In the northern Lebanon district of Akkar, Maronite, Sunni, Greek-Orthodox and Alawite villages are scattered all over the landscape. The Syrian border is a 15-minute drive to the north of the northern Lebanese town of Halba, and residents can hear shelling in Syria at night where episodes of sectarian strife occur regularly. In Lebanon, religious dignitaries often give speeches on the inter-relatedness of the three Abrahamic religions, interfaith cooperation, solidarity and peace and love for everyone. Unfortunately such speeches are often just words. One recent event was different. Not just about words, it was about putting theory into practice in the face of a horrendous war raging just a few kilometers away by meeting face-to-face and urging communities to come together.
During Ramadan this year, an Alawite sheikh, a Sunni mufti, a Greek-Orthodox metropolitan and a Maronite monsignor, along with a group of over 100 Syrian refugees and 50 local Lebanese met to share a meal together. The unlikely group of diners gathered in front of a beautiful mountaintop restaurant in the village of Minyara, near Halba for an iftar, showing that religious leaders and their communities can live in peace together if they want to.
The group represented all major religious communities present in Akkar and Syrian refugees who had arrived from Qusair, Homs and other parts of the war-torn country just weeks earlier. And guests of honor included the Sunni mufti of Akkar, the Greek-Orthodox metropolitan of Akkar and Wadi Nasara in Syria, the Alawite representative from the Akkar district and a representative of the Maronite archbishop of Tripoli.
Out of the spotlight, but very much present, were the refugees, both men and women of all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds: Moqtada, a math teacher who had his left leg shot to pieces three months ago; Hisam, the electrician with the sparkling eyes and firm handshake; Walid, 26 years old and a star basketball player – if only he were not on crutches; Abdul-Karim, whose wife died on the eight-day march into Lebanon and who is now a single dad with five toddlers.
Putting refugees together in one room with members of the Alawite community was no easy undertaking. The Alawites are often associated with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime – one side of the violent conflict that has led many to flee Syria. And when the Alawite sheikh stood up to address the room, with a member of his security team behind him, tensions in the room were palpable.
And yet, the sheikh’s message of peace hit the refugees as sincere, and they applauded him, which seemed a bit like a miracle in itself.
The refugees seemed thirsty for the truth of the atrocities they had faced to be acknowledged and for the wider public and the dignitaries of the region to recognize their situation. Here in this safe space, they felt they were being taken seriously, opening the door for new opportunities for different faith communities to come together to address some of their shared concerns.
That this should have worked in the Akkar district of all places is particularly significant. Akkar is both a safe haven for the swelling numbers of Syrian refugees and a breeding ground for fighters. It is one of the poorest regions of Lebanon, with the greatest number of refugees, hence the potential for tension is greater than elsewhere in the country. The situation is fragile.
Yet, perhaps because of this, many people are also more conscious of the necessity of preserving peace at all cost.
And this iftar and other efforts by Relief and Reconciliation for Syria (R&R Syria), a group made up of concerned citizens in Europe and elsewhere, are showing that religious leaders and communities can live together in peace.
The next R&R Syria interfaith event took place on Sept. 22 on the occasion of a Christian holiday, gathering all four religious communities and their leaders for a walk to a nearby Christian sanctuary, followed by a children’s festival and a communal meal for hungry walkers.
Isabella Eisenberg has spent over 10 years working on issues of refugee return, minorities and peace building. She is program and communications manager for R&R Syria, based in Lebanon. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).