By Wissam al-Saliby*
Despite the significant role of evangelical churches and organizations in Lebanon in providing relief and aid to Syrian refugees, young committed Christians are still out of touch with the human rights challenges in Lebanon and how to address them. We are failing to stay informed, let alone take a stand or take action, on the many issues that make – or don’t make – news headlines.
Defending human rights is part of the Church’s integral mission, an expression of our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ. To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God is a biblical mandate (Micah 6:8).
If we are to be intentional in our witness, I would argue that advocating human rights creates shared platforms with thousands of people in Lebanon that we witness to as we give an account of the hope that is within us.” We need to advocate for human rights in Lebanon, not only because we believe that this is the right thing to do, but also because we need to create platforms for sharing God’s love with other human rights advocates, with those whose rights are being violated, and even with the perpetrators of abuse!
How do we go about this? The following ideas will help us make first steps in the field of human rights advocacy.
Join the Mobilization
Every day I hear of conferences, meetings and events to discuss or expose a particular human rights abuse. In recent weeks, the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers, workers’ rights, and the shortcomings of Lebanon’s criminal justice system were just a few of the issues that made the news. The march for women’s rights on March 8th was a loud and visible call for for justice, yet I only saw a handful of brothers and sisters from Evangelical churches in the mobilization. The church needs to be part of what is already happening.
Understanding and Having a Position on Many Issues
Domestic violence, asylum, torture, abortion, civil war, homosexuality, arms control, child soldiers, transitional justice, capital punishment… We need to keep abreast of international legal developments related to these issues and the challenges they present in Lebanon. It is time consuming to gain knowledge about all of these discussions and we are well-informed in only a few domains. However, it is imperative to take an informed stand on all of these issues if we are to join the debate and influence its outcome.
The other day, I stumbled upon a book entitled Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. I have personally lost friends in the past two years who were tortured to death in Syria, and I have Syrian friends who have lost loved ones to the same evil. It reminded me how much I felt the need to understand the infliction of suffering in light of God’s word!
Part of the table of content of: Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ”, by William T. Cavanaugh, published by Wiley-Blackwell, 1998
You can find many Christian blogs and books, and very few Arabic books including the recently translated Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, discussing human rights and justice from a biblical perspective. Also, on a number of these issues, international Christian organizations are leading advocacy efforts at the United Nations and in many countries. International Justice Mission is one example.
Beyond reading, Christian witness requires mature Christian love, even in the face of deeply controversial issues. Two weeks ago, a homosexual representative of a human rights agency brought up with me the issue of how to best help Syrian homosexuals fleeing to Lebanon to avoid persecution. He explained to me that the organizer of gay tourism in Syria – prior to the conflict – is now in Lebanon and is trying to organize for the protection of Syrian men who used to work with him in Syria. Regardless of what one thinks of homosexuality, are we mature enough to formulate a Christ-centered response to the persecution and threats homosexuals face? Are we able to discern what justice is when sin and brokenness are ripping a society apart like in Syria?
Maintaining Identity and a Biblical Discourse
We need to speak Jesus – not necessarily about Jesus. When asked why we believe in human rights and the dignity of every human being, we need to affirm that we are created in the image of God. When asked why God allows so much suffering, we need to affirm that abuse and human rights violations are a direct product of sin – not of God.
We need to imitate Jesus. The radical message of Jesus should appear in our lives and in our commitment to living a sanctified lifestyle. In most human rights circles in Lebanon, sexual freedom is claimed and practiced as a bodily right. Without denying this right, we need to affirm and communicate our values and principles of sexual purity, and to answer everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15).
Be Engaging, Take Initiative
Knowledge must lead to action. We should seek to address wrongdoings by mounting campaigns and initiatives. Initiatives build relationships and credibility, and create platforms for Christian witness.
One such initiative was last year’s Middle East Conference, “Your Rights & My Responsibilities: Biblical and Islamic Perspectives on Human Rights.” It was an opportunity for connecting faithful followers of Jesus to human rights advocates, and for introducing the church to human rights challenges in Lebanon and the region. During this conference, I connected with an Ethiopian woman who works for a prison ministry and was able to find her Amharic bibles for the Ethiopian women with whom she ministers in prison.
Another such initiative is the organization Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences (SKILD) – a ministry of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), the parent organization of ABTS (of which IMES is a department). To gain a better idea about their advocacy for the inclusion in schools of students with learning difficulties, please read LSESD’s April newsletter.
Repairing Misconceptions, Changing the ‘Christian’ Discourse
We need to admit that many in the activist community in Lebanon, regardless of their religious background, have distorted and therefore negative views of the Christian faith. The involvement of ‘Christians’ in civil war violence and massacres, and the politics of ‘Christian’ political parties in Lebanon are definitely counter-witness. Neither war nor Lebanon’s turbulent politics are platforms for demonstrating humility, love, and mercy. For example, Christian political parties have been approaching the plight of the Syrian refugees with a discourse of fear and stigmatization, as opposed to hospitality and love.
Additionally, many believe that all religious morality is a form of societal oppression of the individual, affirming male dominance, and contributing to the abuse of human rights of the vulnerable fringes of society. They fail to see that Jesus sought after society’s most vulnerable, the outcasts and the broken!
We need to promote a new Christian discourse grounded in the Bible that takes a stand for human rights and human dignity. On some issues, this discourse will go against Lebanese pseudo-Christian public opinion – i.e. the opinion of Lebanese who perceive themselves as Christians.
I took this photo on March 8, 2014, during the march in Beirut demanding criminalization of domestic violence. Photos are available on my blog.
In 2013, as I finished a training for a group of moderate Islamic Syrian activists on international humanitarian law, one participant came to me expressing his appreciation that a Christian would care to give them training. It struck me that this workshop was one of the very few opportunities for these activists to dialogue and interact with a Christian! Today, with over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most of them will be interacting with Christians for the first time.
Defending their rights as well as the rights of all vulnerable and abused men, women and children in our society must become part of our witness.
* Wissam al-Saliby is the Partnerships Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. His previous IMES blog posts can be viewed here.