The massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Monday evening has left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and more than 300,000 displaced from their homes.
Millions around the world watched in horror as the detonation of 2,750 tons of confiscated ammonium nitrate laid waste to the Mediterranean port and surrounding neighborhoods. The equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake was felt deep into the coastal mountains of Lebanon and as far away as Cyprus.
The images of destruction reminded many of the small Middle Eastern nation’s 15-year civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.
Christianity Today spoke with Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. Based in Beirut but born in Aleppo, Syria, Kassab reflected on the damage suffered in Christian neighborhoods, early efforts to assist the suffering, and hope for what this tragedy might produce in the Lebanese church.
These are very difficult days in Lebanon. What happened, and how bad is it?
It is very bad. I’ve been in Lebanon since 1984, experiencing the civil war. This is the first time that one single explosion caused such damage. People were terrified.
Until now, there is no agreement on the explanation, with many speaking according to their political point of view. Some say it was an electrical problem. Some say it was arson. Others assure that they heard jet fighters. We have to wait, hoping that the coming days will provide an answer.
This explosion destroyed so much of Beirut, across sectarian lines. What is the impact on the Christian community? The areas nearest the port in East Beirut are primarily Christian neighborhoods, and generally…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on August 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.
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…”
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