Stories that have made headlines over the past two weeks, from a Christian perspective

ISSUE 228 | 24 OCTOBER 2019

ALSO IN THIS EDITION

LEBANESE STAGE EXTRAORDINARY REVOLT AGAINST THEIR POLITICIANS

By Donnelly McCleland

Lebanon has passed a series of major economic reforms, including the slashing of officials’ salaries and the scrapping of austerity measures, after a weekend of mass nationwide protests over a deteriorating economy. The announcement of the 17-point economic program was met with a mixture of cheers and jeers at protests in downtown Beirut, where hundreds gathered on Monday [21 October]. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Lebanon on Sunday, in some of the largest demonstrations seen in the country since March 2005, when mass protests led to the expulsion of Syrian forces from the country. (CNN)

Sweeping change demanded

The mass protests that have swept Lebanon in the past week began as a spontaneous outburst of rage in response to the government’s proposed levy on the popular messaging service WhatsApp. However, in the space of a few short days, they transformed the country – as simmering frustrations and anger over perceived ongoing exploitation and economic mismanagement by a governing elite – evolved into a mass movement aimed at its overthrow. This is evidenced in the ongoing protests and calls for a general strike, despite the prime minister’s announcement of a raft of proposed reforms to address protesters’ concerns. There are many who believe it is a case of ‘too little, too late’, while still more believe that protesters need to push for an entire overhaul of government – widely viewed as corrupt beyond redemption. Protesters say they have had enough of a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but done little to fix a crumbling economy. Mr Hariri’s 11th-hour ‘rescue plan’ has largely been met with disdain on the street.

Chants of “revolution” and “downfall of the regime” have reverberated through cities and towns across the country, galvanising the masses in a way that few protest movements have in the past. The scale of the protests appears to have taken the government completely by surprise.

Key underlying issues

The combination of an acute economic crisis and decades of rampant corruption has clearly pushed the country to the edge. Lebanon’s debt-burdened economy has been sliding towards collapse in recent months, adding to the economic woes of a population exasperated by rampant corruption, the lack of job opportunities and poor services. Forest fires also devastated parts of the country last week, with politicians accused of inaction as the country burned. Among the protesters’ main grievances is the poor supply of electricity from the state, which citizens have to complement with costly generators.

Lebanon’s public debt ratio is one of the largest in the world — more than 150% of gross domestic product (GDP), or around $86 billion — according to the Finance Ministry. Economic growth has plummeted to 0.3% in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighbouring Syria, and the influx of an estimated 1.5 million war refugees.

According to the World Bank, more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population is said to be living below the poverty line, while the political class has remained relatively unchanged since the end of a devastating 15-year civil war in 1990. Lebanon is currently ranked 138 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption index, and residents suffer chronic electricity and water shortages.

Lebanon’s rather unique political system was set up to balance power between the country’s religious sects, including Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze. However, critics say it entrenches political patronage and pits citizens against each other along sectarian lines.

A united and peaceful front

These mass demonstrations have had a rather surprising outcome as its drawn people together from across the sectarian and religious lines that define the country and its political system, including Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze. There have been some incidents of violence, but overall small clashes have given way to mass demonstrations with an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Demonstrators, old and young, spoke of their joy of experiencing a rare feeling of national unity as they converged towards protest sites at the weekend. The large-scale gatherings have been remarkably incident free, with armies of volunteers forming to clean up the streets, provide water to protesters and organise first aid tents.

Many are wondering what is next for this small, but strategic Middle Eastern nation, as the central demand remains an end to corruption. Only one party has to date resigned their positions in government. On Saturday [19 October] Samir Geagea, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party, announced his ministers were quitting the government. “We are now convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation,” said Geagea. Other members of the government, including Shiite movement Hezbollah, are opposed to resigning. Demonstrators in Beirut celebrated the news of the LF’s resignation but continued to call for wholesale change. It has been suggested that the government resign and hand over power to a council of non-political judges until elections can be held.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

Many news accounts have indicated that the massive protests have involved Lebanese from all walks of life and represent the diverse nature of the country in a dramatic show of solidarity. Lebanon (though small in population) has the largest proportion of Christians in the Middle East (anything between 30 and 40 percent has been estimated); and many of these have also peacefully demonstrated their opposition to perceived governmental corruption and mismanagement. There is a deep longing for justice and righteousness to prevail, and many have publicly expressed this desire. They have asked for prayer for their nation.

A Christian INcontext contact in Lebanon shared the following: “The Church is praying earnestly, because what’s happening is historic. Change is taking place, and it seems there is no turning back. The question is what kind of change? As a Church, we don’t want to become a country that would allow everything according to the world, and this unfortunately is what seems to be happening. That’s why we need to have solutions from the presence of God. At the demonstrations I was trying to see the place for God in it, there wasn’t. But, this is the shape of the new Lebanon. We refuse it without Jesus. We pray that He brings solutions, and gives us solutions. We pray that His name would be in it, and that He will take His rightful place above all. It is written: ‘Come with me from Lebanon my bride, come with me from Lebanon.’ [Song of Solomon 4:8] The revolution started against the poverty and high taxes, while people in government take all the money for themselves. The Lord is against that (Psalm 12:5 says: ‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them.’) and we seek His Kingdom to come upon Lebanon.”

Since the Lebanese constitution requires that there be Christian representation in government, it would make sense that Christians in government may also be perceived as corrupt, and it is thus interesting to note that the only party that has stepped down and acknowledged that change is needed is a Christian party. It brings to mind the verse in Matthew 5:25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary explains: “We ought carefully to preserve Christian love and peace with all our brethren; and if at any time there is a quarrel, we should confess our fault, humble ourselves to our brother, making or offering satisfaction for wrong done in word or deed: and we should do this quickly; because, till this is done, we are unfit for communion with God in holy ordinances.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers goes so far as to contrast ‘natural’ wisdom with Christ-like wisdom, in that: “The impulse of the natural man at such a time, even if conscious of wrong, is to make the best of his case, to prevaricate, to recriminate. The truer wisdom, Christ teaches, is to ‘agree’—better, to be on good terms with—show our own good will, and so win his.”

Lebanon faces a crucial moment in their history and Christians, both in government and on the streets, can play a pivotal role in bringing about Kingdom changes in their nation.

PRAY 

  • For wisdom as the government addresses grievances
  • For protests to remain peaceful
  • For believers, both in government and society, to be hope-bearers and agents of change for the glory of His Kingdom

DID YOU KNOW?

Lebanon is a semi-presidential parliamentary democratic republic within the overall framework of confessionalism, a form of consociationalism in which the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities.

SYRIA – CHAOS UNLEASHED; CHRISTIANS IMPERILLED, BUT STEADFAST

Turkey and Russia have agreed what they say is a “historic” deal aimed at keeping Kurdish forces away from Syria’s border with Turkey. The agreement was announced after six hours of talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian host, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi. A ceasefire brokered by the US was set to expire on Tuesday evening [22 October] and Turkey had threatened to re-launch its offensive against the Kurdish fighters, but said there was now “no need”.

From a Christian Perspective

In the midst of gross insecurity and an unfolding humanitarian crisis, many Christians in north-east Syria are opting to remain in the war zone rather than flee to Aleppo or Damascus. They have chosen to remain precisely so they can, through their churches, assist and minister to those in need.

TUNISIA’S NEW PRESIDENT, SAIED, PROMISES TO FIX ECONOMY

A low-profile, conservative law professor has beaten a charismatic media magnate in Tunisia’s presidential election runoff. In a contest that reflected Tunisia’s shifting post-revolution political landscape, Kais Saied scooped more than 70% of the vote, according to two exit polls, more than 40 points ahead of Nabil Karoui. Mr Saied is seen as a highly conservative political outsider who based his campaign on giving power to young people and fighting corruption.

From a Christian Perspective

With an ancient Christian heritage, Tunisia is today considered to be 99% Muslim. While the Tunisian constitution provides for freedom of religion, it also states the country’s intention to adhere to the teachings of Islam and lists Islam as the official state religion. Many Tunisian Christians face persecution from family members, face hardships in the workplace, and are punished for any evangelical activity.

IN OTHER NEWS

Russian president Vladimir Putin welcomed thousands of African leaders to Sochi for the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, to discuss politics and business “worth billions of dollars.” Unlike China, Mr Putin has promised to refrain from ‘political or other’ influence. The two-day event will see more than 3,000 delegates from across Russia and Africa to discuss an array of topics from nuclear energy to mineral extraction. Russia had played a more crucial role in the continent during the Soviet era, supporting independence movements and training government leaders in former Soviet client states such as Angola and Ethiopia. Moscow’s relations with Africa deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, with China taking over as the continent’s key foreign business partner.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “paused” his Brexit bill on 22 October after MPs rejected his plan to get it signed off in three days. Now EU leaders will consider whether to grant a delay to the 31 October Brexit deadline and what length it should be. A letter Mr Johnson was forced by law to send to the bloc after failing to secure backing for his deal on 19 October calls for a three-month extension. The government has indicated the possibility of pushing for a general election if the EU agrees to delay Brexit until January. Such a move would need the backing of Parliament, and opposition MPs have previously ruled out holding one until the prospect of no-deal on 31 October was eliminated.

Despite two elections in the past six months, Israel is no closer to knowing who its next leader will be. Benny Gantz, a retired army chief, will now take his turn at trying to form a government, but experts say he has even less of a chance to do so than his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, the longtime prime minister, who abandoned his latest attempt on 21 October. Mr Gantz will need to secure the backing of 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset in the next 28 days to become prime minister. A third round of elections could be ahead. The embattled Mr Netanyahu, who is facing possible indictment on corruption charges, is refusing to enter coalition talks without the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties that have backed him for years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited Saudi Arabia in his first trip to the kingdom in over a decade, signing oil agreements and discussing regional security, in particular, Saudi Arabia’s ongoing rivalry with Iran. In recent months, tensions between the two sides have soared and veered towards open conflict. Mr Putin has previously said he could play a positive role in easing tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, given Russia’s strong ties with both sides.The meeting signified strengthening relations between the two countries, who have worked together in recent years to keep oil supplies low, and thus keep prices high, but have been on opposite sides of regional conflicts.

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