After a recent eight day visit to Lebanon the following impressions and reflections come to mind:-
LEBANON IS A POWDER KEG, ready to blow up at any time. Checkpoints are everywhere, and soldiers with guns abound. We saw politicians walking around with their bodyguards – for them assassination is a very real threat. Parts of Lebanon remain no-go areas for tourists. However, precisely because of the soldiers on the streets, the Lebanese for the most part feel secure.
LEBANON IS A FRIENDLY PLACE. Yet, in spite of the guns and the bombs, we felt safe. ‘You are very welcome’ was a constant phrase on people’s lips. The only place where we didn’t feel safe was on the roads. Driving in Beirut makes the Wild West seem tame.
BEIRUT STILL REMAINS THE PLAY GROUND OF THE MIDDLE EAST. Zeituni Bay marina with its huge yachts and the international souk with its luxury shops are reminders of Arab wealth. But less welcome are the so-called ‘super night clubs’ , a reminder that prostitution and human trafficking are a major part of the Beirut economy.
THE MIDDLE CLASS HAVE MONEY TOO. There is a solid comfortable Lebanese middle class. They may not frequent the Lebanese equivalent of London’s Bond Street, but they do flock to the up-market shopping centres where all the international labels are to be found.
ALONG WITH WEALTH, THERE IS GREAT POVERTY. We toured the Beirut inner-city district of Naaba, at one stage home to refugees from Armenia, and now home to thousands upon thousands of people fleeing the Syrian conflict. Often two or three families are having to live in one room. Although the Syrians do their best to keep their over-crowded accommodation clean, the truth is that this and other areas are slums where, apart from some missionaries seeking to identify with the poor, few Westerners would dream of living.
EVERY OTHER PERSON IS A REFUGEE. The Syrian refugees now form the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, according to the leader of World Vision in Lebanon – a crisis which will last for years. But the Syrians are not the only refugees. Alas, the world seems to have forgotten the thousands upon thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who since 1948 have also been living in appalling conditions – indeed, prior to the Syrian influx the Palestinians made up about 12% of the population in Lebanon.
CHURCHES – AND MOSQUES – ARE AT THE FOREFRONT OF CARING. I have seen with my own eyes something of the way in which Christian communities are active in bringing relief. It was, however, interesting to see mosques raising money for refugees. Indeed, on a visit to Sidon to our surprise we saw Muslims and Christians working together – with the Muslims transforming one large office block into housing for refugees, and World Vision providing the sanitation!
INTERNATIONAL NGOS ABOUND. Yet the reality is that in spite of all the international relief effort there is still vast need. I’m told that the UN have received only some 12% of what they asked – although the UK has honoured its commitments, many other countries have not. The fact is that even if the aid were quadrupled it would not address the situation in Lebanon for Syrian refugees.
CHURCHES IN THE WEST NEED TO ADOPT FIVE YEAR PLANS. Many local churches have sent money to help the refugee crisis in Lebanon – but one-off appeals are not enough. For as the Syrian crisis continues (at least for the forseeable future), the media attention will probably lessen, and with it the support that people give to it. As a result the suffering of the Syrians will not lessen, but may actually increase. I believe that churches need to enter into partnerships with local Lebanese churches – partnerships which need to involve long-term strategies of providing practical help to enable the Lebanese churches to rise to the challenge before them. For ways of entering into such partnerships see hadathbaptistchurch.org.