Hunter Williamson

The past several months have not been easy for Pastor Marwan Aboul-Zelof. Nor have they been easy for the congregation at City Bible Church (CBC) in Beirut. While Sunday services and weekly Bible studies might seem normal at first glance, Aboul-Zelf has noticed an underlying sense of anxiety, uncertainty, and apprehension affecting the church in one way or another.

Since October, Aboul-Zelof and his congregation have weathered the uncertainty of the fighting between Israel and non-state armed groups based in Lebanon. The main non-state actor is Hezbollah, an armed Lebanese political party backed by Iran and allied with the Palestinian movement Hamas. A day after the current Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, Hezbollah launched an attack against an Israeli military post in support of its Palestinian ally. The attack opened essentially a second front in what has slowly escalated into a limited regional conflict. 

In the months since, Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged almost daily fire. While one precision strike attributed to Israel did hit a residential area in Beirut in early January, and several others have hit areas close to the capital city, Aboul-Zelof and most of his congregation live a safe distance away from the Lebanese-Israeli border where the bulk of the fighting is taking place.

But the roughly 55 miles (89 kilometers) separating Beirut from the frontlines can only alleviate concerns so much.

In the early weeks of the conflict, uncertainty abounded over whether the border clashes would escalate into a full-scale war.

 “As soon as it began, there was a deep sense of uncertainty,” Aboul-Zelof said. “Are we in this war? To what capacity are we in this war? Will it reach us here in the city of Beirut?”

As the border clashes escalated, a host of regional and international governments urged their citizens to leave Lebanon. While Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran – a key ally of Hezbollah and Hamas – said or suggested that they wished to avoid a full-scale war in Lebanon, many people feared the combatants would slide into one. 

The tensions, fears, and calls for foreigners to leave affected CBC, a church comprised of a number of non-Lebanese Christians living in the country for school, work, or other reasons. In a short time, some attendees were restricted by their employers from attending the church for safety reasons, while others were forced to leave the country. Two of the latter group were Jan and Clasina Verbee, Christian relief workers from the Netherlands.

How the Israel-Hamas war has affected Christians in Lebanon, and how they are responding

Saying Goodbye

The war began on the birthday of one of their daughters.  

At first, Jan was not too worried. Having moved to Lebanon four years ago, he and his family had been through their share of crises in the country, including violent protests, economic collapse, street battles, and a few previous rounds of cross-border clashes. But this situation was quickly turning into something different and more severe. Within a few days, Jan and Clasina’s organization, like other organizations, began holding daily calls to discuss safety measures and concerns. Jan started to realize that he and his family may have to leave the country. 

Despite the growing risks, Clasina preferred to stay in Lebanon, believing that the impact of leaving would weigh more heavily than the impact of staying in a potential war zone. She thought too that the risk might not be so high. Their home is in an area outside Beirut that the couple believes is safe. Still, she still struggled with questions posed by some people about whether she could really accept the possibility of exposing her children to war by choosing to stay. 

Ultimately, their organization made the choice for them. Less than two weeks after the start of the war, they were instructed to leave. At that point, the Dutch embassy in Lebanon had already sent a message to its citizens advising them to buy tickets for a commercial flight while they were still available. Some airlines had scaled back on flights to Lebanon, and there were major concerns that Israel might bomb the international airport in Beirut. Such an attack would disable essentially the only means of entry and exit for a number of foreigners in Lebanon.

As the family closed the door of their house, they left not knowing when and if they would return. They hoped they would be gone for only a few weeks, but such hopes were nothing more than hopes. The war between Israel and Hamas was growing worse. The death toll was quickly rising, and clashes along the Lebanese-Israeli border were growing even more intense. Several Hezbollah combatants had already been killed and a handful of civilians injured.

In late November, Hamas and Israel agreed to a temporary ceasefire in which both sides exchanged prisoners and additional humanitarian aid was allowed into Gaza. The truce brought a complementary period of calm to Lebanon that led Jan and Clasina’s organization to reassess the security situation. While fighting resumed after a week, the organization ultimately decided that it was safe for them to go back to Lebanon.

The family returned on December 18, exactly two months after leaving. They felt a sense of relief the moment they stepped through the door of their home.

The New Normal

After returning, Jan and Clasina resumed their ministry work. They found that despite the war, life in Beirut and much of Lebanon had not drastically changed. They did a Christmas outreach program, providing chickens to families, and celebrated the holiday as a family in Lebanon. Their church, CBC, also held a Christmas event, which included distributing gifts to children that were provided by Thimar-LSESD. Throughout the war, CBC has continued to conduct Sunday services and its ministries without interruption.

“The regular means of grace are gifts to us, and we’re especially mindful of them in times like we’re living,” said Aboul-Zelof. “We’re reminded that it’s good for us to gather together, to pray, and to sit under the preaching of God’s Word. We remember that it’s God’s grace and providence that has brought us to this time and place and try to live faithfully in light of the gospel.”

How the Israel-Hamas war has affected Christians in Lebanon, and how they are responding

As the war drags on, a new normal has taken root in Lebanon, one where people have learned to live with bombings of the threat of bombings on top of economic and political crises that have plagued the country for the past four years.

“(The war has) affected daily life, which is strange, because in one way, life continues, we’re still meeting together as a church, we’re still going to school, and people are going to work,” Aboul-Zelof said. “But there’s this underlying stress and anxiety that has kind of overshadowed much of life for the last four months.”

That underlying stress has affected many people and places in Lebanon, including Beirut Baptist School, a ministry of Thimar-LSESD that provides primary and secondary level education through a Biblical framework.

How the Israel-Hamas war has affected Christians in Lebanon, and how they are responding

Teaching through War

The roar of Israeli jets has become a regular sound in Beirut. When students at BBS hear the aircraft, teachers try to calm the students, telling them that they are monitoring the situation. The school has also allowed students to call their parents and for parents to pick their children up early if they have safety concerns.

“It’s a burden to us because we have to be alerted all the time, we have to be aware of what’s happening around us and sometimes we have to take the decision to decide if this is a real threat or not,” Alice Azar, the principal of BBS, said on the afternoon of February 8. Outside her office, contrails from a flyby earlier that day still arched across the clear blue sky above the school.

Aside from a drone strike against a senior Hamas official attributed to Israel in early January, Israeli aircraft have not carried out strikes on Beirut since the start of the war. But they regularly fly over and near the capital city, likely as part of a show of force strategy.

Flyovers are just one of several causes for fear and stress among students at BBS. Many are also struggling with having more family members in their house due to displacement caused by fighting. At least 89,000 people, many of them from southern Lebanon, have fled their homes since October, according to the Organization for Migration (IOM). Most of the people displaced have relocated to the southern cities of Tyre and Nabatieh, but many have also gone to Beirut and surrounding areas.

Since the start of the war, Azar said that students have struggled with fear and emotional instability, including depression. Between October and mid-November, there were many panic attacks among students, Azar said. Such issues have led the school to work more closely with counselors. But with only four, the school has started implementing more group counseling sessions and working more with parents too.

There are less panic attacks now among students, but some seem less motivated to study.  Azar noted that some students assume that the government will cancel official exams for university admission due to the conflict and are therefore not studying.

“This is by itself a concern,” Azar said. “We have to motivate students; we have to keep them engaged.”

Since the early days of the war, the school has trained students, teachers, and staff on evacuation plans. Signs around the school mark emergency meeting points, and parents have been informed that the school can be vacated at any moment. BBS also prepared a secondary building to host displaced people if the war escalates and displaces even more people.

“It’s not easy,” Azar said. “You have to trust God that He’s handling things, and you have to have a plan.”

At the beginning of the year, Azar informed teachers that they needed to be flexible. The school could not stick to just one plan. Staff needed to be agile, able to come up with multiple back-up plans. Being in such a state of constant readiness is hard, especially given the other challenges that BBS and its staff have weathered since political and economic crises acutely escalated in 2019.

“We try to live day by day,” Azar said. “Every time I inform the students, especially those who are in the secondary classes, that you need to plan as if today is the last day at school.”

Students are not the only ones affected by the situation. Teachers are also struggling. As a result, the school has moved to provide counseling and support for teachers.

The war has been challenging for Azar too, especially in the wake of the many other crises that have unfolded in Lebanon in recent years. But Azar remains committed to her work. She sees it as more than a job. It is a work with a longer, more eternal purpose. Many of the 1400 students at BBS come from non-Christian backgrounds. For these students and others, the school’s location and mission has enabled it to be a beacon of light and hope since its founding.

Uncertainty is the only certainty in the war in Lebanon. Each day, the conflict seems to escalate a little bit more, keeping alive the fear of an eventual full-scale war. As stressful as it all may seem, Azar believes that God will provide and care for the school.

“When we look to the history of BBS, when we see God’s hand in the past, we’re able to trust God’s hands for the future,” Azar said.

How the Israel-Hamas war has affected Christians in Lebanon, and how they are responding

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