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NEST, after 75 years, still determined to thrive amid chaos in Lebanon (6/21/07)
Explosions rocked a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in late May. Photo: NEST (Click to enlarge photo)

By Heidi Bright Parales, DisciplesWorld contributing writer

BEIRUT (6/21/07) — Assassinations, demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, and sit-ins in the center of Beirut, Lebanon, have affected enrollment and the atmosphere of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, according to Mary Mikhael, president of the school, which is a Global Ministries partner.

The situation also has paralyzed the country. Ever since Feb. 14, 2005, when the former prime minister was killed with 26 others, she explained, “the situation is critical and tense.”

It is the people who are suffering at every level, added Peter Makari, area executive for the Middle East and Europe Office with Global Ministries. “We are very concerned about the escalation of violence in that country over the past five weeks.”

The tension and instability impact NEST in a variety of ways, including a decrease in the number of students, said Mikhael. For example, the Israeli war on Lebanon during July and August of 2006 caused the withdrawal of 15 registered European students for the 2006-2007 academic year. The school started the fall with 35 students, some of whom were part-timers. While none of the students are with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 12 belong to the Congregational Church, she said. Currently, no summer school classes are being conducted.

“We try our best to be present to students in every respect,” she added.

“A terrorist group has made its center in a Palestinian camp and has attacked the Lebanese army,” she explained a few weeks ago in an email. “In the first few hours, the army has lost 27 of its personnel who were not involved in battle. Then fierce battles have broken out between the group and the army that have caused loss of many people and caused a human tragedy to the people in the camp.”

Connected with these, two explosions in Beirut killed one person and wounded several, and caused extensive damage to stores and homes, Mikhael said.

A third recent explosion in Aley also caused much damage, she said. This situation only increases the political tension and the fears of a dangerous outbreak of violence.

“We praise God all of us are safe,” she said. “One of our students who was visiting with a part-time faculty have been stuck for three days in the north of Lebanon.”

Both returned safely, she said.

“Every time we come near to believing that the clouds in our sky will clear away, something new erupts, and clouds our hearts with fear and sadness,” she said.

She requested prayers for the situation. “We need to continue praying for God’s compassion and mercy on Lebanon and on all the Lebanese and others who live in it,” Mikhael said. “We all cry to God for mercy and forgiveness. We need God’s intervention to stop all kinds of violence and aggressions against this little and beautiful country. We believe that prayer changes things, we believe that God knows and cares and will act to save Lebanon and the whole Middle East and the world. God will give peace because our God is the spring of Peace.”

According to Makari, some partners, including the Middle East Council of Churches and the Forum for Development, Culture, and Dialogue, currently are engaged in relief efforts, and are responding to their requests for international assistance.

“We are especially proud of our relationship with NEST, the leading Protestant seminary in the Middle East,” he said. “It is part of our heritage, and certainly a part of our current mission relationships.”

There is much anticipation of what might happen, he added. “It is possible that there is a reversion to sectarian conflict in the country that was ravaged by a 15-year civil war,” he said.

Ironically, these clashes are occurring while NEST is preparing for its 75th anniversary on Nov. 11, 12, and 13, 2007, Mikhael said. “We are not going to lose hope or give up. We trust in God that our plans will be executed in time. So please keep praying with us.”

NEST has existed since 1835, but a merger of two schools in 1932 gave the school its current name and brought four mainline Protestant churches to work together. “For 75 years, NEST has been a sign on the road in the ecumenical movement,” she said. “For 75 years, with all Lebanon has gone through, NEST kept the candle lit.”