In Hadat, the busy and diverse Caza of Mount Lebanon, Fatmeh and Alaa, two veiled ladies walk into the church with Bchara, who is wearing the cross around his neck. Inside, Bchara starts to point at various elements of the church and explain them to the women.
The eyes of Alaa, 18, are bursting with desire for learning. She maintains continuous eye contact with Bchara, a sign of active listening. Fatmeh, 18, too has many questions. With a friendly flicker in his eyes, Bchara answers: “By creating us, God put something from him in each and every one of us. If we do not meet and know each other, we cannot reach God”, he says.
The discussion inside is accompanied by another outside the church between other members of the group; Mohamad, 17 and Jean Paul, 14. In his explanation, Jean Paul is pointing to his chest and the cross: “The cross represents the pain which Jesus went through for the sake of his children. We believe that Jesus did that for all of us.” The conversation ends with a friendly embrace. Before leaving, Mohamad says: “The differences in our religions will never separate us.” Afterwards, each group got taxi’s home to their own communities in different parts of Beirut.
This was September 22, 2015, after a good-bye meeting these youth held as part of “The Feast”, an inter-faith project run by World Vision Lebanon (WVL) in partnership with the Institute of Middle East Studies and Lebanon Youth for Christ. The idea for this initiative in Lebanon is fully inspired by the Feast, an international NGO that supports work in numerous countries enabling young people of different faiths to form real friendships, grow in their understanding of each other’s and their own faiths and become peace-makers amongst their peers, their own communities and in the wider world.
“When learning about the Feast, we thought that the youth of Lebanon are in need of such dialogue, and so we developed the Feast in Lebanon in 2013”, says Fady Hajj, Faith in Development Coordinator at WVL. After its success, WVL [with IMES and LYfC] decided to extend the Feast this year while widening the scope by targeting more faith groups. “This year we gathered four religious groups: Muslim Shiites, Muslim Sunnis, Christian Maronites, and Christian Evangelicals, and for the next years we aim for an even wider reach”, explains Hajj.
The inter-faith discussions and activities started in February 2015 and lasted until September 22, 2015, the last day, where the youth met with World Vision Lebanon’s team, in a meeting room in the church of Hadat, to evaluate their eight-month journey.
Before the meeting, the room throbbed with life. The loud laughter and engagement of the youth sounded like they had known each other for years. When the meeting started, they quieted down and took their seats. The project’s coordinators at World Vision Lebanon, Eliana Mallouk, and Nour Yassine, were standing in the middle to facilitate. “Whenever I listen to your words, my heart grows”, said Yassine, while her eyes were full of joyful tears.
As soon as the discussion started, the youth were answering instantly and harmoniously. Bchara and Fatmeh had a common lesson related to the love of God.
“When asked about the commandments, Jesus answered: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus, did not say ‘love the Christian’, he said ‘love your neighbor, and he means any neighbor whatever his religion is, Christian or Muslim”, said Bchara passionately, while listeners were transfixed by his powerful words. “The Feast helped me in understanding and experiencing this commandment of Jesus”, Bchara explained.
A few seconds of silence pervaded until Fatmeh jumped in to show full adherence to Bchara’s learning, while quoting Imam Ali, the religious leader of most Shiite Muslims: “Know that people are of two types: they are either your brothers in religion or your equals in creation.” Excitedly she elaborated to her colleagues, “I always heard Imam’s quote from our teachers and I thought that I understood it, but honestly I did not deeply identify with it until I joined the Feast. I realized that there is no difference between us: our God is one. How can I explain it…The Feast made me better understand my Islamic religion, through understanding the religion of others”, Fatmeh added, bravely sharing her feelings.
By creating us, God put something from him in each and every one of us. If we do not meet and know each other, we cannot reach God”, Bchara says.
Bchara continued to share his thoughts. “If we put a block between us and the other who is different, we cannot meet God. There is no one who does not have a quality of God. When I am meeting someone who is generous, I am getting to know the generosity of God. When I am meeting a loving person, I am getting to identify the love of God. We need to open our hearts to each other, so that we meet God and know him more.”
Bchara then referred to his colleague, Alaa, as evidence of his perspective on the love of God. Bchara recalled the experience, and said, “Our Muslim friends in the Feast invited us for an iftar, a dinner for Muslim believers as a break of their fasting during a holy month called Ramadan”. Alaa was the host. We were sitting and were kind of lost as for the Christian group it was their first iftar and we did not know much about it. Alaa started to take care of us to help us get more involved. I remember that she explained to us that they usually break their fasting with dates and then with soup. Alaa showed so much love for introducing her religion to us, and for listening about our religion too on that day. I saw in Alaa the part of God that is “caring”, Bchara added, excitedly.
In her turn, Alaa too had an exceptional experience with her Christian friends. “Last month, I went to the church for the first time. I felt that I am in the house of God. Yes, I felt the same as how I feel in the mosque. The same spirituality and devotion”, she recalled.
Alaa stopped looking at the Christian as the “other”, but as one, part of her, joined in similarities and differences. The Feast triggered her curiosity in attending a Christian service. She asked one of her colleagues in the Feast, Jenifer, to guide her through this experience. “Jenifer promised to take me to the church. She was interested in learning about Islam too. She asked me if I can get her a Quran. I got her the dearest Quran to my heart; the one which Dad, may his soul rest in peace, used to read through”, Alaa said, choking on her words.
Alaa continued her narration as if images flashed across her mind: “When I arrived, I realized that the church looked very different from the ones I see on TV. I saw no icons, just a cross. I consulted Jenifer. She explained that the Evangelical church differs from other churches”, Alaa recalled.
Alaa’s experience started with an observation of the worshippers around her. Her eyes focused on a 3-year-old child who was standing at the very front. “She was praying with extreme devotion. A 3-year-old child totally engaged, you can’t imagine it”, Alaa recalled, while pointing to her skin: “Whenever I remember that moment, I get goose bumps.”
Alaa paused slightly and then continued: “I was repeating the hymns. I was speaking to God through those hymns. We both have the same God, but each of us sees him in their own way”, she said. That was the second phase of her experience. As for the third, it was listening to the sermon about human rights. “I was surprised that the pastor’s teachings were exactly the same as ours in Islam, literally the same."
The experience of Alaa did not end there. The New Testament distributed during the prayer found a place in her heart, mind, and time at home. “I read through it and started to analyze the verses. My realization that we have many major teachings in common, despite all the differences, was reiterated”, Alaa concluded.
The courage to experience genuine reflection, as well as trust, was almost contagious among the youth. Nour, a16-year-old Christian, shared how the Feast changed her perspective of friendship and relations between humans.
"How can we build Lebanon if our children are not open to others’ religions? Inter-faith dialogue should be implanted in their minds, so that they build Lebanon as it was before the Civil War", says Mohamad.
“My mother taught me to always leave a distance with Muslims. The Feast made me reconsider how I was raised. I started wondering why that should be. Both of us pray to the same God. After I have become close to Muslims, I discovered that we think the same; the only difference is our religion. I discovered that there is nothing that should make us fight against each other. We are all humans. Now I try to convince my parents. Whenever I finish a Feast meeting, I go home and tell them what happened, what I learnt, and who my new friends are. I realize that their minds wander and they stay silent for a while, as if they are reconsidering. My parents are starting to change. I hope from the bottom of my heart that they really do”, Nour said, opening up her heart in front of the group.
Similar to Nour, Mohamad believes that his parents “did not provide him” with an inter-faith background. “So I decided to search for my own inter-faith experience. I kept on searching until I found it in the Feast, and I want to transfer this experience to my future children”, Mohamad added.
“How can we build Lebanon if our children are not open to others’ religions? Inter-faith dialogue should be implanted in their minds, so that they build Lebanon as it was before the Civil War: when Muslims and Christians sat together under one shelter. The war happened because of mafias and not because of religions. We and our children want to rebuild Lebanon as it was before the war. If we stay united, Muslims and Christians, we are able to change the whole world, not only Lebanon”, Mohamad concluded, his words radiating a genuine hope and determination for change.
The Feast for year 2015 is over, but the youth say that their spiritual, intellectual, and social connections will never end. And as Rayan, 15, said at the end of the meeting, “The real challenge is when leaving the Feast, to keep behaving and thinking in the same way when meeting new people as we did here. This is only how change starts.”
 Imam Alī bin Abī Ṭālib, the first cousin and the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Ali is considered, along with his descendants, to be one of the divinely appointed successors of the Prophet Muhammad. He is considered as the religious model for Shiite Muslims.