By Wissam Nasrallah
All summer, the departure lounges at the Rafic Hariri Airport in Beirut were packed with expectant passengers. Yet instead of the usual energizing atmosphere of families going on holiday, the air was heavy. Faces were grim, as they lugged suitcases full of their most precious belongings and worried about the family left behind.
Many Lebanese have left before, but unlike the previous migrations, this time it is not war they are fleeing, but despair.
Driven by increasingly desperate living circumstances and no visible resolution in the near future, a significant number of Lebanese have been forced to seek a sense of normalcy abroad. The number is significant enough that it can be called an exodus. By some estimates, more than 380,000 people have already left the country, with many more lining up to do so.
While well-off families and dual nationals have the means to seek a better life elsewhere, most Lebanese feel stranded in their own country. Lebanon has become a graveyard of dreams for many people, young and old, who were seeking either to start a family or to retire decently.
This exodus is stripping Lebanon of everyone who would be needed to rebuild the economy and start over – its doctors, teachers, intellectuals, and its youth. Lebanon is bleeding itself to death.
Furthermore, this crisis is also majorly impacting the church as many pastors and youth leave, which is reminiscent of the exodus caused by the 15-year civil war. Many in churches today are struggling with the question of whether they should leave to provide a better life for their families or if they should stay for the sake of providing an active Christian witness. At LSESD, we started a program more than a year and a half ago that aims to support pastors and church members during this crisis, so that they can continue helping and supporting those around them. After all, how can you feed the hungry when your own kids are hungry?
This is the unspoken tragedy of the Middle East, one that has been long in the making: the cradle of Christianity is being emptied of its ancient Christian communities.
Throughout the twentieth century, Christian communities in the Middle East have been declining in numbers because of low birth rates, emigration and, in some instances, persecution and violence. This secular trend has accelerated in recent years due to the rise of fundamental Islam, second level citizenship, the lack of economic opportunities, corruption and poor governance. The largest recent Christian exodus in the Middle East occurred in Iraq, where now only 300,000 Christians remain, down from 1.3 million in 2003. Syria and Palestine are slowly but surely following the same route.
Lebanon has long been an exception in the Middle East, as Christians have enjoyed considerable political power and representation, thanks to a quota-based confessional system. However, Christians are more prone to leave than other groups, especially given the increased awareness that they are becoming a minority in their own country with no hope in a better future.
This will have a permanent and long-lasting effect on Lebanon and the region not only from an economic perspective, but more importantly, from a cultural and civilizational one. Every Christian community carries within it a piece of the history of Christianity and of the Middle East. By losing its Christian populations, the Middle East is losing part of its soul and plurality. From a spiritual perspective, the Church is losing manpower and resources, thereby limiting its ability to provide an effective Christian witness in the region.
This is a critical time in the history of the region. If nothing is done today, ancient Churches will no longer be visited as places of community and worship. In a single generation, they be nothing but museums.
This requires urgent action by the Church, spurred not just by trust in the Lord’s eternal plan, but an active understanding of a believer’s role in bringing about this plan.
It’s worth reminding the church – none of this is a surprise to God. Every aspect of the world, from the deceit of the most insignificant politician to the humiliation of the Lebanese fuel line, is seen by the Lord. Someday his kingdom of justice will reign eternally, but for now, every new day is a mercy day. He is giving the world and its people more time to come to know him.
If this is why there are still days of suffering left on earth, then it logically follows that Christians are not called to create a separate, insular haven on earth. No, the last words of Jesus to his people were to “go out and make disciples of all the earth.” For some apostles, this meant leaving. For others like Peter, it meant staying in Jerusalem and Judea among his people.
As Christians leave the Middle East, the need for fellow laborers continues to grow more desperate, yet the ground left behind is ripe for the Good News. After all, blessed are the persecuted, the poor in spirit, and the peacemakers for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.