancient.
 
Historically, Lebanon was a racially heterogeneous place where Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, and Arabs and others met and intermingled.  For hundreds if not thousands of years, Lebanon was considered part of Syria.  Moreover, from the birth of the early church until the 7th century AD, Lebanon was largely Christian.  However, in the middle of the 7th century, Muslims conquered Syria, including Lebanon.  The dominance of Christianity began to erode as Islam spread.  Today, Muslims represent 54% of the Lebanese population and Christians make up 44% of Lebanese.  (The remainder of Lebanese are primarily Druze, Jews, and Bahai.)  
 
Lebanon’s political problems are many and complex.  I can’t even begin to comprehend the religious, secular, and geopolitical tensions which led to the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.  Many of those same tensions continue even to this day.  However, I do now understand some of the religious dynamics at play today in this complicated place.  For those of you interested in the development of a project in Lebanon, it is critical that you understand some of the forces at work here today.
 
Islam is divided into two major “denominations.”  The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslims (87-90%).  (My family are Sunni Muslims.)  A much smaller percentage of Muslims are Shi’a Muslims (10-13%).  The large majority of Shi’a Muslims (70-80%) live in four countries — Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, but Shi’a Muslims are present in all countries in the middle east to one extent or another.  It is estimated that half of Lebanese Muslims are Sunni Muslims and half are Shi’a Muslims.  (I have no idea how this came to be or why, but this is what the data shows.)
 
Sunnis and Shiites have fought each other relentlessly for centuries, but things have taken a very interesting turn in Lebanon.  You have all heard of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is a political party and militant group formed in 1982 by a bloc of Lebanese Shiites who opposed Israel’s 1982 invasion of Israel.  Their stated aim is the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state there.  Since its inception in 1982, Hezbollah has made a strong alliance with their Shi’a compadres in Iran, and with Iran’s help, Hezbollah has built an impressive arsenal that they surely plan to use against Israel when the right time comes.  It is well known and not hidden that Iran is continuing to actively assist Hezbollah in stockpiling and modernizing its arsenal of weapons.  I read somewhere recently that Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles and rockets stockpiled in Lebanon.  In the last few weeks, tensions have risen considerably as Israel keeps discovering and destroying Hezbollah tunnels running from Lebanon into Israel, tunnels that Hezbollah intends to use to mount an attack on Israel.
 
Although Hezbollah controls some neighborhoods and districts in Beirut, its strategic stronghold is in the Bekaa Valley, a valley running the length of Lebanon and situated between the coastal mountain range and the mountain range father to the east that runs along the border with Syria.  The Bekaa Valley is a fertile farming area.  Christians largely have been driven out of the northern half of the Bekaa Valley.
 
Now we come to the Syrian civil war started in 2011.  I don’t pretend to know everything (or much) about it, but I know that millions of Syrian Sunni Muslims — primarily women and children (a fact I did not understand until today) — fled into Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries, including Iraq, to escape the factional fighting going on in their home country.  I have read that there are at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  A pastor I spoke to today said that the number of refugees in Lebanon is likely much higher, because there are also Iraqi and Palestinian refugees here as well.  He said the actual number could be as high as 2.5 million.  Lebanon’s population was only 4 million to begin with!
 
Many of the husbands of the women who fled Syria were ISIS fighters — ISIS is a Sunni group — who either stayed behind to fight or were killed when they tried to flee with their families.  As fate would have it, most of the refugees from Syria landed squarely in the Bekaa Valley.  In Bekaa, they have suffered attacks by Hezbollah and even attacks by ISIS.  Although ISIS does not have a large-scale presence in Lebanon, apparently, they still send in stealth squads to capture or kill the men who evaded conscription and escaped with their families.  The Lebanese army has its hands full just trying to keep Hezbollah at bay and doesn’t have the resources to guard the camps.  In addition to being worse than slums, the camps are vulnerable to attacks by ISIS fighters and Hezbollah.  I have spent the last two days in Bekaa and can attest to both the dismal state of affairs in the camps as well as the fact that the camps are totally vulnerable to attack.  More about the state of affairs in the camps to follow.
 
In coming installments, I am going to move away from the dry political narrative and onto the toll this terrible situation is having on the people who are being affected and how we, as a faith community, can make a difference and speak into the lives of these suffering families with compassion and mercy.  We must be Jesus with skin on (as they say) to these hurting folks if we are to be true to the calling to which we have been called.  I don’t yet know what I am going to do or how I’m going to raise the money to do it, but I know one thing for sure; I’m going to do something and I’ll find the money somewhere!
 
Peace!  

Niles

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