Volume 17 Number 1
Removing the Thorns Around My Heart
01 February 2004

Being mistaken for a Muslim started Wadiaa Khoury, a Lebanese Christian, on a journey towards her fellow-countrypeople.

I was born and brought up in Zahle, one of the major Christian cities of Lebanon, where the sound of church bells and chanting resonates every day. The city contains enough churches to celebrate almost every saint's day.

From my early childhood I came to understand that the city's inhabitants included not only Greek Catholics, like my family, but also Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Syriacs, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans. As we were told in many ways, all of these groups came to the city after being persecuted by Islamic regimes in neighbouring countries. This collective memory may lie behind the harmony between the city's different Christian groups. Despite the Holy Church's divisions, there are many occasions where the Catholic and Orthodox bishops gather around the same altar to celebrate Mass.

In 1860-a date marked above the door of every church-all the city's churches were burnt down in an attack led by the Druze. Many people died inside them. In the early Eighties, when I was born, the city was under siege for three months and thousands were killed in the shelling. Then, just when life started to become more peaceful, there was a series of heavy bomb blasts, first in the markets and finally in the Archbishop's place, which we saw as the heart of Christian resistance and strength.

My family owns a large amount of land in the Bekaa plains and mountains. That year, we were both ruined and confused. Our Muslim partner was killed protecting our farm in the plains. Meanwhile our other Muslim partners in the mountains stole our cherries and grapes, and also cut down all the trees. In both places, we lost our partners, income and security.

At that time, Christians were offered the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, with all facilities provided. We saw this suggestion as an attempt to empty the Middle East of Christians and to replace us with Palestinians who had lost their lands-thus solving the region's problems on our backs. I remember my mother saying that it was not so much our land which stopped us from leaving, but our responsibility towards the area which Christ and his disciples crossed and blessed.

It was only when I went to university in Beirut that I got to know Muslims. For the first time I was directly confronted by fanaticism-and often responded in the same way. Five times a day I heard Islamic prayers from the mosque. I had endless religious arguments with my Muslim classmates, backed up by dogmatic Theology classes and courses on Islam taught to me by everybody except Muslims. I gained nothing but more confusion, and couldn't wait for weekends to rush home to my comfort zone. I saw Muslims as aliens and excluded them from my heart.

In 1997, I visited the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Caux, Switzerland. This pointed me towards inner freedom, by giving me my first chance to have an honest dialogue with a Muslim compatriot.

After graduation in 2001, I joined a 10-month IC programme in India and East Asia. Since I am Arab, I found that people assumed I was Muslim and often criticized me for that. Then I found people insisting that I couldn't be a Christian since I was a Catholic-and others wanting to know how I decided to convert from Islam to Christianity.

I thought these people were stabbing thorns into my heart, but I soon discovered that the thorns around my heart had existed for a long time, and that these people's innocent ignorance did nothing but push them in.

This identity crisis, together with the massacres in the Middle East in March and April 2002 and my unsorted attachment to a friend back home, put me on the edge of depression. Only prayer and deep surrender to God helped me to continue my journey of healing. In silence, I understood that my insecurity was generated by two things: my tendency to rely on people instead of God, and my arrogance and superiority as a Christian who in reality knew nothing about Christ's spirit.

Towards the end of the programme, we took part in a conference attended by young people from all over Asia and the Pacific. After I spoke during a morning session about the desperate conditions in which Palestinian refugees live, I was confronted by an Israeli girl who told me that she 'despised all species of Arab'. Later I offered her my only phone card to call her relatives in West Jerusalem, after we got news of a bomb blast there. This led to a new basis for mutual respect and showed me that reconciliation is possible everywhere.

Back in Lebanon, I'm completing my post-graduate degree in Education. My subject needed to be backed up by Law studies. I did these in the first section of the Lebanese Public University, which is mostly frequented by Muslim students, rather than the second section, which is a Christian environment.

A group of young people from almost all the Lebanese faiths and denominations has embarked on a process of honest dialogue. We visited a Palestinian refugee camp together. We are starting to offer programmes in schools, to enable students of different backgrounds to meet. A year ago we organized a youth day in my home city. For many people, it was the first time they had a dialogue with Muslims.

I'm now blessed with a true brotherly relationship with a Muslim. Our friendship has freed me, just as his friendship with a Christian some years ago freed him when he was struggling with his feelings toward Christians. Our exchange of books from our faith traditions showed us how much we have in common.

Today I understand that Lebanon was never owned by any one faith or denomination. Most Christian Lebanese are open to western culture, and most Muslim Lebanese are open to Arab culture, but at the same time, 'in every Christian Lebanese there is a part of Islam, and in every Muslim Lebanese, there is a part of Christianity', as one of the initiators of our dialogues said. We have a unique message as a bridge of understanding between the Arab and western worlds.

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