I hesitated. But the commonly asked question in Lebanon still hung in the air and needed an answer.
‘I am, uh, a Protestant,’ I replied softly. ‘Evangelical.’
And before a frown appeared on my inquisitor’s face, I quickly denied any link with American Evangelicals. It was imperative that I was believed. In these sensitive days, a falsely perceived link to US Christian fundamentalists – better known as Christian Zionists – could easily cost lives.
I remember first becoming aware of them a few years ago during a visit to the US. I was scanning radio broadcasts when a voice boomed out: ‘It is our Christian duty to get those Arabs out of Palestine.’
Those Arabs? What Arabs? Did he mean the residents of the land – the Palestinians? The sermon continued with such venom and hatred towards Palestinians that I had to find out who the speaker was. I was shocked when the broadcaster thanked an Evangelical preacher for his sermon. It was so far removed from any Christian sermon I had ever heard and certainly unlike any of the peace sermons from my own pastor in Beirut. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The Protestant church in Lebanon was founded in the mid-19th century when American missionaries came to the Middle East to convert Catholics. They opened schools, universities and printing shops. Education for girls and women, a relative novelty back then, was introduced and encouraged. In Arabic, the community became known as ‘Enjelieh’ – those who adhere to the Bible. The direct translation in English is Evangelical. And thus our church was called ‘The Evangelical Church of Beirut’.
But as US Evangelical fundamentalism grew stronger and more vocal, our small Lebanese community began encountering raised eyebrows.
Christian Zionists believe that Jesus cannot return to reign on Earth until Jewish people return to the Holy Land where they would destroy the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. The Battle of Armageddon will then kill millions of people and convert the Jews to Christianity.
Such beliefs sounded harmless enough (everyone has their own beliefs, after all) until I found out that the group is willing to mobilize cash and lobby US politicians in order to support Israel in its occupation of the Palestinian territories.
‘To stand against Israel is to stand against God,’ said Jerry Falwell, one of their leading figures. ‘We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel.’
In 1980, the Israeli Government allowed the establishment of an ‘International Christian Embassy’ in Jerusalem. Among its duties is to enlist worldwide Christian support for Israel, defend Israeli policies, and assist in the establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
If that weren’t enough, their US preachers like Falwell became quite vocal in insulting Arabs and Muslims. ‘Muhammad was a terrorist,’ declared Falwell two years ago in the American television programme 60 Minutes. His comments sparked international Islamic protest and a fatwa calling for his death.
Horrified, Middle Eastern churches issued their own statements. ‘Those people (Christian Embassy) do not represent either Christianity or Christians,’ said Father Raed Awad Abusahlia, the Chancellor of the Catholic Church of Jerusalem. ‘They are in no way related to the official local Christian Churches or linked to the Palestinian Arab world but they are groups that claim Christianity and are an American dollar importation. Therefore, we explicitly declare that they do not belong to us and that we have no links to them or their views.’
One US Evangelical missionary was shot dead two years ago in the mainly Sunni Muslim city of Sidon in southern Lebanon. The killer was never found but the motive is thought to have been anger at her attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity, a dangerous endeavour in the post-9/11 world.
So you will see why we make great efforts to distinguish ourselves from the Christian Zionists. While so far we have not been harassed, the small Protestant community is keeping its eyes open.
‘Most Lebanese know that we have absolutely nothing to do with those crazy Evangelicals,’ said one church member. ‘But there is always the fear that one insane person will think that we are linked and try something violent. So I think it’s best at the moment to keep a low profile.’
Others just keep their fingers crossed.