People of all faiths—including faculty and students from the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary—were among the approximately 1 million pro-independence demonstrators who poured into Beirut's Martyrs Square on Monday to chant and support "freedom, sovereignty, independence" of Lebanon and protest the Syrian control of its government. The protest, greatly outnumbering the pro-Syrian rally from a week ago (in which, according to anonymous sources, many demonstrators were bused in from Syria and many Shiite Muslims were coerced into demonstrating), signaled a return of momentum the opposition had been gaining since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a month ago. The killing injured the only evangelical member of the parliament, Dr. Basil Fuleihan, who at the time of the attack was in the car Hariri was driving. Fuleihan, one of 17,000 evangelicals among the 4 million inhabitants of Lebanon, was recovering from burns covering 95 percent of his body at a hospital in Paris. Arab Baptist Theological Seminary academic dean Dr. Martin Accad and provost Dr. Paul Sanders spoke with Christianity Today associate editor Agnieszka Tennant this morning and late last week about the way evangelicals in Lebanon see the unfolding events.

CT: What happened at today's protests?

Paul Sanders: Today, there was a "human tide." It is still going on as I speak and will go on until the wee hours of the night. Evangelical churches rented buses to take their church members today. They realize that their own freedom, religious as well as civil, is at stake. The demonstrators were heavily on the youthful side, but many older adults as well. The union of Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze was very evident once again. We are hopeful that the tide has turned back in the right direction after the Hezbollah-led demonstration last week.

CT: How limited is religious freedom in Lebanon?

Martin Accad: Largely, there is no limit put on religious freedom here. Lebanon has had the most religious freedom of all other countries in this region. I can take a guitar, go stand on the street corner, sing worship songs, and preach the gospel. I would never be arrested.

CT: What role, if any, have evangelicals played in the massive protests?

Accad: Evangelicals have been more involved than they normally are in politics because of injuries Dr. Basil Fuleihan sustained. The fact that he was very badly hurt and is still struggling for life, has put the evangelical community more to the forefront of the situation than they normally are.

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For instance, a prayer service for Dr. Fuleihan was held at the National Evangelical Church in Beirut the week following the assassination. The church was packed with at least 600 people; many were standing outside the church. There were members of parliament, there were ministers, religious leaders as well.

In the protests themselves, there hasn't been any organized evangelical participation; the participation has been that of individuals.

CT: Since the protests started, what could be heard from evangelical pulpits? Did pastors or preachers make any reference to the political situation?

Sanders: There was a great variation. In several churches there were explicit references made to the legitimate desire of the Lebanese people to be free, especially as it relates to the maintenance and the preservation of religious freedom. I wouldn't say that there was an explicit political engagement for the opposition against Syria, but rather more of a positive pronouncement of the importance of freedom and democracy and preservation of religious freedom in the country.

CT: At the beginning of the protests, some people in the United States compared them to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the situation in Lebanon differs from the protests in Germany at least in the area of religious freedom, which as you've just said, you have enjoyed.

Accad: That's right. Having said that we have religious freedom, we need, however, to also point out that there is a sense in which the young Christians in Lebanon feel that they don't really have a future in the country.

CT: Why is that?

Accad: That is due to a large extent to the atmosphere of oppression. The freedom of expression is under a lot of stress these days. There's a sense among young people, especially the Christians, that Lebanon does not belong to them. There's a sense that freedom, not specifically religious freedom, but freedom in general is being threatened. There is a sense that you can say whatever you want, but you're like a dog who can bark but whose vocal chords are cut. So no one bothers you if you bark. But it doesn't affect the reality.

CT: Can you give me an example of that?

Accad: The example is what has been happening in the recent three weeks. I don't want to pretend that my opinion applies to everybody, but I and most people around me are very hopeful that Lebanon is moving to a time of more freedom, more democracy, more self-rule.

Lebanon has been, for so many years throughout the war and until recent times, under control of foreign governments. There is always a desire among the young people to have more self-rule in Lebanon and to have a true democracy. Since the death of Hariri the young people hoped this was going to be realized. This was very much the case for me, too. I took part in the demonstration during that period as well.

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CT: Is this hope still alive?

Accad: The fact that last Thursday the same prime minister was again appointed is a huge disappointment. There's a feeling that we have been heard, but we have not been able to achieve anything.

Sanders: Back to square one, in a sense.

CT: Really? But aren't the 14,000 Syrian troops in the process of moving toward the border to leave Lebanon?

Accad: They are. But in many ways the retreat of the Syrian troops is not that important. What is more important is the huge influence that the Syrian authorities have on the Lebanese government. I don't know how you get rid of that apart from a total overhaul of the government, apart from free elections. You can remove all of the armed forces, all 14,000 of them, and it still may not have any positive effect if the government is not really renewed, reformed.

CT: So the atmosphere of oppression you mentioned …

Accad: It's political, you understand, it's not religious.

Sanders: We can say anything we want practically from the religious standpoint as long as we're not insulting another religion or its leaders. But in terms of making political statements, this is a totally different story.

CT: Let's talk hypothetically: If an evangelical leader were to make some statements implicating the powers that be, then what would happen to him?

Accad: If I do it officially on behalf of an institution, I'm putting the institution at risk of being closed down. The number one accusation that will be issued against me is going to be that I am pro-Israel, because the whole Western agenda, particularly of America, is perceived as being pro-Israel and pro-Zionist.

Bush is an evangelical and perceived as closely associated to American Southern Baptists. There is no discernment that as Baptists in Lebanon we are today totally independent from any external accountability and affiliation. So certainly no Baptist in Lebanon is pro-Israel or pro-Zionist. But this will be the accusation that will be raised. So political statements that are voicing democracy and freedom are going to be perceived as pro-Israel, anti-Arab, and therefore condemnable. If they were true, then it would be a serious crime because Israel is considered as an official national enemy of the Lebanese nation.

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CT: Do you still have any of the initial hope you had before last Thursday?

Accad: Right now I'd like to emigrate.

Sanders: You have to keep on hoping. This is a mixed cup. Hope and anxiety go together: the hope that there will still be some change in the right direction as we proceed, and the anxiety of what could happen—either some sort of violence or, probably what is more likely, a continuing down the pathway of restriction of our freedom.

CT: Dr. Accad, why haven't you emigrated before now, as have many Lebanese Christians?

Accad: As a Christian, all my life I could have emigrated, I could have left the country. The only reason why we still are in the country is because we have hope, but it's a spiritual hope. It's a hope in the kingdom that is beyond human kingdoms that are perceived by the human eye. That is really a hope in the kingdom of God. It's a hope that we can still affect positively people around us regardless of political realities. But at the political level, I don't have much hope.

Personally, from a political perspective, I'm very disappointed by the divisions within the society that have come out of the recent few days. I don't have much hope for progress at the national level. National victory means a population that is united and a desire to build and free democratic nation. I don't see Lebanon going in this direction at the moment.

Sanders: It's also the hope that springs from the freedom that we still have to minister here, but even that, of course, is now put in jeopardy.

CT: Has the volatile situation in the past two weeks helped bring together the Catholics, the evangelicals, and other Christians in the country?

Accad: I don't think the united front was at the religious level. I don't think that the recent events have brought Christians more together. It has brought the Lebanese population closer together except that all the manipulations that took place in organizing that Tuesday demonstration have created an artificial feeling that there is no unity. But in the end, the picture presented by the media is usually the one that prevails, whether it is true or not.

Sanders: The prayer meeting that we had at the National Evangelical Church was a demonstration, a rallying of evangelicals. It was a movement of not only prayer but also of patriotism.

I don't see that, of course, as having gone beyond the evangelical community, though there was quite a wide representation of nonevangelicals at that particular service.

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CT: How can our readers pray for you and for Lebanon?

Accad: Pray that as Christians we would have vision and hope beyond the human circumstances and what the human eye can see. That we would not lose hope that we would continue to have spiritual vision that goes beyond and that looks at building hearts and the nation at a deeper level. That we would take part in bringing about more freedom to this country in an active way and in a constructive way, not necessarily siding with one side or the other.

Related Elsewhere:

In 1998, Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture published "The Forgotten Christians of Lebanon: Once free and equal, Lebanon's Christians now struggle against tremendous odds in a country dominated by Syrian politics and an increasingly Islamized culture." The article is now available in the CT Library.

In 2002, American missionary Bonnie Weatherall was murdered in Lebanon.

For breaking news and background on Lebanon, see the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star, the BBC, and Yahoo's full coverage area.