A special part of our Awareness Forum is our Delegation programme, bringing Western thought-leaders to the Middle East to experience life, faith and culture there and to spend time with Christians and Muslims. In addition, this is an ideal opportunity for us to introduce our own work to Middle Eastern leaders and seek their help and cooperation.
Our week-long trip to Lebanon in April 2017, with a mix of Canadian and British business, civic and religious leaders, was many months in planning. We should like to thank all of our friends in and around Beirut, especially Mrs. Soulaf Kanaan and The Revd Dr Habib Badr, who worked so hard to make this a great success.
The delegation had a very auspicious start: on the day we arrived, we were very fortunate to meet Patriarch Moran Mor (Bechara Boutros al-Rahi) the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, the head of the Maronite Church. He was very welcoming, he listened to our message and he talked about the situation of Christians in the region. We were delighted that the Patriarch offered his support for our work in the future.
On Friday we met The Revd Joseph Kassab, the General Secretary of the Synod of the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Syria and Lebanon. He spoke to us about the mission of the Church there, especially their involvement with the Syrian refugees. We were then taken by The Revd Ramzi Abou Assali to the Bekaa Valley to visit a Syrian refugee family. There, we heard first-hand about this family’s journey and the great suffering and loss they had endured.
We also visited a school for refugee children where the Baptist and the National Evangelical Churches are working together to bring hope, love and a sense of security back into the children’s lives. The delegates were greatly moved by the children’s stories.
In the evening, we were invited by one of our Trustees, Mr George Kanaan, and his wife Soulaf for a formal dinner at their home with some of their closest friends. It was wonderful to see Dr Sami Khiyami, the former Syrian Ambassador to London, and to talk about our work to such an encouraging audience.
On Saturday, we met Abdul Latif Deryan, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon. Dr Mohamad Sammak, a Muslim scholar, and The Revd Dr Habib Badr, Chair of our Middle Eastern international consultants, joined us for this meeting. We discussed the Al-Azhar Declaration on Citizenship and Coexistence, and we learned much about how religion plays a central role in maintaining community harmony and stability in Lebanon. We are very proud that Dr Sammak was appointed as the Grand Mufti’s personal representative to the Foundation.
We wanted the delegates to experience the life and culture of Lebanon; after this important meeting, we visited the Gibran Khalil Gibran Museum and then travelled on to the Forest of the Cedars of God and the ancient city of Byblos. Beside the sea, we had a wonderful dinner and time to reflect on all that we had experienced so far.
On Sunday, we worshipped at the National Evangelical Church of Beirut. The service was led by The Revd Dr Habib Badr and one of our Canadian Delegates, The Revd Canon Peter Walker, was invited to preach. Revd Badr’s church invited us to join them for a traditional Lebanese lunch.
After lunch, we went to the world-famous Jeita Grotto, a series of breathtaking limestone caves carved over millions of years by the Nar el-Kalb river, and Harissa, a key Christian pilgrimage site with a shrine dedicated to the Lady of Lebanon. We returned to Beirut via the Teleferique cable car system; the views were amazing!
On Monday, we met with Mr Habib E. Ephrem, a highly respected Christian businessman who is the President of the Syriac League in Lebanon. He told us about his wonderful work with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. He brought a special treat, Al Man wa al Salwa, from Iraq for the Delegates to try. This is the same food that was called ‘manna’ in the Old Testament! Mr Ephrem also presented the Foundation with an icon of St. George.
We then had the pleasure of taking lunch with HE Michelle Cameron, Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon. We spoke about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and how religion plays a big role in the life of the Lebanese.
Our last meeting of the day was with The Revd. Professor Fadi Daou, the chair of the Adyan Foundation and one of the Awareness Foundation’s international consultants. We learned much about Adyan’s work to promote a culture of acceptance of difference and appreciation of diversity, which stimulates creative interaction and social cohesion.
On Tuesday, we visited the Near East School of Theology (NEST), an Protestant seminary serving the evangelical churches of the Middle East. We were hosted by Dr George Sabra, the President of NEST, who introduced delegates to the work of NEST, in particular their role in the Christian-Muslim dialogue in the region. This was a very special connection for us, as this is where Nadim trained in theology in the 1980s - and Dr Sabra had been his teacher!