Overcoming sectarianism with peace: ABTS builds bridges in Lebanon

By October 27, 2020
rocks, sea

Lebanon (MNN) — Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) seeks to foster dialogue and cooperation between sects to create greater unity and peace throughout Lebanon.

Historic Roots

Lebanon has 18 officially recognized religious sects. Martin Accad, chief academic officer of ABTS, says sectarianism has a long history in the country.

“Our sectarian system is to some extent inherited from the Ottoman era. The Ottomans created what we refer to as the millet system, which was a way of giving some semiautonomous authority to various groups that naturally lived together. However, it’s also often viewed as a divide and conquer policy, so it’s a double-edged sword,” Accad says.

“After the First World War when Lebanon came under French protectorate, they decided to carve the country of Lebanon out of the district of greater Syria and used those same sectarian feelings.”

During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) one sect fought another year after year. However, the war was not over theological differences, but rather political ones. This is because sects in Lebanon act as more than a simple religious affiliation.

Beirut skyline

Beirut, Lebanon (Photo courtesy of Maxime Guy via Unsplash)

A Political System

Accad explains that these religious sects function like tribes.

“We need to understand Lebanon sectarianism more as a form of tribalism. In the Arab world, the tribal substructure is the main substructure,” he says.

“From a sociological perspective, Lebanon does not seem to have tribes in the same way other Arab countries have, but in reality, we very much have our tribes. The same dynamic that exists between tribal members and the tribal leader can be seen between members of each sect in Lebanon and their leader.”

These sects are woven into the very fabric of political life, meaning it is virtually impossible to participate in politics outside of them. However, participating in a sect comes with its own set of difficulties.

“Each community has its own political portion, whether in Parliament or elsewhere throughout the administrative structures of the country,” Accad says. “Without belonging to a sect, you cannot participate in political life, but by belonging to a sect, you enter this intertribal strife.”

A Collaborative Solution

To many, moving away from the close tie between religious and political affiliations would seem like an obvious solution. However, Accad doesn’t see this as a realistic goal.

“It’s a very unrealistic approach to think that you can secularize a society that not only is deeply religious but also very tribal along sectarian lines. I don’t think that’s a solution,” he says.

Instead, Accad proposes a solution that respects the history of this system and endeavors to bring out the best in it.

“What I think needs to happen in order to move toward more common good is to understand the sectarian system [and] the religious feelings of various groups within society, then to try and draw from the best in terms of faith values.”

ABTS works to accomplish this through programs directed by its Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES). In the beginning, they worked primarily to bring leaders of different faith communities together.

man and sun

(Photo courtesy of Zac Durant via Unsplash)

“We got into the area of interfaith dialogue and built a network of faith leaders,” Accad says. “We invited faith leaders from various denominations in Lebanon to participate in some of our work or activities. We primarily had theological conversations, just [learning] how to be more open to others and hear what their beliefs are.”

However, with the beginning of the Syrian war and the consequent influx of refugees into Lebanon, IMES began to work on bringing lasting change.

“We redirected a lot of our efforts into what we refer to as faith-based peace building. Instead of simply doing peace building Western-style [with] more secular mindsets, we leveraged our relationships with faith leaders and started some initiatives based on faith,” Accad says. “We’ve been working with faith leaders, young people, and churches and mosques that are in the same neighborhoods or adjacent neighborhoods.”

As political turmoil, COVID-19, and the economy continue to create hardships in the country, Accad says ABTS wants to continue this strategy.

“We’ve had an extremely turbulent year, so again, thinking, ‘how can we leverage our relationships [and] our involvement in interfaith dialogue to work for a common good and bring people together.’”

Prayer for Lebanon

You can support ABTS, its students, and its initiatives here. As ABTS continues to pour into these peace-building initiatives, Accad also asks for prayer.

“We need prayer for courage, encouragement, and hope. We need prayer for vision, that God would really call people, not to narrow-minded agendas but vision to break out of the walls of the church and really begin to have an impact more broadly on society in a way driven by our values that are rooted in Jesus.”



Photo courtesy of Tyler Milligan via Unsplash