I recently returned from the Middle East, where I captured stories for a film project about Christians living their faith in the face of crippling persecution. In Beirut, Lebanon, I spoke with two Lebanese Christians, Georges Maalouly — a 48-year old, Orthodox father of three — and his friend Father Joseph — a priest at St. Tetla’s Catholic Church. They explained how Christians in Lebanon are coping with the arrival of more than a million refugees from Syria.
Most Syrian exiles are Sunni Muslims, and their arrival has started to drastically alter Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. Economically, Syrian workers are driving down wages, and refugees place a severe burden on Lebanon’s already overtaxed and underfunded infrastructure. Despite this, many Lebanese Christians are choosing to help meet the needs of these refugees.
Jordan: The civil war in Syria has been raging for over three years. How has the conflict affected the Lebanese people? What challenges have you faced? How do you balance fear and compassion?
Fr. Joseph: In the last five to ten years we have had so many people coming from Iraq and now Syria and they have not found many opportunities. But we have done many things to help both Muslims and Christians. We pray with them, we adopt them, we encourage them and we feed them. We will always be here for them.
Georges: If we think in a political way, it’s difficult for the Christians of Lebanon to absorb a high number of Muslim refugees because then they will become the majority and everybody knows that it is the wish of other Middle Eastern Muslim countries to transform Lebanon from a Christian country to a Muslim country. In this way Christians will lose all their rights and will not stay free. Also, Muslim refugees will get all the job opportunities and our salaries will become low and prices for food and housing will rise. Despite this, we are ready to receive the Muslim refugees and host them and help them in order to show the love and mercy of Jesus.
Jordan: Georges, a majority of the Syrian people are victims of both the authoritarian dictatorship of Assad and the Al-Qaeda led rebels, many of whom are not Syrian but foreign fighters from the Gulf Arab States, among others. What have you and those around you done to help the refugees?
Georges: As a Christian man, I adore Jesus Christ and I try to transmit his light to others and try to let him shine through me so that every soul that comes into contact with me may feel his presence. I’m trying to preach not by words only, but by my example, by the sympathetic influence of what I do.
We started a prayer circle with friends and family many years ago. The prayer circle became larger and grew to more than 50 people. We pray the rosary together and read the Psalms and the Bible. Also we gather money to help poor people as Jesus taught us. Both Muslims and Christians.
Nowadays we are also helping Muslim Syrian refugees, as some of them couldn’t get help from the Lebanese government. Our government offers some food and a tent as shelter, but it is not enough.
I have hosted three Syrian men at my home; they were refugees without money or food. We helped them find work, and, after a while, they were able to rent a studio apartment and move on. One of them is still with my family. He lost his father, who was killed in Damascus. We treat him as a son.
Jordan: Georges, could you tell us the story of Abed El Rahman and his two sons.
Georges: I saw a man who is called Abed El Rahman with two children living on the street inside an old broken car without food or any cover or money or even shoes. My prayer group gathered money on Christmas and we visited this Muslim family and offered to help them with all their needs. We were even able to deliver Christmas presents. They were very happy. We now visit them, as well as others, monthly to help them with food and other necessities.
Jordan: Fr. Joseph, how do you respond to those in your congregation who are scared of the influx of so many Syrian refugees?
Fr. Joseph: Recently I have had many Christians tell me that they are scared. “Of what?” I ask. “Of terrorists? Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Pray for them.” We must take on the example of Jesus Christ, Christianity’s first martyr. Even our church is named after St. Tetla, the Church’s first martyr! Let’s not forget, as St. Paul said, “We are to be persecuted, but not forsaken…because we know who is our shepherd.”
Jordan: Georges, you have family in Syria. How are they doing?
Georges: My wife’s family lives in Damascus, close by the village Kokaba, where St. Paul fell down from his horse when Jesus appeared to him in a vision. They are living day by day, they refuse to leave Syria and come to live with us. They are counting on God’s protection and St. George’s, the intercessor of their village.
Jordan: Fr. Joseph, what do you say to those who lose hope?
Fr. Joseph: We are in Lebanon and we will stay in Lebanon. Nobody will remove us. We will die here. The Turkish came to Lebanon and spent 400 years here. Then they left. Next, the Syrians came to Lebanon and then they left. We are still here. We have faith in this land.
During Holy week and Easter, Christians around the world would do well to remember the example of Lebanese Christians like Georges and Fr. Joseph, who exemplify the humility and faith of Jesus Christ in the midst of great suffering and persecution.