Lebanon’s president urges Syrians to return home at Arab League summit

By January 29, 2019

Lebanon (MNN) – The Middle East is a complex web of relationships thanks to civil wars, terrorist activity, famine, and more. So, it’s no wonder that the recent Arab League summit was fraught with drama. This is the fourth meeting of the Arab League, and the first since 2013.

Despite the fact that most state leaders declined to attend, sending delegates instead, Lebanon’s President, Michel Aoun, used the opportunity to bring up the issue that is ever on his mind: the Syrian refugee crisis.

According to VOA News, the Lebanese president called for the return of Syrians to their homes in his opening statements.

Too Early to Send Them Home

And in fact, last year tens of thousands of refugees did return home. But Tom Atema of Heart for Lebanon says the decision to send them back or not is a complicated one.

“One hundred percent of the people that we survey every month want to go home. Now, they want to go home to the way it was and that’s not going to be possible. But they all want to go back home—they have no desire to come to America. They have no desire to go to another country. In fact, they can’t.”

(Photo and header photo courtesy of Heart for Lebanon)

He explains that many of them are lacking the right paperwork required for settlement elsewhere. Those documents were left behind in Syria in the rush to safety. Going home is really their only option. But Atema says even that is not a real option, not yet.

“It’s not safe to go home. The few that you hear about, even if it’s a few thousand that go back, is more political posturing than anything else. And what they’re not counting is how many of them come back to Lebanon within a very short period of time.”

He explains that almost since the beginning of the refugee crisis nearly eight years ago, the Lebanese government has been pushing to send Syrians back home. And they have their reasons. While numbers of total refugees, including those from Palestine, are difficult to pinpoint, Atema says about half of the population is made up of refugees.

“It has pretty much destroyed their economic structure. It’s devastated their school systems, even though the majority of Syrian refugee children cannot go to Lebanese schools for many different reasons.”

So far, Lebanon has denied the Syrians within their borders refugee status. That means they have not gotten assistance from the United Nations.

“You have two sides arguing and nobody fixing the problem,” Atema says.

To understand the Lebanese government’s positioning on the issue, you have to take a look at history. In 1948, conflict in the Palestine region left over 700,000 Palestinians without home or livelihood. Those refugees ended up in a variety of nations, including Lebanon.

Atema says since then, the main cause of that crisis has not been fixed, and the refugee program has been poorly funded. Lebanon does not want that to happen again with the Syrians.

A Spiritual Opportunity

With the ongoing violence in Syria, it’s unlikely that this problem is going to be resolved soon. But rather than just wish for a solution in the meantime, groups like Heart for Lebanon are stepping in to help.

“[These are] unprecedented times in the Middle East for Christians, and for Muslims coming to Christ. Throughout the whole Middle East, this is our opportunity to share the Gospel of Christ like never before in known history.

“And, I think that not only do we have an opportunity to share the love of Christ, but we have an opportunity now with the Syrians to disciple them well so when they do go back to Syria, when it’s safe, they can be part of the rebuilding of Syria, using the Church as the foundation of the rebuilding process for that community.”

Syrian refugee children (Photo courtesy of Heart for Lebanon)

That’s the vision of Heart for Lebanon as they work to provide for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the refugees. They’re preparing these new Christians to be witnesses when they return to their home country, whenever that may be.

During a recent worship service, Heart for Lebanon dedicated two new churches which had been growing over the last two years. One of these groups is made up of 240 new believers from Muslim backgrounds. These churches are now committed to praying for peace in Syria.

Atema points out that once the Syrians are back across the border, there’s no guarantee there will be another opportunity to introduce them to Jesus. Despite the horrible situation, he says they see this chance to share the Gospel as a gift from God that they want to steward well.

“Our team of 54 people in Lebanon are all indigenous Lebanese people. We have no westerners on staff except for me… They know the language, they know the culture, they know how to speak to the Syrian refugees in a proper and conversational way to build relationships.”

Get Involved

There are three ways you can be praying for this work. First of all, pray for discernment and wisdom. Atema says with so much need and hurt, they want to make sure they are using their resources for the most impact. Ask God to guide the teams so they can know which camps to enter, and which tents to visit. Pray for guidance for how to respond when there simply isn’t enough to go around.

Also, pray for the groups of believers who have come together over the last two years. Ask God to strengthen them in their faith as they pray for their homeland.

Finally, pray for the encouragement of the staff who’s been tasked to walk the people through emotional trauma as they meet physical needs.

“It’s just hard on our staff. When you have to go into a family and talk to them, as our staff in the south did, because their two kids were killed because of a river and floods, and you have to really help them emotionally, that takes a toll on our staff. So, pray that our staff can stay refreshed and replenished spiritually and emotionally.”

To learn more about Heart for Lebanon, and to partner with them financially, click here.



Header photo courtesy Heart for Lebanon.

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