A conference next month aimed at promoting understanding between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East is going on as planned, says a Lebanese Baptist leader.

Sectarian violence in Beirut early this month cast doubt about whether Arab Baptist Theological Seminary would be able to hold its fifth annual Middle East Conference June 16-20. In the wake of last week’s peace agreement between the U.S.-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, however, Elie Haddad, provost of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com that planning is going ahead for this year’s gathering, which is titled “Islam, Its Message and Law, and the Future of Our Societies.”

The seminary, started in 1960 by a Baptist missionary and operated since the 1990s by the Lebanese Baptist Society for Educational and Social Development (also known as the Lebanese Baptist Society), had to cancel a public lecture scheduled May 12 during six days of fighting termed the worst civil strife since Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990.

Eighty-one people were killed in the fighting, which prompted mediation efforts led by Qatar. A peace deal announced in Doha quickly eased tensions from 18 months of political conflict and may have averted another civil war.

“We are definitely relieved,” Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society, said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com. Costa said once news of the agreement was announced, the word for the day became “mabrouk,” an Arabic word for “congratulations,” which was exchanged in workplaces, churches and on the streets.

“Relief was evident on people’s faces at church last Sunday,” Costa said. “The past few months, our fervent prayers were for peace and wisdom. We prayed with expectation. And today we thank God for answered prayers, knowing that what has been achieved is no easy task. We are hopeful that the agreement reached is a very important main step in the right direction. Yet, the journey ahead is not easy and the newly elected president needs our prayer support. And as one Body we commit to continue to pray.”

Throughout the conflict, Lebanese Baptists have sought to be a calming presence between competing Christian and Muslim factions. During a month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, both Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and its companion Beirut Baptist School provided shelter for thousands of people displaced by the fighting, regardless of their religion.

The fighting in July 2006 broke out just after the seminary concluded its third Middle East conference, which focused on “Waging Peace form East to West.” Friendships established through such dialogue with the Muslim community played a key role in allowing Baptists to open doors to Shiite refugees and for some of the displaced to be more accepting of their hospitality, said Martin Accad, director of the seminary’s Institute of Middle East Studies.

“Our vision is to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and the West,” Accad wrote in a recent column. “We are more and more convinced, especially after this last war, that we have a very important role to play in educating the world on the realities of the Middle East, Islam and Christian-Muslim relations.”

A centerpiece of that effort, Accad said, is the Middle East conference, held each year during the third week of June. This year’s conference will focus on the rise of Muslim fundamentalist groups and Islam’s non-separatist view of church and state that is giving rise in many places to renewed hope for centralized power based on Islamic law.

“With that background in mind, how can we, as followers of Christ, prepare ourselves more effectively for this new era?” Accad asked in a column announcing the program. “What will we need to learn? What kind of people will need to take leadership in the Church and beyond, and how will they need to prepare themselves? What questions need to be asked and what scenarios should we anticipate?”

Accad called for “a constructive and proactive attitude and approach” to those questions.

“Many more of us today should acquire some understanding about the workings of Islamic Law,” he said. “Through this means, the Church both in the East and the West will be able to enter into constructive dialogue with this drive of Islam towards Islamization of society, rather than escape into paranoia and develop defensive mechanisms that lead to global conflict. The Church is not called to a political agenda, but rather to the Gospel agenda of Christ.”

Scheduled speakers at this year’s Middle East conference include Colin Chapman, former lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut and author of books including Whose Promised Land?; Father Souheyl Kasha; and Daniel Buttry, consultant for peace and justice with International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

“We strive to combine in these Middle East Conference events a solid understanding of Middle-Eastern and Islamic issues with a robust drive to address them creatively and in line with a Jesus ethic and approach,” Accad said. “Our aim is to transform the Church’s thinking into a more holistic understanding of global realities that will make it into a more faithful witness as it relates to Islam.”

Accad said the Institute of Middle East Studies seeks to “dispel mutually false perceptions between peoples of different religions and cultures, which eventually result in inadequate practice in social, religious, political and personal spheres.”

As part of the political agreement brokered by Qatar, a new president of Lebanon was elected over the weekend and tents of protesters that had been set up in downtown Beirut for a year and a half were dismantled.

SAT-7, a Christian broadcasting ministry that has a team of about 20 Lebanese personnel who live and work in Beirut, praised the accord.

“In my opinion, this is a miracle that could only have happened with the Lord’s help,” said Naji Daoud, SAT-7 Lebanon director.

“We know people have been praying,” said Daoud, a member of Faith Baptist Church. “Even the night before the plan was announced it didn’t seem like they would find solution. I’m 100 percent sure prayer made a difference.”

SAT-7 requested prayers for peace after recent clashes, demonstrations and road closures prevented some staff members from flying in and out of Beirut and slowed the production of some TV programs.

“Lebanon has for ages been a battlefield for regional and international conflicts and struggles for power,” said Costa. “Our safety as a Lebanese nation lies in getting our loyalties and priorities straight.”

Costa said that also applies to Christians. “Our message is that of peace, love, mercy, grace, repentance and forgiveness; a message that is most needed by the Lebanese today,” Costa said, calling that “a message that has to be ‘lived’ to be effective.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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Sectarian Violence Rocks Lebanon, Engulfs Baptists

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