The 2021 class of the National Evangelical School of Nabatieh (NESN) is entirely Shia Muslim.
While this is certainly not the image of a typical Christian school in the United States, it is hardly an exception in Lebanon, where 35 evangelical schools have an average of two-thirds Muslim students.
Located 35 miles south of Beirut, Nabatieh originally had a Christian population of 10% when American Presbyterian missionary Lewis Loe founded the school in 1925. Based in the city’s Christian quarter, NESN attracted students of all sects until the civil war separated the formerly integrated communities. . From 1978 to 1982, the Israeli occupation forced the school to close completely.
When the city was attacked again during the 2006 war, the school’s air raid shelter provided refuge for frightened children. Relative peace since then has allowed the shelter to become a storage room, but fewer than 40 Christian families remain in the city. Despite this, NESN is tapping into surrounding villages to maintain a 10 percent Christian share among its hundred teachers.
But the new crisis that Lebanon is going through is financial. Year-end inflation for 2020 was 145%, with food prices rising by more than 400%. The World Bank has estimated the economic collapse to be one of the three worst in the world in the past 150 years.
Teachers’ salaries have lost almost 90 percent of their value.
Three years ago, NESN’s 100-foot Christmas tree was the tallest in Lebanon. This year, with debt equaling the entire operating budget minus teachers’ salaries, the school couldn’t even afford the Charlie Brown version.
A highlight of the school calendar, the Christian elements are welcomed by the local Shiite population, including its large number of Hezbollah-affiliated families, principal Shadi El-Hajjar said.
Since he took over as director in 2013, the number of students of 1,400 has more than doubled.
âWe teach compassion, forgiveness and love of enemies,â Hajjar said, âbut as a culture and practice, not as a religion.
âIt makes us unique and attracts people to school. “
It hasn’t always been that way.
Decades of appreciative tolerance, including a handful of converts to Christianity, turned into tensions during the civil war, said Mohamed Abdullah, general supervisor of NESN. The sectarian climate prompted Muslim leaders to oppose the school’s Christian education and, for four years, they forced Islamic classes to be held instead.
When the war ended in 1990, then director Munzer Anton stood firm.
â’If we teach Islam, we will also teach Christianity,â Abdullah recalled, telling Anton. “So they agreed to stop both.”
Johnny Awwad, executive secretary for education at the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), oversees the seven Presbyterian schools in Lebanon. The war forced this change in mentality in most areas with a Muslim majority, and Bible lessons have been replaced by ethics. This fits better with the Lebanese concept of diversity, he said, where neither sect seeks to convert the other.
But Awwad’s educational emphasis is to âlive Christâ in front of his neighbor while defying the Lebanese temptation towards sectarianism and public religiosity.
For example, Muslim schools in Nabatieh require the hijab.
âWe want to encourage an alternative society where the other is accepted,â Awwad said. âWe did not betray our missionary heritage, but transformed it into an oriental context.
The legacy dates back to 1835, when the first missionaries established their first school in Beirut. Their focus on women’s education – unique for the time – eventually evolved into the now coeducational Lebanese University (LAU). And in 1866, this fusion of the gospel and universal education founded the Syrian Protestant College, now the American University of Beirut (AUB).
Today, AUB is completely secular, although the LAU maintains a link with the Presbyterian Church of the United States and NESSL, which became independent in 1959.
But the support comes from the US government, which last year donated $ 44 million to LAU for scholarships. And the university is asking for more, having lost $ 100 million from its endowment.
âSuch campuses are the place where the battle for the hearts and minds of young people in the Middle East is won, irreversibly and for life,â said Michel Mawad, President of LAU.
âThey represent the greatest return, [and] on a modest investment.
But while universities have largely separated from the church, said Joseph Kassab, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, schools have not and remain an essential part of Christian ministry.
What is also social, at the service of Lebanon.
âDemocracy, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience all come from our faith,â he said. âBy keeping a gracious presence among Muslims, our values ââare gradually absorbed. “
In times of prosperity, evangelical schools brought scholars. The graduates led the 19th century Arab Renaissance, which included the now standard Arabic Bible.
And in times of crisis, they saved Lebanese lives. During the Great Famine of 1915, starving villagers could send their children to the Evangelical Boarding School in Sidon while missionaries rode donkeys for easy transportation.
âWe hope God has used us,â Kassab said, âand we still have a mission.â
But unlike AUB and LAU, evangelical schools receive little outside help. The investment required is, however, even more modest. The depreciating Lebanese pound means that an annual tuition fee of $ 4,000 before the crisis now only costs around $ 450 per student, if “fresh dollars” can be found. Last year Lebanon defaulted on its debt and a life of savings was lost in what many now call a government-run Ponzi scheme.
The appeal for funds is also launched by Catholics in Lebanon.
âOur schools don’t need direct help; they need students to pay teachers’ salaries, “said Raymond Abdo, head of the Carmelite order,” and thus preserve our mission among the poor.
Located in northern Lebanon, the Carmelites were forced to close two of their five schools due to financial difficulties. In those that remain open, teachers continue to serve their 2,500 students, despite accepting a 50% pay cut.
In Tripoli, 95% of students belong to the Sunni sect.
âMany Muslim families tell me, ‘Father, we want our children to have your values,’â he said.
âWe give them the freedom to bring up their children in a Christian setting.
But in Kobayat and Zgharta, the Carmelites are desperately trying to keep farming families in their historic Christian villages. The attraction is towards the cities, where education is stronger. Many dream of leaving Lebanon completely.
âWe need to strengthen the Christian community,â Abdo said. “But if we don’t get help, we’ll have to keep closing schools, one by one.”
In total, Catholic institutions provide education to around half of the students in private schools and to one-third of all Lebanese. Up to 80 percent of them could close, reportedVatican News.
France provided $ 18 million to support French-speaking (including secular) schools last summer. The Vatican provided $ 200,000 for scholarships.
Nabil Costa asks for missionary teachers.
The director of the Association of Evangelical Schools of Lebanon (AESL) said its 35 schools serve 20,000 students. With 700,000 private school students in total, evangelicals serve well beyond their 1% share of the Lebanese population.
âWe share the good news about Jesus and how he loves everyone,â Costa said.
“But they will only hear that if we provide a first class academic education.”
Evangelical schools consistently rank in the top 5% in national exams, he said. And they are pioneering the concept of inclusive education for students with special needs (such as autism), helping public and non-Christian schools to implement it.
Yet the Beirut Baptist School (BBS) is hemorrhaging teachers amid the economic crisis. Twelve out of 164 resigned, emigrated in search of better opportunities abroad. The Lebanese Evangelical School for Boys and Girls (LESBG) has lost 12 out of 200, more than in the past 10 years combined.
Costa suspects an attrition rate of at least 10% in his association.
BBS and LESBG, however, continue to educate students about the Christian religion. And the parents, over 80% Muslim, are delighted to know that the school respects all faiths.
Steve White, the director of LESBG, adopted the old AUB mantra:
This school is aimed at all conditions and classes of men and women without distinction of color, nationality, race or religion … [who may] come out believing in one God, in many gods or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us for long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and the reasons for that belief.
However, less than a third of evangelical schools are so deliberate. Costa encourages AESL members to keep their heritage, as the Lebanese respect transparency. And while it is clear that the goal is education, both secular and religious, they âallow the Holy Spirit to workâ.
And in common grace the Spirit does it, forming citizens for Lebanon.
Ali Jaber, a Shiite Muslim who graduated from BBS, is a volunteer lawyer at the Beirut Bar.
âI went to church and learned all the values,â he said. “It made me different from others who weren’t raised with the same openness.”
But with Lebanon in free fall, can the evangelical school system continue to cultivate such students? Does NESN have a future in Nabatieh?
âIf the crisis continues,â Hajjar said, âwe will be in trouble. “
Meanwhile, her boss at the synod is looking beyond the balance sheet.
âThe good Lord who planted us here will not leave us,â Awwad said.
“We are no accident of history.”