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Split the Cedars of Lebanon: Evangelicals Balance Prayer, Protest, and Politics in Ongoing Uprising

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At first, it was two high school girls.

The education minister in Lebanon had just canceled classes nationwide due to an explosion of popular anger at proposed taxes. Public squares in Beirut and other cities swelled with demonstrations. The two students asked Steve White, principal of the Lebanese Evangelical School (LES), if he would join them and protest too.

White, a Lebanese citizen since 2013, became principal in 2000, succeeding his English father who’d held the post since 1968. Founded by a British missionary in 1860, LES preaches the gospel clearly and is one of the top schools in Lebanon. But it bucks the sectarian trend of community enclaves as 85 percent of its students are Muslim—most coming from the Shiite community. Discussion about religion and politics is forbidden.

The protests began October 17. At the height of student interest, White arranged four school buses for a unique civic education. Though he knows his students well, he couldn’t tell their breakdown by sect: Sunni, Shia, or Christian.

Which fit perfectly with the protests.

“I got excited because it was not religious,” said White. “It was nonsectarian: all of Lebanon together, no flags, no parties, they were cursing everybody.”

White did not approve of the cursing. But he did of the “everybody.” The slogan adopted by protesters: “All of them means all of them.” It targeted the leaders of Lebanon’s multiple religion-based political parties, accusing them all of corruption.

Transparency International ranked Lebanon No. 138 out of 180 in its 2018 corruption perception index, listed from clean to corrupt.

Traditionally viewed as the guardians of each sect’s interests, Lebanese political parties would regularly voice vague charges of corruption against unnamed colleagues. But unlike previous protest movements, which carried the banners of each party, this one hoisted only the Lebanese national flag with its distinguishing cedar tree.

Accordingly, White forbade students from bringing the flag of LES.

Whether inspired, sympathetic, or threatened, political leaders had little choice but to express solidarity.

According to the World Bank, one-quarter of Lebanon’s population lives in poverty. Citizens pay exorbitant fees for privately generated electricity, as the tiny Arab nation of 6 million on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea has the fourth-worst public provision in the world. Smaller than Connecticut, public debt is 150 percent of GDP. Prior to the protests, strikes threatened to cripple bread and gasoline services, as the US dollars needed to import materials dried up from the market.

People started to fear economic collapse.

In order to unlock millions of dollars of promised international investments, the government announced new taxes—including upon WhatsApp, a popular free messaging service— to lower the deficit. An austerity budget loomed, with some effort at reforms it was long unwilling to tackle. Sectarian political squabbling had prevented an agreed-upon national budget for the prior 12 years.

The subsequent protests caught the government off guard. Promising a solution in three days, officials hastily agreed to cancel tax increases, fix the electricity sector, slash their own salaries, pass laws to fight corruption, and impose a one-time tax on lucrative banks in order to balance the budget.

It wasn’t enough.

“We’ve had the same names and parties for 30 years. Why should we give them another chance?” said Nadim Costa, head of the Near East Organization, an evangelical ministry serving the poor, marginalized, and displaced across the Arab world.

“There is a spiritual dimension to what is going on. It is demonic, because corruption is evil. We are praying for God to raise God-fearing leaders.”

Costa’s prayer echoed the rejection chants of the protesters who wanted the entire political class to resign. His “30 years” complaint traces back to the Ta’if Agreement of 1989, which ended the 15-year Lebanese civil war. Warlords transformed their militias into political parties, and businessmen filled the void of the struggling state by establishing patronage networks. Their children inherited both.

The Ta’if Agreement tweaked but enshrined the unique sectarian arrangement that requires a Maronite Christian to be Lebanon’s president, a Sunni Muslim to be the prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim to be the speaker of parliament. Representatives are chosen according to a 50-50 division between Christians and Muslims, apportioned further by sect and size.

It is the best of a bad situation, Costa said.

Costa, a political independent, lost the 2018 election for the one Protestant seat. Previously, he served on the Beirut city council and witnessed corruption first-hand. An enthusiastic participant in the protests, he has worked to organize the leaderless movement and to offer possible names for a transitional, technocratic government.

But beyond politics, he beseeches God. He is working with fellow evangelicals to erect a tent for three days of continual prayer. The announcement, sent out over WhatsApp, asks God to “bless, protect, heal, and bring justice to Lebanon,” from November 8–11.

“The purpose is to create a continuous prayer initiative for our country,” he posted on Facebook, “and ask the spirit of God to break the grip of evil.”

As for the protest’s most controversial tactic—roadblocks—he doesn’t fully agree, but considers it an inevitable evil. For two weeks, main arteries were blocked as the country came to a standstill. Schools and banks remained closed. The governor of the central bank urged that Lebanon had mere days to reach an agreement before catastrophe.

“We must push the government to talk to the people. There is no dialogue,” said Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of Evangelicals in Syria and Lebanon. “I believe this is the role of the church: to bring the two parties together.”

On October 23, Kassab joined about 50 other Christian religious leaders for a “spiritual summit” called by the Maronite Patriarch. A Catholic sect affiliated to Rome but preserving its ancient Eastern rites, Maronites make up about half of Lebanon’s Christians.

The summit issued an appeal for the government to listen to the people and to shuffle its cabinet for a renewal of both ministers and department administrators. But it also urged demonstrators to unblock roads for the sake of freedom of movement, and to form a leadership group to engage in talks with the government.

One day following the summit, Lebanon’s Maronite president, Michel Aoun, issued the same call for dialogue. But it fell on deaf ears. Whereas the statement warned against turning the protest into a coup d’etat, demonstrators were now also calling for Aoun’s resignation—and some even for the dismantling of the entire sectarian system.

“The radical demands of the street—though valid—might tumble the temple,” Kassab said. “It is a risky situation, because it brings people back to the memory of the civil war.”

From 1975 to 1990, Christians and Muslims exchanged bloody confrontations. But each group also turned upon its own. Eventually, Sunni Muslims coalesced into one major political party and Shiite Muslims into two. Christians have at least five parties represented in parliament.

Though no census has been taken since 1932, the prior Christian majority has declined over the years. Current estimates vary, but the CIA World Factbook puts Christians now at 36 percent of the population, and Shiites and Sunnis at 28 percent each. A Beirut-based research firm counts all three sects at roughly 31 percent. International Religious Demography finds Christians at 34 percent; Pew Research Center numbers them at 38 percent. [The Druze, an offshoot of Shia Islam that believes in reincarnation, make up the difference along with other religious minorities.]

Now a minority, Christians might feel threatened if the Ta’if agreement were to fall.

“The Lebanese system preserves the rights of minorities. And all Lebanese communities are minorities,” said Kassab. “It is a challenge. But we can give an example to the whole Middle East that [Christians and Muslims] can live together in a civil state.”

The challenge is significant. Aoun assumed the presidency in 2016, ending a 29-month vacancy as the parliament was unable to secure a majority for any candidate. The Lebanese army general had been in exile following the civil war; in 2005, he returned to widespread Christian applause.

The presidential deadlock was broken when Aoun’s party, the officially secular Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), brokered a deal with both Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Sunni-led Future Movement and the Shiite Hezbollah, designated a terrorist entity by the United States.

While Hariri appeared to be seeking to reshuffle the cabinet in response to the current protests, media reports said both the FPM and Hezbollah insisted on keeping certain figures. The FPM led large counterdemonstrations in support of President Aoun. And alleged Hezbollah-affiliated groups attacked the roadblocks and protest sites, while its leadership alternated between support for protest demands and accusations of foreign interference.

“Once the leaders spoke, it became sectarian,” said White, as student participation dwindled to two. “Parents are now showing fear, and not letting their children participate.”

But some Christians also believe the protest movement was manipulated to begin with, or at least seized upon by international and domestic parties opposed to the current political alignment.

“The street is shouting for what the party and president have been trying to do,” said Ralph Zarazir, the FPM representative to the National Dental Board. “People were fed up for 30 years, but the protest came during our time, just when we were starting to do things.

“It’s not fair.”

Lebanon’s current government was formed only 10 months ago, after eight months of coalition negotiations following the 2018 parliamentary elections. But the FPM pushed through a pricing reform for private electricity generators. President Aoun blamed his ruling partners for their failure to enact many party proposals for reform and fighting corruption. And following the protests, the FPM opened the bank accounts of its officials and their families to public scrutiny.

“There is no perfect political party,” said Zarazir, also a board member of the Lebanese Evangelical Society. “But as much as possible, the FPM lives their slogan: ‘Reform and change.’”

Like Costa, Zarazir believes Christians should be involved in Lebanon’s public life and politics. Costa wished to root out the corruption common across the system. Zarazir values the FPM in restoring the rights of the Christian community, while respecting the other religious groups.

But both run against the general swath of evangelical Lebanese, who are now unusually consumed by political discussion.

“Born-again Christians should not participate in the protests going on in Lebanon,” said Raymond Abou Mekhael, pastor of Christ Bible Baptist Church in Keserwan, 12 miles north of Beirut in the Lebanese mountains.

“The believer is an ambassador of Christ, and our mission is to present the gospel.”

There can be no unity with protesters cursing and hurling hatred at the political class, he said, urging Christian separation from such behavior. If citizens are unsatisfied, they should vote their officials out. And as for the economic troubles, he believes a great God will take care of their needs.

Other pastors have endorsed demonstrations as a vehicle for change. Some have called for prayer and fasting. Either way, many of the previously apolitical have become engaged.

“Regular churchgoers are throwing verses at each other,” wrote Nabil Habibi, a professor at the Beirut-based Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, on the school’s blog.

“Social media is awash with people vehemently arguing that ‘Jesus did not revolt against the Romans,’ or, ‘We are called to fight injustice.’”

Like many Lebanese, Wissam al-Saliby is following along online, digesting sermons about Romans 13 and the proper meaning of submitting to the government.

The system is corrupt, he said. But he fears evangelicals may be endorsing the revolution uncritically.

“I know a lot of the demonstration folk from my work on human rights,” said Saliby, advocacy officer for the World Evangelical Alliance at the UN. He thought that collectively they lacked vision and plans and would alienate those who voted for the politicians.

“There is no guarantee they will be any better than those in power.”

Instead, evangelicals should create a separate space to keep the demands of the uprising tethered to biblical values. It might also help keep the protests from morphing into violence, as Saliby witnessed in Hong Kong.

“Justice is more than just taking down the political elite,” he said.

“Is the uprising’s justice also about the healing and reconciliation that can build a nation? I’m not sure.”

Many hope the country will soon return to normal; others continue to press the uprising’s demands.

Meanwhile, the army has been opening roadblocks, sometimes with protester agreement. But the favored tactic now is to stage sit-ins at state-owned companies and public institutions. Still nonviolent, they hope disruptive pressure on identified locations of corruption will push the government to reform.

Whether a licit fight or a lamentable revolt, the protesters achieved their most significant gain on October 29, when Prime Minister Hariri resigned. Parliament must now agree upon a new government that will satisfy both the street and the political parties.

Still, the economic clock keeps ticking, as does the school calendar.

Banks reopened a week ago to relative calm; schools, for just a few days, though many youth continue to protest.

And like many of Lebanon’s evangelicals, LES students will be palpably engaged, White anticipates.

“Some will say, ‘I was with the protests,’ and some will say, ‘I was against them,’” said the LES principal, who will address the situation in an upcoming chapel. “We have to stand against this division with our Christian glue—with Jesus.”