Letter from Beirut

John Ferwerda, a missionary in Lebanon with Middle East Media, remained in West Beirut for the first half of the Israeli seige of the city. He evacuated his family to a mountain suburb of East Beirut after three weeks, and then returned. Excerpts from his recounting of the experience follow.

The days were punctuated by the usual artillery attacks on the Palestinian camps in south Beirut together with the usual afternoon air raids from 4 to 7 P.M. At first, with some trepidation, we watched the fighters circle around and then zoom in on targets just a few miles away. They would be received with heavy antiaircraft fire from below; and every time they would fly over our area, huge bursts of fire would be sent up to bring them down, shaking our windows and sending chills through us all. The noise was deafening. At first we would rush into the inner rooms for protection, but then we realized they were not after our area (as we had supposed, when we planned to stay on), and we more or less got used to the noise. Most days we would have little more than six hours of electricity, but it was enough to keep things cold in the refrigerator. And it was good to have the Ping-Pong table on the veranda to help pass the time with the children, as well as our small balcony garden to water, and a new-found family pastime: playing Uno at night by candlelight.

By the eleventh day, my assistant, Malek, told me that he was leaving the following morning with the French ship evacuating people from Jounieh (with his fiancée) to take the body of her colleague, Jean Lego, back to Paris. (He was killed by shrapnel while filming an attack.) Malek was able to loan us 1,000 Lebanese lira ($200) before leaving, which meant that our cash on hand was up to about 3,000 LL—not much if we had to split up in two locations, but enough to last us for a few weeks if we were cut off in West Beirut together. We had kept $1,000 in cash in dollars on hand for emergencies during most of the past seven years, but had become a little careless and only had about $150 together. Within a few days after the invasion, all the dollars disappeared from the market. The money changer (our usual source of immediate LL cash for any dollar checks presented) closed for good, followed by our bank the next day.

Somehow, we were able to get out and fill up our car with gas—and two hours later fill up a jerry can with a few gallons for emergency—just before all gasoline disappeared completely from all stations. Already people were tense and worried about gun fights at the long lines, and militias were arguing over their claims on gasoline. We were also able to get an empty butane tank filled for cooking; and we were generally comforted to see such large stocks of food in the shops (particularly at the shop in the ground floor of our apartment block), including cartons of water. But we bought a few more things to enable us to hold out for two weeks just in case we were all cut off in our apartment.…

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We faced even more severe doubts about whether or not it was foolish to keep the family with me if there was real danger. I wanted them to leave, but none of them wanted to leave me alone. And Marian and I did not want to give up the apartment for others to loot or occupy—especially since we had been holding on during difficult circumstances for the past seven years. Cyprus was so far away, if they did leave; and we would not be able to contact one another. Should they go to the mountains east of Beirut? No, not for the time being. We should stay together longer until we had real peace about doing otherwise.…

Tuesday brought the beginning of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting during the days, eating at night)—an especially difficult ordeal in the hot, sultry Beirut summer. In the afternoon I got up courage to walk over to the dentist (who amazingly was still taking patients in between shellings; we had agreed I might not come if there was much shooting in the afternoon). He had a small, electric generator, so he could proceed with several difficult fillings; but as I sat there with half my tooth gone, I was praying that the shooting would not start again, or that his electricity would not fail. As it was, his major light went dead, and he had to use a smaller auxiliary one. But it was a relief to have it done, even if shortly after getting home, a large car bomb went off nearby, and the scream of jets announced another air raid.

One of the more ominous developments in the second week was the arrival of 10 or so Bangladeshi mercenaries in the field next to our bedroom wall, where they set up a mortar a few feet away, as well as their living space, sleeping just on the other side of the wall. It was a little unnerving to think that our field might become a real military target. Of course it was suitably camouflaged, but this seemed insufficient to elude the eyes of the U.S. satellite passing over Lebanon or the innumerable reconnaissance flights.

The Bangladeshi were normally very well behaved, as were also the Palestinian commandos, now so abundant on the street below us, all carrying machine guns or pistols. But thinking of the old adage, “if you can’t beat them, join them,” it seemed wise to act a little congenial with our new neighbors (even though we didn’t want to encourage relations—especially after they started sitting on our wall, watching us play Ping-Pong). So after we heard that our Palestinian neighbor had given them lemonade, the next day we acquiesced when they asked for some old rusty chairs that we had been planning to throw away anyway. They did not try to take advantage of us then, but later on after we left, their attempt to move in on our veranda was one of the reasons I felt compelled to return.

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Finally, by Wednesday, June 23, the seventeenth day of the invasion, we decided to relocate Marian and the children, if the Lord provided a place. At first we had thought of Arab friends from the Brethren assembly high in the mountains above Jounieh. When we did not succeed in contacting them, we called the David Kings at the Southern Baptist seminary in the hills just three miles to the east of Beirut. They warmly invited us to stay in the guest apartment at the seminary. That was a blessing from the Lord: the family had a relatively secure place to live among wonderful believing friends, and the children and Marian had good fellowship and times of renewal.…

At first you think that a six-day war is a good idea—let them come in and get it over with quickly. But then it drags on for another week, and you say to yourself, “Well, I have stood it two weeks, no doubt I can take a third.” By the time a month is almost over, people are talking about two months—and you adjust to that even though you can’t imagine how you can ever last four more weeks. But the heavy experience of seeing thousands of shells and bombs falling on innocent civilians hidden between the buildings down below, as the whole night sky lights up with flares and bright red explosions, is a thing one can hardly put in words.…

You cannot imagine how free we felt as we finally crossed over in an exodus flow three cars wide, without any problem—not even being searched by the Christian militia! The joy of being reunited with my family safely was just as great as the subsequent anguish of having to leave them 17 days later to go back into West Beirut for two weeks to rescue our apartment from occupation and looting.

Many Christians seized the opportunity presented by the war to serve their fellow men. One of the most dramatic was the daring mediation of the Maronite Christian archbishop of Tyre, George Haddad, to evacuate people to the beach before Israeli tanks moved in on the town. Wearing a white cassock with a small silver cross on his chest, he walked several kilometers along the beach to meet the advancing armored column to ask for a delay before the Israelis entered the ancient biblical city. As reported, he said, “I told the colonel in charge that there were many old people and children who needed to be evacuated. They gave us 90 minutes to get everybody out on the beach before they started advancing again.” In this way, many lives were saved.…

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Several Christians have been protected from great danger in amazing ways. One example is the blind evangelist, Ayoub, who had a rocket explode on the same floor in the apartment next to his without hurting him, only to be followed by a second rocket through the roof of the building, which fell on the bed in the room above his bedroom—without exploding.…

Six major Christian relief organizations have sprung to the task of providing food, medicines, clothing, bedding, cooking utensils, emergency housing, and electric generators. One organization alone has given some 175 tons of food; and altogether at least 300,000 people have been helped in one way or another so far. A basic policy has been to distribute relief to all needy people regardless of religious or political affiliation. Nineteen voluntary youth groups in West Beirut have implemented the distribution of this aid. An Armenian Christian college was one of the first to begin and set the pace for others. Among services included was garbage collection until there was no more available gasoline. Several courageous Christian nurses worked long hours at the American University Hospital to save lives, comfort the injured, and to help keep one of the few remaining hospitals open.

Some Christian schools opened their doors for Red Cross or Red Crescent centers for the wounded, and others for refugees and relief. One school, under severe pressures, with only a few staff members left to continue such services, provided living space and hot meals for 75 families.…

Many Lebanese Christians who regarded the Israelis as their liberators from the intolerable chaos of a “state within a state” and all that this has implied, still had ambivalent feelings as the sheer weight of such a devastating and crushing blow has also fallen on them. Anger and frustation over the “hi-jack” of Lebanon [by the PLO], has been diluted by shock and remorse at the price of liberation: the ravage of one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Some even wonder if Israeli motives are unmixed, as news comes in of Israeli plans for a major share in the future reconstruction and potential tourist trade. Nevertheless, according to one, if not the predominant, Christian view (even shared by many Muslims), removal of the PLO military presence from Lebanon was a horrible but unavoidable condition for the restoration of a free Lebanon.

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World Scene

Nicaragua’s conservative archbishop secured a letter from the Pope to the country’s conference of bishops last June criticizing the liberation theology behind a “people’s church.” Read in Nicaragua’s churches in August, authorities prohibited its publication in Nicaragua’s only opposition daily, La Prensa. After the paper suspended publication for a day in protest, the Sandinist government reversed itself and ordered that the letter be printed in all the country’s newspapers. In his letter, John Paul II calls “absurd and perilous” a church that calls itself new, charismatic, and popular and sets itself over against its [supreme] bishop. “The concept of ‘people’s church’ can but with difficulty avoid being infiltrated by strongly ideological connotations, along the lines of a certain political radicalization.…” Priests who “wish really to serve the people” will do so “not through a political role, but through the priestly ministry.…”

Infant baptism is controversial in more ways than one. A congregation of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in August baptized a child whose guardians are two female homosexuals and members of the parish near Rotterdam. Meanwhile, a Lutheran pastor in Hesse, West Germany, supported by his church board, has refused to christen the illegitimate baby of parents who intend to continue to live together but decline to be married.

Underground Evangelism (UE) acknowledges that it falsely claimed to have printed three-quarters of a million children’s books in six languages for distribution in Eastern Europe. In an article in Underground Evangelism magazine, the organization said the books had been printed at a cost of more than $100,000 and it appealed for contributions to cover the cost. The series pictured with the article—the Little Owl, Little Fish Bible Story Books and Bible Stories for Little People—are little known in North America. But when UE’S British magazine reprinted the article in its June issue, British and Dutch holders of the copyrights protested. British UE director Stanley White investigated and found that permission had been denied to reprint the first two series, and no answer given for the third. Moreover, he told the British magazine Today, none of the books had, in fact, been printed.

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Books by a convert from Islam to Christianity have been banned in Indonesia. Hamran Ambrie has written 17 books about his faith, formulated in the context of his Muslim background and defending Christianity or rebutting Muslim-spread distortions of Christian belief. The attorney general has banned their sale, and Ambrie has appealed to Indonesian President Suharto.

Is the Chinese dragon speaking with a forked tongue? The official magazine of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), Tian Feng, has been calling for brothers to live together in harmony and mutual respect. But although this is what TSPM preaches, what it practices tells another story. It has promulgated a regulation limiting church meetings to Sundays, and only twice then. Violators are being fined. So-called house church meetings, not linked to the TSPM, are not sanctioned at any time. Local TSPM leaders are reporting such meetings to local public security bureaus, who then make arrests. According to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Church Research Center, reports from village and rural areas tell of beatings and of people being suspended by their thumbs or bound in awkward positions for prolonged periods, as reprisal for attendance at unsanctioned church gatherings.

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