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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 11:48 GMT
Religious tolerance in Lebanon's schools
By Alex Klaushofer

Lebanon school
The Christian school is in the Hezbollah heartland
On the face of it, the National Evangelical School in south Lebanon is just like any other school.

Teachers wade through piles of exam papers and, in the arts and technology blocks, pupils' handiwork is proudly displayed for parents and visitors to admire.

But the school is testament to the complexities of religious co-existence in today's Middle East.

Founded by Presbyterian missionaries 75 years ago, the school is Christian, but its pupils - from the town of Nabatieh in Hezbollah's heartlands - are Shia Muslims.

The school's governors long ago gave up any ideas of converting their young charges to Christianity.

Common ground

"No Muslim became a Christian in 75 years," says head teacher Munther Antoun cheerfully, himself a Presbyterian Christian.

Instead of religious assembly, every morning the school's 783 pupils receive a 20-minute talk as part of their "ethical teaching".

Bint Jbeil street scene in southern Lebanon
Southern Lebanon is now a model for religious coexistence
When using religious resources, teachers tread a fine line, choosing elements common to both faiths, such as Islam's recognition of Jesus as a prophet.

"There are lots of things in common," says Antoun. "I take the same kind of verse from the Bible and the Koran. But there are things which contradict, and this is a problem.

"So at Christmas, we have the Christmas story, and they act it out according to the Bible. But at Easter, we don't do anything, because they don't believe in the Resurrection."

I am taken to meet a group of the school's pupils, aged 14 to 17. Lively and talkative, and dressed in jeans and T-shirts, they are very like their Western counterparts.


But as the first generation to grow up since the end of a civil war which pitted Lebanon's various sects against each other, they are acutely aware of bearing a special responsibility.

We learnt from the civil war that we must tolerate as much as we can
Pupil at National Evangelical School in Nabatieh

"We learnt from the civil war that we must tolerate as much as we can," says a pale girl with short dark curls. "This country is built on both Christians and Muslims. Maybe our presence in this school is proof."

"It's normal,", agrees the boy next to her. "Since we're all human beings, we all have the same thoughts. We don't have problems having Christian friends."

Nonetheless, the young people do have deeply-held religious beliefs which set them apart from the secular-minded adolescents of the West.

"The West is completely different from the East - we see things that don't fit our beliefs," says one boy. "For example, we see pop singers almost naked. As Muslims, we think this is wrong."

When talking about western governments' policy in the Middle East, they all agree that it is important to make a distinction between the actions of governments and the views of ordinary people.

A tall, blond young man, whose mother is Iraqi, sums up the views of the group: "We can't talk about the West as one thing - we have to talk about the government and the people," he says. "They are good, but their governments offend us all the time."

Hezbollah under pressure
16 May 03 |  Middle East
Beirut's downtown revival
14 Aug 02 |  Middle East
Country profile: Lebanon
20 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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