Editor's note: Lebanese Bishop Salim Ghazal left Quad-Citians quite hopeful with his speech Sunday accepting the Pacem en Terris peace award bestowed by the Davenport Diocese. His hope is anchored in this observation: "The majority in Lebanon are unwilling to give up on living together." Like the Pacem recipients before him, Ghazal is doing the day to day, person to person work that is the foundation of peace. Here is the text of Bishop Ghazal's acceptance speech:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
In Acts 2 at Pentecost the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance, and they spoke in different languages and the crowds were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. Sadly, I was not given the gift of speaking in many languages as the disciples were, though I would have loved to speak to you in English directly so that my word would be one from the heart to the heart.
But, in the long journey of my life and work for humanity and society, I have been given the language of love that all people understand—in the East and in the West. For that reason I walked the road of love, service and self-giving in the service of people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, color or gender, and on that basis I say to you: “I love you all.”
To start, I would like to thank the different groups that contributed to grant me this “Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award”: Bishop Amos and the Diocese of Davenport, St. Ambrose University, Augustana College, Churches United of the Quad City Area, the Congregation of Humility of Mary, and Pax Christi Quad Cities. I am greatly honored be one among many men and women who have received this award. And I give tribute and thanks to Habitat for Humanity and especially to my dear friend Donald Mosley for nominating me for this precious award, which I accept on behalf of all the individuals and organizations who have been accompanying me in Lebanon for many long years. I consider it to be a medal of honor on our chests and on the chests of all others around the globe who are working hard for the cause of freedom and peace.
I am coming here today from my small country that is smaller than the U.S. state of Connecticut. Lebanon is a wonderful country with natural beauty, a pleasant climate, rich history, and a diverse population. A country tormented by war – by civil war, religious conflicts, and foreign invasions – that found it to be fertile soil for strife and disorder between its people, or a door wide open for foreign penetration into the Middle East. I am coming to you from South Lebanon where last summer’s war destroyed villages and infrastructure, where thousands of families remain homeless, and where widows and orphans abound. We still do not enjoy peace and safety, as we continue to live in the shadow of crises – whether political, economic, or human security – but we have not lost hope. Our hope is in God first and foremost, and also in people and in the assistance of the international community.
I’d like to open by describing my personal childhood experience growing up as a little boy in my village Meshgara in the Bekaa Valley. I was brought up there in an atmosphere of intimacy and neighborly relations between Muslims and Christians. Our beliefs never separated us; on the contrary, we joined together in each other’s feasts and celebrations, weddings and funerals. Our relationships painted a vivid and lovely picture of coexistence.
Then, after joining the priesthood, I went to the Monastery of the Savior in the ethnically-mixed area of the Chouf mountains. There, I discovered continuity of that same spirit flowing from the monks and their message that they carried to the surrounding villages. After my ordination in 1961, I was appointed to serve as a traveling messenger in the area of Sidon, Ekleem el Kharroub, and across southern Lebanon – an area that has a long, well-established history of integrated communities, shared citizenship, and human relationships between Muslims and Christians. I worked with people of all backgrounds without discrimination, living the values I learned at home and at school in my village. I developed personal convictions that crystallized over time, and which I have put into action in my spiritual and social life. These convictions include love and respect for my fellow human beings and their beliefs; simplicity in relationships; and in mastering the language of listening and dialogue. That is how I learned to look upon my fellow human beings, and I have lived those convictions both personally and with the others around me.
Stages and Milestones
1- Before the Lebanese Civil War:
At Schools: (1962-1975) I met Muslim students in the public and private schools of Sidon, where I was a teacher of the Christian faith to Christian students. Sometimes, Muslim students attended my classes out of curiosity or willingness to know about another faith. I never turned anyone away from my classes nor showed any discrimination between students of different faiths: I always felt love and respect for each of them. I also befriended a Muslim Sheikh who taught the Islamic faith to Muslim students. We arranged to commute to the school together, and to walk together in the playground during breaks. We were seen in public together by all the students, and this simple demonstration had a very positive affect on the students as an example of how they should relate to each other as well. Later on, we made a practice of exchanging classes, where he would teach my classes with the Christian students and I would teach his classes with the Muslim students. Over time, the class discussions moved away from sterile doctrinal topics to issues that the students raised themselves and were relevant to them. Today, after all these years, I still sense the depth and impact of this interaction, resulting in many lasting close ties with those students. Many of those students now hold influential positions in Lebanon, and some of them are still actively working with me in service and development projects.
Social Work: In the 1960’s, I started exploring social work with the Social Movement that was founded by Bishop Gregory Haddad in collaboration with Imam Moussa Sadr in Southern Lebanon. We provided health services for all those in need at clinics and dispensaries in villages across that area, overcoming all sectarian obstacles, fanaticism, and discrimination. The importance of this work was clearly seen later during the civil war where most public institutions stopped providing health services, while our health and social service outposts continued serving in spite of very difficult and risky circumstances. Also, at Dar el Inaya, a social institution near Sidon, founded by the present Greek Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Lahham, the present Bishop George Kouaiter and myself, we were able to serve the people of that area through a vocational school, a parenting program for orphans, assistance for people in extremely difficult circumstances, and activities for youth. Those services continued throughout the long years of strife and still provide a place for dialogue for all people, regardless of their backgrounds.
Experience During the Lebanese Civil War:
The civil war that was ignited in Lebanon in 1975 devastated civic life and its foundations, leaving in its wake a security vacuum, disastrous strife between sectarian parties, mass internal displacement, and a deep economic crisis. This civil war that started between brothers was then complicated by regional and international interferences. It may appear on the surface that the war was a conflict between the Christian and Muslim faiths, but this is not an accurate understanding of the reality of the events which were closely linked with many foreign countries’ strategic interests. In spite of the winds of tribulation that overtook Lebanon, we were not swept away with religious extremism, but many of us continued to analyze and understand the conflict based on civic, humane principles. We contributed to support integrated civic committees that sought to alleviate the impact of the tragedies, and we established good relationships with both Lebanese and Palestinian leadership in Southern Lebanon, raising our voices against all injustice or infringement of basic human rights to life, liberty, and property. We succeeded a little and we failed a lot, especially when our efforts contradicted foreign interests. We said yes to a moderate, broad-minded Lebanon. We said no to slaughtering people because of their ethnic identity, no to internal displacement and segregation that divides the country into ethnic cantons. In the heat of this sectarian unrest, I responded to invitations from Muslim villages, who asked me to speak on several occasions. There, I called for unity, because our national history is one, and our destiny is shared, whether we like it or not. Those calls were received with appreciation, and I heard the following phrase repeated many times to me: “Bravo – we were one people and we’ll stay one forever.”
3-After the Civil War:
Dialogue and Development: In 1990, with a group of educated young people in Sidon, both Muslims and Christians, I founded a cultural and developmental non-profit organization aiming at: sustaining ethnically-integrated communities, fostering civic unity in the face of sectarianism, and training youth in dialogue and non-violent conflict resolution. The most important Dialogue and Development programs are:
a- Peacemaking Camps: propagating a new culture in the society to replace the culture of war and violence, especially among the generation of youth who were born and raised during the war. We organized summer camps in The Monastery of the Saviour and Dar el Inaya from 1989-1995, bringing together children and youth from different areas and religious affiliations across Southern Lebanon, in collaboration with UNICEF and other Lebanese and Palestinian non-profit organizations. More than 1,200 children ages 7 to 12 attended, as well as more than 600 young adults. They came together for the first time in friendship after many bitter years of war that had molded them into patterns of isolation and fear.
b- Vocational Training for Former Militia Fighters: After the Lebanese Government’s 1989 Ta’if agreement to dissolve all militias, we were confronted with the reality of a country flooded with de-militarized militia soldiers who had known nothing but warfare. We took the initiative with two European organizations – the German Miserior and the French CCFD – to provide vocational training and work opportunities for former fighters. Our training at The Monastery of the Saviour in the Chouf mountains enabled over 100 men from different ethnic backgrounds, political parties, and militias to secure jobs by which they could support themselves.
c- Senior Citizens’ Club: With help from the Franciscan Sisters and a donated facility from the Greek Catholic diocese, we founded a senior citizens’ club that serves neglected, elderly people of the area living in isolation without anyone to care for them. The club now serves more than 70 men and women from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The club is directed by a Franciscan sister, who with volunteer help affirms the dignity of each elderly member by providing home healthcare and social services, arranging field trip outings, and organizing birthday celebrations.
d- The Happy Home: We established a civic society to serve disabled boys and girls in Sidon, adjacent to the “Ain El Helwe” Palestinian camp. The Happy Home provides care for 40 physically-challenged Lebanese and Palestinian boys and girls.
e. Human Rights Advocacy: We arrange symposiums aiming at raising awareness of human rights in issues of concern in Lebanon and the Arab world. Topics we have addressed include the human rights of foreign domestic workers, of children subjected to child labor, and of women subjected to gender discrimination.
f. Secondary School and University students meetings: The Dialogue and Development Center has hosted monthly workshops for students for the last three years. Student groups from private and public schools and from three universities in Sidon come together for training on dialogue, communication, and accepting each other. In 2007 we held a summer camp for this group entitled “Citizenship: Overcoming Extremism and Sectarianism and Mobilizing Young People to Build Society”.
g. Livelihood Loans: The goal is to create income-generation opportunities for those with limited income, to stop rural migration to urban centers and to help refugees to return to their home villages. Since 1993, many families have benefited from these livelihood loans with reasonable interest rates in collaboration with local Lebanese Solidarity Associations.
h. Housing Program: Partnering with Habitat for Humanity Lebanon since 2001, Dialogue and Development has helped 350 low-income families to build or renovate safe, decent houses with non-profit loans disbursed by selection criteria and repaid over three years. The program covers 70 villages without religious or ethnic discrimination, and has received wide acceptance within the communities. We emphasize the importance of mutual help and collaboration within integrated communities; dozens of volunteers have participated in community service days to help build houses with their neighbors. These community service days culminate with village-wide celebrations, complete with food and traditional dancing. These events have helped revive the spirit of communal unity for many across the villages served. Another housing reconstruction program by Habitat for Humanity Lebanon has served more than 400 families across seven villages in Tyre and Bint Jbeil Cazas who fled as war refugees in the recent July 2006 war. Families whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the war were provided with 40 square meters of safe, decent, housing.
These are the most important activities that Dialogue and Development has initiated and will continue, always aiming at our goal: to build the person: every person and the whole person.
What I foresee for the future of Lebanon and the region? In my long journey working with people without discrimination on the basis of religion, or color, or gender, I have done my best to testify for truth, a testimony for the sake of the people of my country—the suffering people who toil to preserve their lives and dignity and who are in constant fear of the future. Based on the experience of my life, I testify to the importance of coexistence between Christians and Muslims and other faiths as well, in Lebanon and the world. During the Lebanese war from 1975 to 1990, in spite of tragedies and unceasing efforts to characterize the conflict as an internal struggle between Muslims and Christians, we proved that the majority in Lebanon are unwilling to give up on living together. It has been our destiny as Lebanese—both Christians and Muslims—to live together in this part of the East, a little piece of land geographically but huge in the significance of its message to humanity. As Pope John Paul II wrote: “Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message.” I appeal to the international community, and especially to the United States, to defend human rights as a priority within its policies, valuing human beings as the first and basic priority ahead of all security, economic and strategic interests, and thereby finding a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
I see this as the basic key to ending violence and the expansion of extremist movements in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and the Middle East. Adopt balanced politics stand toward the people of our region, politics that do not encourage conflicts or resort to violence, but rather that endeavor to solve problems by peaceful means. This alone will secure a foundation for peace in Lebanon and the region— peace built on justice and human rights and dignity.
Is peace on earth and among people a mere dream or a possible reality that deserves our efforts?
The answer lies in the willingness of people and their efforts to establish peace by spreading justice, fighting domination and economic imperialism, and resolving conflicts between nations and individuals through dialogue, acceptance of the other, mutual respect and acknowledging the other’s rights.
I end my word by addressing all people of goodwill and conscience around the world, be they officials in high position, or normal citizens—and to all the Lebanese Diaspora: Put the dignity of human beings above every other cause. The person of today is pleading for a new liberation that enables him to discover God and his image within himself and in his fellow brother in humanity. With this new vision in mind we must work together—Christians and Muslims—diligently, consistently, and with sincerity, to manifest our spiritual and human values and to achieve justice and development. Then will we realize the dream of Psalm writer “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.”