Foto: AP

Dialogue Through Deeds – More Important than Ever

Identity is defined through religion in Lebanon. A group of social workers tries to overcome the barriers presented by different faiths.

Following the basketball club Hikme's (Wisdom) victory over Riyadhi (Sportsmen), an auto procession formed and headed westward. Here, the Christians are in the East, and the Muslims are in the West. What happened during this procession had nothing to do with wisdom or sportsmanship. Sports are simply more honest than politicians' speeches. Some of the fans painted crosses on their faces and sang songs with unambiguous lyrics. In contrast to this, there are no speeches by official representatives in Lebanon that do not invoke, in a routinized and invariable manner, the successful co-existence of religions.

The "Mouvement Social" is different: it strives to be a site beyond official politics where people can work together for a better society, without regard for politics and religion. "We work on projects for different marginalized groups in Lebanon," explains Roula Yazbek from "Mouvement Social". The almost 200 volunteers, spread out across the entire country, work with school dropouts, with prisoners, with illiterates and with women's groups. The "Mouvement Social" was founded in 1961 by Bishop Gregor Haddad. "He is a bishop and yet, despite this, is also a person who really does not think in terms of denominations," say Roula, laughing at the question about this unusual mixture. Spiritual leaders normally tend to be concerned with their own particular flock. Bishop Gregor Haddad is different. He begins the problems existing in society as a whole and tries to work together with others to improve the situation.

When Roula began working in Mouvement Social three years ago, she knew that she would be working with and for the "other" side. She has now become absolutely convinced that this is the correct path for Lebanon. "I've had enough of politician's speeches. I want to see action." The 31-year-old Christian works with and for all religious denominations. "Encountering different people and respecting those people are the most important goals of our work," explains Roula, "We don't make a point of talking about our differences; rather, in working together, we come to speak about them." In other words, a dialogue through deeds.

Earlier, points of contact had existed in the religiously-mixed residential districts of Beirut. However, following the war, only 5 percent of the Beirut population lives on the "other" side, i.e., in neighborhoods predominated by a different religious group. The figure used to be over 40 percent. This has created a vicious circle: jobs are distributed according to religious affiliation; people vote according to religious communities. Wherever people happen to be in Lebanon, they feel that their lives are determined by their religion.

Even schools are rarely mixed. "We have become an almost exclusively Muslim school," complains the Director of the Greek-Catholic Patriarchate School Saba, located in West Beirut. "Despite all our efforts, the Christians in the East do not attend our school," Brother Michel Saba explains. After the civil war, co-existence in schools came to a definitive end. Today, no Christian travels the one-kilometer (as the crown flies) over the unofficial border in order to go to school with Muslims. Therefore
contact between religions is now more important than ever.

Bernhard Hillenkamp for; Translation from German: Tom Lampert

© 2003