Missing Relatives is a Cause Waiting for the Church to Heal
By Chaden Hani
Last July, Islamic State jihadists abducted 30 Druze women and children from the southern Syrian province of Sweida. This month, the last 19 of the original 30 women were freed after a 15-week ordeal that ended with an agreement to exchange hostages.
Another hostage story, from 3 years ago, concerns 16 Lebanese soldiers abducted by the Syrian al-Qaida group, The Nusra Front, who were released in December 2015 after 16 months of confinement in the town of Arsal, along the Lebanese-Syrian border. An exchange agreement consisted of the freeing a number of radical Sunni Islamist prisoners held by the Lebanese government.
As a result of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, from 1976-2005, over 600 Lebanese men are still being detained in Syrian prisons, with their families desperately waiting for any kind of news as to their whereabouts or safety. In spite of multiple appeals from the international community for an answer from Syrian authorities concerning this ongoing tragedy, the Syrian government remains insensitive to the grief of the victims’ families, who have appealed in all possible forms for the return of their children.
The issue of military, political and religious detainees is not news in recent Middle Eastern history. Stories of prisoners and hostages held in Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, even Saudi Arabia have filled news channels, often resulting in negotiations or even international appeals on behalf of the detained. Hostage abduction and detention is not only a clear human rights violation but is considered crime against humanity as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The issue of Lebanese detainees is a controversial topic that has been argued back and forth since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005. On the 11th of November 2018, however, the legislative committee of the Lebanese parliament voted for the law NR. 19 approving the formation of an independent commission to determine the fate of the missing. Through the gathering of data, DNA collection and the exhumation of bodies from the period of 1975-1990, Lebanese authorities will be able to inform the families as to the fate of their children and loved ones. “This is, hopefully, the first step toward giving closure to families of the missing,” said Rona Halabi, spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross.
According to the Lebanese minister of Foreign Affairs, “By adopting the law of enforced disappearance, Lebanon enters for the first time after the war into a genuine reconciliation phase, through healing wounds and granting to the people their right to know.”
Theological Reflections and Missiological Implications
The Grief Cycle is as follows: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, an upward-turn, reconstruction and working through the issues, and finally acceptance. At each stage the church can play a crucial role helping out families as they grieve and eventually work towards healing and hopefully reconciliation. Healing involves addressing internal and external wounds and stores of bitterness that remain in the heart throughout all stages of grief. The church needs to address these paralyzing factors through practical initiatives focused on trauma healing and holistic reconciliation.
When the Syrian crisis started in 2011, the Lebanese church began assisting Syrians but ultimately had little time to work on mending the pre-existing wounds of the Lebanese people who had suffered under the Syrian occupation, many still missing family members and loved ones. Emotion is essential to the reconciliation process. For this reason, Jesus often focused on healing the heart as much as the body, focusing on the deepest emotional wounds of those he encountered. When Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, for example, he was responding to the grieving of his sisters. When he cured the daughter of the Canaanite woman, he was responding to the grieving heart of the mother.
The healing of past trauma and coping with grief is needed by many people in our churches; when we do not allow ourselves to grieve, our grief can cling to our hearts for decades. Our churches need this healing to take place first with our specific communities, but then also at the macro level of Lebanese society. Compassion, love, hope, reconciliation and peace are and much become the language of the church.