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‘This generation doesn’t want sectarianism’ – Lebanon’s Interfaith Dialogue Project

Written by Edward Lai (Senior Communications Officer)

‘We are all a pair of hands. Even though we come from different backgrounds – be it Christianity, Sunni or Shia Islam, or Druze – we take to the streets to serve this place together. This generation doesn’t want sectarianism. We are Lebanon. And we will build Lebanon again!’ These were the words of Mohamad, a Lebanese beneficiary of CEDAR’s relief project. Despite having lost his right foot in an accident, Mohamad picked up a broom, steered his own wheelchair, and swept rubble and debris off the streets of Beirut with his son after Lebanon’s capital had suffered a catastrophic explosion at its port in the August of 2020.

Mohamad’s actions touched the residents of his community, who rushed out in solidarity to quickly repair the damaged building or distribute supplies to the victims in need of humanitarian relief. Plagued by political sectarianism, the local citizens’ unity and restoring force are precisely the social capital the country needs for its revitalisation.

Mohamad, in a wheelchair, was cleaning the streets after the explosion

Competing for the Battlefield

The people of Lebanon’s unanimous voice of saying no to sectarianism has echoed through the streets of various protests and demonstrations during the country’s recent breakouts of political and economic crises. As the most religiously complicated country in the Middle East (officially, Lebanon has recognised 18 religious groups: four Muslim sects, 12 Christian sects, the Druze sect and Judaism), Lebanon has its unique geopolitical and historical factors influencing the formation of the modern sectarian politics. Situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it stands at the gateway of various civilisations. Throughout its history, people of different sectarian forces have come to compete for their powers and interests in the region.

As a division of power between the elites, Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing structure was created on its independence in 1943. Three key government positions of president, prime minister, and speaker have traditionally been split between a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim, and a Shia Muslim. However, this sectarian distribution of power has become a source of conflict between sects: as a way to maintain influence, political leaders would provide numerous legal and illegal benefits to the sectarian groups they represent, which not only causes a long-term chain of nepotism and corruption but consequently exacerbates the division between members belonging to differing parties. Moreover, with the Syrian war’s violent outbreak leading to countless Muslim refugees fleeing to Lebanon, the drastic change in the composition of Lebanon’s population has, unfortunately, led to increased contention between the locals and refugees with every passing day. Therefore, without a civil interreligious dialogue to encourage conversation and establish a healthy, mutually beneficial culture of peaceful coexistence and codependence between Lebanon’s many ethnic and religious groups, we may one day see yet another sociopolitical crisis inevitably emerges.

The Saint George Maronite Cathedral (left) and the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque (right) in Beirut, Lebanon

Ethnic conflicts in Sidon

For example, in Sidon, a port city situated in the south of Lebanon, many relatively conservative Muslim refugees and local Christians live side by side. The relationship between these two religious communities is strained. CEDAR’s partner Foundation for Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Lebanon (FFRL) revealed that many local Christians are incredibly hostile to Muslims from Syria, even calling them ‘social parasites’. This attitude of hostility leads Syrian Muslims to worry about being deported by authorities back to their war-torn homes. However, the intergroup prejudice does not stop there, as it sadly extends to younger generations as well, leading to some teenaged locals inciting physical violence towards the outgroups. Simultaneously, other teenagers are so vulnerable to their anxiety and depression that they become easy targets for recruitment into extremist groups, against which schools and governmental organisations have no effective countermeasures.

In light of Sidon’s situation, CEDAR has been supporting FFRL in providing a safe environment for young adults of different faiths (Islam and Christianity) to have honest, constructive dialogues and recreational space for them to do activities together. This year, we hosted workshops and a camp focusing on ‘Interfaith Dialogue and Reconciliation’ for about 30 Muslim and Christian youths aged 15-25. These activities raised the young adults’ awareness and increased their knowledge of different religions while eliminating preconceived misconceptions of each other’s faiths. Additionally, these activities enabled these youths to manage their conflicts, teaching them to turn crises into reconciliation opportunities. We strongly believe that the youth are the cornerstone to Lebanon’s future. Their accumulated experience of cooperating and collaborating with different ethnic and religious groups will eventually be conducive to overcoming institutional prejudice and historical distrust towards people of varying factions and origins. Such a breakthrough does not merely facilitate the advancement of Lebanon’s civil society but ultimately establishes a solid foundation for quashing sectarianism in the future.

Sowing the Seeds of Peace

We are delighted to see this peace project receive the enthusiastic participation of Lebanon’s various religious groups. Through their networks, we invited leaders of Christianity and Islam to share their respective views on four fundamental concepts of reconciliation – “truth”, “mercy”, “justice”, and “peace” (derived from the Psalm 85:10 of the Bible), and examine how interpersonal reconciliation fosters community development. Local churches are also partnered with us to ensure the youths are kept company and are well-nurtured in their manifestation as peace ambassadors in their communities.

Interfaith dialogue between religious leaders

‘Communicating with people from different religions and backgrounds has been easier than I thought. Through learning about their lives and thoughts, I feel like we’ve come to understand and respect each other. If we ever hope to accept ourselves, we must first accept those around us – regardless of their beliefs or how they dress. They are nevertheless our brothers and sisters on this earth. Sometimes, going out with them, eating at the same table, and all the jokes we share make me forget that we hold different beliefs, so this interfaith dialogue has been quite a journey of learning how to be mutually encouraging and respectful.’ – Project participant Nicole

‘This interfaith dialogue and reconciliation project taught me to accept other religions. I learned that to develop our country and live peacefully, we must first unite and be free from sectarian conflicts. When I was young and still growing, I was taught to fear Muslims, but now I love them and see them as my brothers and sisters.’ – Project participant Elie

Reconciliation has always been a long, delicate process requiring conflicting parties to open their minds, leave their comfort zones, and find ways to encounter each other.

Because of the tact and patience this process necessitates, our project will take at least two years. In this time, we will build mutual trust with the participants, and near the end, we will encourage them to draft an action plan with the common goal of contributing and giving back to the community, no matter how small the action may be.

May we hear the Lebanese‘s call to end sectarianism, and may we be of support to them in the rebuilding and restoration of their country to its former glory, as the Pearl of the Middle East.

(Some photos are provided by FFRL)