By MCC and DPNA staff
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Rayan Dabagh, an 18-year-old Sunni Muslim who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon, admits she used to be afraid to interact with people who did not share her religious beliefs.
Although she didn’t know much about the beliefs of Shi’a Muslims, Alawite Muslims and Christians who live in the Northern Governate where Tripoli is the capital, she didn’t trust them.
Dabagh’s fear and distrust grew out of local and regional political conflicts that caused faith groups to drift apart over the years and isolate from one another personally and geographically. Within her Sunni community, Dabagh picked up on prejudices against Shias and Alawites.
“Our community made us believe that we should fear and stay away from any individual of any religion different from ours,” she says.
Her perspective began to change after she participated in an organized regional trip to visit mosques, churches and Alawite shrines with other young people whom she would normally avoid because of their religious beliefs. It was one of the first chances she had ever had to hear people talk about their different cultures and religions.
The trip, which was part of a project called Breathing Peace to Gather, was organized by Cross Arts Cultural Association (CACA), a nongovernmental organization based in Tripoli. CACA coordinated three trips for about 20 participants between March and July 2020 to promote tolerance and interfaith dialogue among the young adults. Local COVID-19 prevention requirements were followed during the trips.
As Dabagh interacted with Alawite, Shia and Christian young people during the trip and in meetings afterward, she began to let go of the prejudice she had harbored. Being with others broke the barrier of fear, she says, and has helped her to communicate with and understand others regardless of their differences.
“It’s very weird to have friends from different religions,” she says, “but this is completely wrong since religions state that we should always accept others regardless of our difference.”
This project even ignited her curiosity and plan to visit southern Lebanon, which is located in the opposite end of the country from where she lives. She now wants to meet community members who are Shi’a and Christians.
This is one of many peacebuilding initiatives supported by the European Union under the project “Promoting Religious Tolerance and Mutual Understanding within and between Faiths in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.”
This EU funded grant is administered by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and its partner Development for People and Nature Association (DPNA). It supports the work of 17 nonprofit organizations, including CACA, as they counter religious intolerance and promote peace between faiths in their communities.
One of the new friends that Dabagh learned to know was Jessica Tawk, a 19-year-old Christian Maronite girl from the town of Bsharri. Like Dabagh, Tawk primarily interacted with people of her own faith.
“I felt afraid and hesitant when it came to communicating with people of other religions. I felt that it’s very difficult and would never work out,” Tawk says.
However, after being part of this project, she realized that regardless of the differences, multiple points of view can be beneficial and that common ground does exist. She made friends from different backgrounds and religions whom she still contacts and sees now and then.
“We should always love and accept one another regardless of our differences,” Tawk says.
She would like to help people let go of their religious prejudices by producing an artistic and theatrical project in Tripoli if she gets the opportunity. Music and art unite people, she says.