Accompanied by PCI’s Global Mission Secretary, Rev Uel Marrs, who was last in the country in 2018, they will travel to Dhour Chweir, a town 20 miles from Beirut, just north of the main highway to Damascus in the mountains, for the three-day NESSL ‘Partners’ Consultation’. While the meeting takes place every two years, and draws representatives of Presbyterian and Reformed churches from Europe and North America, the Consultation is taking place for the first time since the Covid Pandemic.
Looking forward to the visit, Dr Kirkpatrick said, “Historically, PCI has had a long association with the Church in both Syria and Lebanon going back to the 1840s, when Irish Presbyterian missionaries helped to establish a congregation in the Syrian capital Damascus. From that time to the 1970s we sent men and women to the region, our last minister returning in 1984. Today, the connections and partnerships that we have there continue to run deep, and this includes the relationship that we have with one of our oldest partners, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon.”
Lebanon has the largest Christian population of any Middle Eastern country, with PCI sending representatives to many of the Partners’ Consultations over the years. This is, however, the first time that a serving Moderator has attended since 2011, with Dr Kirkpatrick contributing to the morning Bible studies on the theme of ‘Hope in the midst of despair’.
The Moderator continued, “The principal purpose of the meeting is to listen to leaders and ministers from Syria and Lebanon as they share with us the challenges that they face, but equally the opportunities that are being grasped as well.
“The effects of the civil war of the 1970s, 80s and 90s still punctuates Lebanese society, as does the challenge of migration, where one in three people in the country are not from Lebanon, mainly due to the forgotten conflict in neighbouring Syria and the Palestinians who have lived in the country for generations. There is also the devastating impact of the Covid pandemic largely coinciding with an economic and banking collapse, ongoing political upheaval, and the 2020 Beirut port explosion, which made a third of a million people homeless.
“This is the demanding context, a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges, in which we will meet, but it is a precious opportunity to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. A time to worship and pray together, particularly in the current difficulties, as we acknowledge that through Christ, there is hope even in the midst of despair,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.
Along with NESSL, which has around 12,000 members in 30 congregations across both Syria and Lebanon, PCI’s other longstanding partnership in Lebanon is the Near East School of Theology (NEST), which was founded in 1932. More recently, PCI has been relating to SAT-7, which has been broadcasting Christian TV programmes from their production studios in Beirut to the Middle East and North Africa since 1996. PCI also works with the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development.
“Over the years many representatives from our partners in Lebanon have been welcomed guests as visiting delegates to our General Assembly, or have taken part in our conferences that we have held. Next week’s visit will also be an important opportunity to spend some time with a number of them,” Rev Uel Marrs explained.
“I know that the Moderator is keen to meet and encourage as many of our partners as possible, so we hope to go to SAT-7’s studios in Beirut, and visit NEST’s president, Dr George Sabra, to hear about School of Theology’s ongoing training programme for ministers and church leaders in Arab speaking Reformed churches in the region.
“A meeting with Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development, whose Tahaddi support centre in southern Beirut is the main project for PCI’s current Word Development Appeal, has been scheduled. We also hope to see Dr Mike Bassous, General Secretary of the Bible Society of Lebanon, who spoke at a PCI conference ‘Hope Unexpected – Lessons from the life of the church in the Middle East’ in 2017. It will be a busy, but I hope, fruitful week,” Mr Marrs said.
Images: (1) the logo of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (2) the location of the town of Dhour Chweir, 20 miles from Beirut, where the meeting will take place (credit Google Maps) and (3) NESSL's Dhour Choueir Evangelical Center that will host the Partners’ Consultation (Credit Dhour Choueir Evangelical Center).