A groundbreaking plan to provide spiritual and pastoral support to Christian lay faithful in a mainly Muslim area of Lebanon is being hailed as a key initiative to stem the decline of the Church in the region.
When the Spiritual Center in Kobayat, northern Lebanon, opens its doors in a year’s time, the main target group will be lay people seen as crucial for the revival of a Church under pressure from poverty, extremism and massive emigration of Christians.
Central to the project is the renovation of former monastery and school buildings dating back to the 19th century and the development of a conference center, seminar rooms, two refectories, dormitories, living quarters and a chapel.
The plan, which has already received $59,600 from Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), is being seen as a bold program of Christian renewal in an area close to the Syrian border and fraught with problems, including political instability.
In an interview with ACN, which supports persecuted and other suffering Christians, project coordinator Fr. Raymond Abdo, Provincial of Discalced Carmelites in Lebanon, said, “We consider the center and its work with lay people as a priority for the development of our pastoral work.”
The priest continued, “With declining numbers of faithful and an increase in Islamic fundamentalism, the material situation of the Church in Lebanon has suffered but what we are now seeing is a rise in Christian awareness among the faithful – and to build on that we need to put more emphasis on lay formation.
Mindful that ACN is committed to ongoing support of this kind, Fr. Raymond went on to thank ACN friends and benefactors for their support for the plan in Kobayat. He said, “We are only able to work on the new center in Kobayat because of ACN’s help. I want to say thank you to the benefactors for what you are doing to support the Church in Lebanon.”
The initiative in Kobayat is inspired by the success of a similar Carmelite project developed in Hazmiye, just outside the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Since 2004, hundreds of lay people – including many young people – have received catechesis and courses in Carmelite spirituality centering on the 16th century Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila.
Both the Beirut and Kobayat center are a response to a Church devastated by emigration. Fr. Raymond reported that the Christians in Lebanon had halved in number since 1970 and were now down to 35 percent of the total population.
He also commented on relations between local Christians and Muslims in the country, explaining, “Many Muslims do not accept us Christians. As a minority now, we do not feel accepted in our own society. We are witnessing a wave of Islamic fundamentalism.
But, Fr. Raymond added, “Even if we have many problems, our Church is full of hope for the future. We are now more conscious of our role which is to be witnesses of faith in Jesus Christ and His presence among us.”
Aid to the Church in Need sees support for the Church in Lebanon as crucial for the long-term development of Christianity across the Middle East. It remains a priority country for ACN aid and last year the Church there received over $425,000 in project support.