By Chaden Hani
“The courage to love” was an expression I first heard from an active Lebanese politician considered to be the godfather of Christian reconciliation, who helped reconcile two major political parties in the country. He also said that our only hope is for the church to rise. Armed, therefore, with the courage to love and in pursuit of its mandate to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond, IMES seeks to promote Christ’s model of peace by providing space for diverse people in Lebanon to come together, addressing issues of injustice and facilitating healing. For this reason, IMES has been seeking reconciliation between Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon through an initiative called The Church-Mosque Network.
The “courage to love” is the first step toward reconciliation. Years of conflict and war have torn asunder the Lebanese social fabric and forced its citizens into religio-political silos, an isolation manifesting in a confederation-like reality. The people of Lebanon may live side by side, but we do not really live together. While we Lebanese might share the same geography, we often limit our contact with the socio-political other to only the most basic of interactions. And whenever the forces of our common humanity manage to bring us closer together, religion and politics are often used to rekindle feelings of enmity and adversity.
The message of the New Testament is that God lovingly chose to invite us into a restored relationship with Himself by coming to us in Christ. IMES is committed to Kerygmatic Peacebuilding, which is defined as “the lived proclamation of the gospel,” modeled on the person, mission, and message of Jesus. It is our conviction that a lived-out proclamation of the Gospel is sufficiently persuasive when graciously spoken and authentically modeled by disciples of Christ. We believe that in our commitment to proclaiming the Gospel of reconciliation to all, irrespective of ethnicity or religious affiliation, we imitate God in Christ.
The Church-Mosque Network is a pioneering initiative launched by IMES under the guidance of a steering committee comprised of six leaders from diverse religious communities in Lebanon. Our vision is to see Lebanese society overcome sectarian animosity by working together for the common good, promoting healthy interfaith relations and reducing the risk of armed conflict. The network’s goal is to provide an effective platform for interfaith dialogue and intergroup cooperation at the grass-roots level.
Ephesians 2:14-22 says: “For He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” It is through the example of Christ that we are approaching Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon. The purpose of the initiative is not the mixing of religions but the practice of hospitality that brings down dividing walls. When a faith community welcomes another to observe prayer time in its place of worship, hostility is reduced and peace begins to settle at the grass-root level.
The initiative was first launched in the Lebanese city of Sidon, a city which retained a Sunni majority after the civil war (1975-1990) yet also maintained a sizable Christian population in neighboring areas. The IMES team introduced the initiative to the religious leaders of the city and helped bring together a team representing the various Christian and Muslim congregations. Each member of this team of religious leaders is responsible for selecting 10 to 15 people from their congregation who will exchange visits and discuss common religious topics related to issues of daily life and ultimately collaborate on transformative initiatives that contribute to the common good of the city.
Initially, these visits presented a challenge. A Muslim is not in the habit to observe a Christian service, nor is it natural for a Christian to observe Friday prayers at a mosque. Preliminary visits were introduced to allow for representatives of each group to ask questions and acquire a better understanding of the church and the mosque as a space of worship. Members of each group were eager to learn about the other religious community and to take part in this unusual initiative.
When Jesus extended His arm to touch and heal the leper (Luke 5:13), he was opening the way for God’s love to heal the sickness before him. Love that reaches out to the other is the beginning of healing from sectarian wounds. When Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman, it was a revolutionary initiative. When he ate with tax collectors and sinners, he was taking revolutionary initiatives. Throughout his ministry, Jesus initiated acts with revolutionary implications. He was extending an arm of love to the socio- and religio-political other, intentionally crossing borders and becoming himself the bridge across which we are able to reach both God and the Other. By eliminating the barriers between us, he invites us into the most Holy of Holies to experience the communion that makes up the inner life of God.