The world is currently experiencing an unprecedented period of social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But religious distancing has long been practiced among us. Both individuals and communities of faith suffer from the tendency to respond to fear and anxiety toward the “religious other” by isolating themselves from them.

When interreligious interaction does happen, the unspoken protocol is often to mute any discourse on faith convictions in order to avoid drawing attention to differences or rattling sensitivities.

All the while, religious association regrettably endures as a barrier hindering genuine senses of cohesion and community.

This has certainly been the case in Lebanon. Religious distancing is the law of the land and the practice on the ground in a confessional system that divides its population and national framework along sectarian lines.

While the Lebanese experience of merging religion and politics is quite unique, and sadly stained with a bloody history of conflict, its challenge of religious division is not exceptional.

Religious distancing is an everyday reality across contexts; interfaith engagement is urgently needed at local and national levels the world over.

The Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut is committed to such efforts as it works “to bring positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.”

Our Peacebuilding Initiatives (PBIs) are designed to facilitate engagement across religious divides and foster a redemptive peace envisioned by God’s kingdom.

These aspirations are lofty, especially in a troubled context like Lebanon, but the efforts are vital to fostering new, inspiring experiences among individuals and faith communities.

In times of crisis, when the tendency to isolate and distance ourselves from others increases, the will to engage across faith lines is even more important.

The following are reflections by IMES team members about the importance of interfaith engagement amid our current crisis:

“The coronavirus crisis is revealing the importance of strong, healthy and decisive government,” Martin Accad, IMES director, said. “Divided, sectarian and professionally incompetent governments are powerless before such crises, which are likely to become recurring in the future.

“Isolationist states with a strong religious ideology, who are unwilling to collaborate with the rest of the world, seem to be much more vulnerable at such times of global disaster. Personal faith, on the other hand, as a source of balance and existential meaning, comes into central place for individual citizens.

“Christian and Muslim leaders and thinkers will need to renegotiate their relationships with one another and with mainstream governments in the years ahead. We are likely to see the emergence of a new kind of social contract between religion and secularism in Lebanon (and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East) with greater balance and clearer boundaries between the two spheres. Less religion in government; more religion in the private sphere.”

Chaden Hani, PBI field researcher, said, “Peacebuilding initiatives in Lebanon, like the Friendship Network for Church and Mosque Goers, have helped create networks between religious actors that are now extending support to one another in this time of pandemic.

“Meetings have been held encouraging Christians and Muslims to interact personally, share about their faith openly and care for one another genuinely. Now, in a time of crisis, they share their worries, concerns and even charity to aid those in need within their communities.

“Intentional interfaith engagement fosters networks within diverse communities, and the role of religious actors is extremely significant. These days, we see that efforts have encouraged a sense of solidarity across religious boundaries and we pray this will deepen into more meaningful friendship. The consistent investment in little things cannot be overlooked in creating opportunities for sharing love and care in times of big need.”

Jimmy Geagea, Khebz w Meleh youth dialogue coordinator, said, “There is need to work together collaboratively across religions for hope and solidarity. In the Khebz w Meleh program, we see how interfaith engagement helps Christian and Muslim youth grow mutually and work towards important values. Through dialogue, people of faith can enrich one another as they create joint spaces to tackle global challenges and find innovative ways to move forward together.

“Most importantly, interfaith engagement helps us overcome our fears. In times of anxiety and isolation, it is very important to reject fear and reach out to one another in openness and understanding. It’s inspiring to see so many youths of different faiths ready to do this.”

These IMES perspectives contribute to our understanding of how interfaith engagement can address the world’s enduring challenges of misunderstanding and fear.

As we all continue to practice voluntary social distancing to save lives, the IMES team invites those with a commitment to Christ to save lives by reflecting on practical steps that can help heal our communities from religious distancing.

Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan inspires great principles for us to begin this journey.

This article is part of a series focused on interfaith engagement. The previous articles in the series are:

Why Interfaith Cooperation Matters During Coronavirus Crisis | Rob Sellers

How Interfaith Partnerships Can Enrich Your Own Life | Rabbi Jack Moline

Amid Global Pandemic, Religious Pluralism Flourishes | Amanda Tyler

A Kind Nun’s Compassion Led to Imam’s Interfaith Journey | Imam Imad Enchassi

Being a Good Interfaith Neighbor During the Age of COVID-19 | Trisha Miller Manarin

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