Lebanon and Syria
Home of the seafaring Phoenicians. The land of the renowned and majestic cedar trees of Bible times. That was Lebanon in centuries past.
Today Lebanon is a small modern republic occupying a strip of coastland along the eastern Mediterranean. The country covers only about 4,000 square miles (10,400 km2), being some 120 miles (190 km) long and 30 to 35 miles (48-56 km) wide. This coastal country is blessed with banana groves, citrus orchards and various other semitropical crops. Towering above this fruitful scene beside the blue Mediterranean are the impressive mountains of Lebanon, rising to their highest altitude of over 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Behind these mountains lies the fertile Rift Valley, and beyond that the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, dominated by lofty Mount Hermon at their southern end.
Arabic is the language spoken in Lebanon’s many villages nestled in the mountains and valleys. It is the predominant language of the cities as well, but there one also often hears French and English or some other European language.
Religiously speaking, there is quite a variety in the small country of Lebanon. The largest “Christian” community is that of the Maronite Catholics. Then comes the Greek Orthodox religion, and there are a number of Protestant organizations represented too. These “Christian” groups make up a little over half of the nation’s population of 3,650,000. The rest belong to various Moslem sects. This makes Lebanon the only Arab country with a “Christian” majority.
By nature the Lebanese people are very friendly and easy to talk to. They are always willing to discuss matters of life, even with total strangers. In fact, they find it quite natural to talk about religion.
Syria, bordering Lebanon on the east and north, is a much larger country. With some 71,500 square miles (185,200 km2) of land, it is more than 17 times as large as Lebanon. However, most of the land is a huge desert. Thus most of Syria’s population of about 8,375,000—nearly 90 percent of whom are Moslems—live relatively close to the Mediterranean coast and not far from the borders of Lebanon. The country’s official language is Arabic, which is spoken by about 80 percent of the population.
BIBLE TRUTH COMES TO TRIPOLI
Many Lebanese have emigrated to other lands to seek their fortunes. If successful in business, often they return to their native land to retire with what they have gained abroad. Back in 1921, Michel Aboud, one of these successful Lebanese people, returned home with something far more valuable than material riches. During his stay in the United States of America, he had become one of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Aboud was very anxious to share his new Bible knowledge with sincere Lebanese people.
Returning to his native Tripoli in north Lebanon, Michel Aboud rented a house next to a doctor’s clinic. Dr. Hanna Shammas, who practiced dentistry in that clinic, had also been to the United States and had returned to Lebanon. He was the first dentist of his kind in Tripoli and enjoyed a very high reputation. He was also a religious man who often entertained bishops and other prominent clergymen in his home.
Brother Aboud quickly became acquainted with Dr. Shammas, having conversations with him almost daily when passing the clinic. A notable topic of conversation was the Trinity doctrine. One day the doctor called in a Protestant clergyman, who sought to prove the Trinity to be true by using John 1:1, stressing the words “the Word was God.” Brother Aboud explained that, according to the original Greek text, this should read “the Word was a god.” He pointed out that this is also how the text reads in the Orthodox translation of the Bible in Arabic.
The clergyman would not believe this and, though the discussion had continued until about 10:30 p.m., it was suggested that they go to the residence of the bishop of the Orthodox Church and get a look at this Orthodox translation of John 1:1. The Protestant clergyman did not want to do this, but Dr. Shammas insisted. He had his horses hitched to his carriage and away they went in the middle of the night. The bishop was very surprised that such prominent people should be knocking at his door at that hour. He was no less surprised to find out that they wanted to see what his Bible said at John 1:1. Of course, the point made by Brother Aboud was proved and the Protestant clergyman was silenced.
Dr. Shammas was elated to have this point clarified. From then on he made rapid progress in his study of the Scriptures, and by 1922 he had joined Brother Aboud in the true faith. His stand as one of the Bible Students caused no little stir. Later, Brother Shammas’ clinic was used as the first Christian meeting place in Tripoli. About this time, a well-known professor at the American school for boys named Ibrahim Atiyeh became interested in the truth.
Another local professor, by the name of Saba Boutary, was encouraged by his Greek Orthodox community to become a priest. He declined, but continued to be interested in religious matters. He heard about Michel Aboud, located him, and obtained a Bible study aid from him. He read the whole book during the night and wanted more literature. In a short time Professor Boutary was convinced that he had found the truth. His home was used for the very first Memorial of Christ’s death ever held by the Bible Students in Lebanon. His wife baked the unleavened bread for that Memorial and was to do so many times in succeeding years.
OTHERS ACCEPT THE TRUTH
Outside of Tripoli much good work also was done in spreading the good news. The fertile section of the Koura, with its rolling hills covered with lush olive trees, proved also to be fruitful spiritually. There Brother Aboud visited Nicola Najjar, an old friend and business associate, who lived in the village of Bishmazin. At first Nicola was surprised to hear his friend talking about the Bible. But in a short time he was sharing with Brother Aboud in preaching the good news.
Others in the Koura district also quickly accepted the truth. These included Salim Karam of Aafasdik, Salim Jehha of Bishmazin, as well as Ibrahim Salem, Dib Shaw and Dib Andraws of nearby Bterram. Soon these sincere brothers were telling others the things they had learned from God’s Word.
NEW USE FOR A GAMBLING HALL
It was the early 1920’s. And the most common means of travel? Either on foot or by donkey. Every Sunday the few zealous Christian witnesses of Jehovah traveled to various villages to spread Bible truth. One of these villages was Amioun.
In Amioun the Kingdom proclaimers found a good-hearted man named Abdullah Salem. He made his living by maintaining a gambling hall in an upper room of his house. He also lent money to gamblers at very high interest, as much as 100 percent for 70 days. A priest borrowed a large sum of money from him at high interest, and the debt was not paid for some time. Finally the priest owed Abdullah Salem four times the amount of the original loan. There was a disagreement about how this should be settled and the matter was taken to court.
While the court case was in progress, Abdullah Salem met the Bible Students, was greatly impressed with their message, and made rapid progress in his study of the Bible. Though the court decided the case in his favor, Abdullah Salem took a Christian brother along and told the clergyman that he did not expect to collect the whole amount. The cleric also was told that he could pay whatever he thought he should pay. Needless to say, the priest was amazed. As matters turned out, the clergyman paid a certain amount and the matter was settled.
Soon the gambling hall was converted into a meeting place of the Bible Students, and about 12 to 15 persons met there. At times the clergy and various fanatical persons opposed to the Kingdom message sent children to make a great deal of noise outside the home to disturb the Christian meetings. As Abdullah Salem remarked: “We used to gamble and do other dishonest things here and nobody came to make any noise or to interrupt what we were doing. But now that we study the Bible, God’s Word, they come to disturb us. How strange for people who claim to be Christians to act like that!”
PERSEVERANCE DESPITE DIFFICULTIES
In those days, the roads of the Koura district were poor and there were dangers to face while traveling through the mountains on horseback or by donkey. Even so, the few faithful witnesses of Jehovah in that area persevered in declaring the Kingdom message. Often they would ride 15 or 20 miles (24 or 32 km), sometimes through rain and bad weather, to attend a Christian meeting or to take the message of truth to yet another village. Mtanous Daaboul recalls riding about 15 miles along with four other persons to attend the Memorial in a neighboring village.
Brother Daaboul’s house was used as a sort of broadcasting station during those early years. Loudspeakers were mounted on the roof and brothers would give public talks that could be heard by nearly everyone in the village. Many were happy to listen, though others were opposed and made problems for Brother Daaboul.
Since witnessing was not then organized as it is today, each Kingdom proclaimer took advantage of various opportunities to give a witness. For instance, Brother Salim Karam once was invited to a wedding in a distant village. During the church ceremony he waited outside, intending to present our literature to the people coming out of the church. As he was doing this, the bishop who had officiated came outside. He held out his hand for Brother Karam to kiss, as was the custom among religious people. Brother Karam grasped the hand and gave it a firm shake, saying, “Hello. How are you?”
Not having received the honor he expected, the bishop began to shout at Brother Karam and curse him. Even the gathering crowd sought to calm the bishop. When he saw that the people were not altogether supporting him, he did begin to calm down. The bishop also remembered that he had recently received a sizable contribution from Brother Karam’s father. So, evidently he did not think it wise to be harsh with the son of a man who contributed so well. Finally he left, and Brother Karam continued distributing Bible literature. As a result of the interest stimulated by this incident, Karam’s book bag soon was empty.
A VISITOR FROM BROOKLYN BETHEL!
In 1925 the little band of God’s people in north Lebanon were excited indeed to learn that Brother A. H. Macmillan from Brooklyn Bethel would visit Lebanon. When they met his boat in Beirut, they inquired of his plans. He had only two days to spend with them, he said, and would be giving a lecture at the American University in Beirut, as well as a talk at the university in Damascus in neighboring Syria. As matters turned out, however, the American University—a religious school—would not allow Brother Macmillan to give a lecture there. Now what would he do?
A delegation came from Tripoli in an old Ford car, requesting that Brother Macmillan come to the Koura district to give a lecture. Since Brother Macmillan did not know whether he would be permitted to lecture in Damascus, he said: “I’ll go with you.”
So, in that old car, they traveled the 56 miles (90 km) over the rough roads from Beirut to the Koura district. There the brothers got together an audience of about 200 people from the villages around Amioun. Brother Macmillan delivered the famous lecture “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” with Brother Ibrahim Atiyeh translating. How happy the brothers were to hear this fine talk and to observe the interest shown by so many people! Truly, this was a fine stimulus for the Kingdom work in north Lebanon.
Before Brother Macmillan departed, a baptism was held. Among those baptized were Dr. Hanna Shammas and Salim Karam. Brother Karam, of small stature, was sensitive to cold weather. So he was wearing a number of layers of clothing. Before donning baptism apparel, he began to peel off these various garments, and quite a pile of clothing grew alongside him. Brother Macmillan, watching him become thinner and thinner, remarked jocularly: “Well, brother, do you think there is going to be anything left of you to baptize?” Immediately after the baptism, Brother Macmillan left for Beirut, arriving there just as the departure of his ship was being announced.
A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
Revolutionary bands of men were active during the 1920’s. Their objective? To bring about the uniting of Syria and Lebanon into one country. One morning while witnessing in a distant village near the Syrian border, Brothers Karam, Aboud, Atiyeh, Boutary and Najib Fayad were arrested by the local gendarmes. Why? Because they were thought to be revolutionaries. News spread rapidly and people began to gather at the gendarme post to see who had been arrested. They kept coming until more than 200 were on hand.
Seeing a fine opportunity to give a witness, Brother Ibrahim Atiyeh began addressing the crowd and answering their questions. The gendarmes looked on without interfering, and a fine witness was given. Eventually, the brothers were released, but only after they had placed some Christian literature with the gendarmes. So this case of mistaken identity proved to be a memorable field experience.
THE WORK SPREADS
One winter evening in 1926, Brothers Hanna Shammas and Ibrahim Atiyeh traveled south from Tripoli along the storm-tossed Mediterranean coast to the fishing village of Enfé. There they visited the fleshly brother of George Shakhashiri. (George, now 88 years of age, is a member of the Brooklyn Bethel family.) At that time two young men, Jiryis Awijan and Salim Demaa, took an enthusiastic part in the Bible discussion. They made rapid spiritual progress. In a few months Christian meetings were being held on Sundays in the home of Brother Awijan, with persons coming from surrounding towns.
During the 1920’s it became the custom of the Lebanese brothers to meet somewhere once a month on a Sunday and to spend the whole day discussing spiritual matters. Since they did not have very much literature in the Arabic language, Brother Atiyeh, who was well versed in English and Arabic, translated material from The Watch Tower and other publications. These articles would be read during the monthly meeting. Thus, spiritual food was being received at the proper time.—Matt. 24:45-47.
The people of the village of Enfé were friendly. Therefore, at times it was possible to give public talks there. On one such occasion the public lecture was to be given at a local school. Most of the people were in church that day, and the pastor urged them not to attend the public talk. But because of his publicity nearly everyone who had gone to church came to hear the Bible lecture in the afternoon. Thereafter, many of them continued attending Christian meetings.
GETTING BETTER ORGANIZED FOR SERVICE
During the 1920’s Jehovah’s people in Lebanon were not well organized as far as Bible studies and preaching activities were concerned. Yet, people were learning the truth. They were accepting it and were preaching it to others. Truly, “the hand of Jehovah was with them.”—Acts 11:19-21.
By the early 1930’s the Christian meetings in Dr. Shammas’ clinic in Tripoli were being attended by about 10 persons. Sundays were used for field service in the more distant territories. The brothers went into Syria as far as Damascus, and even to Aleppo in the north, witnessing at many points in between.
During the 1930’s, matters improved somewhat organizationally. In 1936 Yousef Rahhal, a Lebanese brother who had lived in the United States for many years, came back to Lebanon for a visit. He did much to help the brothers get organized for field service, explaining how the work should be done and joining them in the preaching activity to show them how to do it. At the village of Amioun, in north Lebanon, he gave a talk to about 20 brothers, explaining the necessity of preaching from house to house. Immediately after that talk the brothers went out in pairs to preach from door to door, applying what they had heard.
KINGDOM TRUTH RINGS OUT!
Though Brother Rahhal had to return to America, he visited Lebanon once again in 1937. He brought back with him sound equipment, phonograph records and a couple of phonographs. But Lebanon and Syria were so large and Jehovah’s Witnesses were few in number! So Brother Rahhal purchased a 1931 Ford car and mounted sound equipment on it. With this the brothers made many trips throughout Lebanon and Syria, carrying the Kingdom message to remote areas.
The brothers would drive to a village and park the car on a hill. After a brief introduction, a recorded Bible talk was presented. The sound would carry for several miles over the hilltops in those quite areas. The people were astounded. In fact, some were frightened, believing that God was speaking to them from out of the heavens when they heard the booming voice on the recording.
The people would gather around the sound car after the initial broadcast. Then the sound could be turned down a bit and a Bible lecture was given to the assembled group. After the talk, there was a question-and-answer session and distribution of literature to those assembled. In this way much seed was sown in areas that could not often be reached with the Kingdom message.
Frequently, of course, the clergy were incensed at the Witnesses for coming around to preach to their flocks. They tried to stop the brothers and frighten them away. Najib Salem recalls this experience in the Syrian village of Baid:
“The priest was having lunch in front of his house when we set up our sound equipment at the edge of the village. When he heard the sound of the loudspeaker, he left his dinner on the table, grabbed his big walking stick and ran through the crowds that were collecting around the sound car, waving the stick angrily at them and threatening them like someone who had lost his mind. When he reached the microphone where the talk was being given he shouted, ‘Stop! I command you to stop!’ But we observed that many of the villagers were taking sides with us and were not willing to do the priest’s bidding. So, we continued to broadcast. The priest became so violent that some people picked him up and carried him back to his house, where they deposited him again at the dinner table. Many were glad to hear the message, but many others were just happy to see such an unusual thing as a sound car that could make such loud noises. In any case, they received the message of God’s kingdom.”
SOME PROBLEMS ALONG THE WAY
When using the sound car, the brothers worked as a team, with one operating the equipment and two others distributing the literature throughout the crowds that gathered around the car in the villages. On one such trip Brothers Rahhal, Najib Salem and Jiryis Awijan were working together. Roads were not very good in those days, and when it came to crossing streams and rivers, rarely was there a bridge. The brothers just had to ford the stream the best they could.
On one occasion, the three brothers entered a stream in their car and, about halfway across, the water proved to be deeper than they had anticipated. So, the motor stopped. It was a remote and wild section and all three of them were in the car stranded in the middle of the river. Now what was to be done?
The brothers decided to make themselves look as much like farmers as possible, since they were in an agricultural area. Hence, they removed rings, ties and other apparel that gave them a prosperous foreign appearance. Then Brother Awijan climbed out of the car and waded through the stream, making his way to a village on a hill some distance away. Water-soaked and mud-spattered, he spoke to the villagers, telling them that the car was stalled in the middle of the river. Could they help them get it out? Gladly. Taking ropes and other equipment, they set off with the brother and soon had the car pulled out of the water. Before departing, the brothers were able to do some witnessing to the kind villagers who had rescued them.
Such experiences were very common. The brothers continued to use the old car, even traveling as far as Aleppo in Syria to spread the Kingdom message. On the return trip, however, the car became so dilapidated that they were stranded in a small town and decided to sell the vehicle and continue their trip by other means. So, that ended the service of the 1931 Ford that Brother Rahhal had bought. But it did not end the brothers’ troubles.
That night they stopped in a small town where they found accommodations in an old house. To reach the room acquired for the night, it was necessary to climb a ladder. On the way up, Brother Rahhal fell from about the twelfth rung and broke his leg. He was transported back to Tripoli with difficulty, and there he spent two months convalescing. Nonetheless, the brothers were happy indeed to bear whatever was necessary in order to spread the good news.
Other cars were obtained later and were used to carry the Kingdom message throughout the territory. Often brothers would leave their homes in Tripoli at three or four o’clock in the morning on Sunday and would return late at night. But what joy they had! They spent many happy hours preaching the good news to people who had never before heard it.
BIBLE MEETINGS IN THOSE DAYS
Christian meetings held during the 1930’s were orderly, but there was much to be desired. Mostly they amounted to discussions, with questions and comments being offered by whoever wanted to speak. Sometimes the brothers had the Society’s publications to study, but Arabic literature was not always available. So, someone would translate an article from English and this would be read and discussed.
There was no training of speakers; hence, few were qualified to address an audience. Despite this, the brothers did their best. To illustrate: In 1935 Brother Jiryis Awijan’s grandmother died in his hometown of Enfé. Since the family wanted Brother Awijan to care for the burial arrangements, and since none of them objected to a Witness funeral, he sent word to a qualified brother in Tripoli, asking him to come and give the funeral talk. For some reason, however, the brother never came.
Therefore, Brother Awijan, who had never given a talk before an audience in his entire life, stood up to give the funeral sermon. Needless to say, it was a dramatic experience for him. But he handled the situation well, telling the assembled group about death and the resurrection. When his father died during the following year, Brother Awijan did much better in giving the funeral discourse.
Since very few brothers were qualified to give lectures, the phonograph was put to use. Rather than listening to public talks, a number of families would gather in a home and play recorded Bible lectures on the phonograph. Afterward there would be discussions and often some literature could be placed with interested ones.
AN EXAMPLE OF ZEALOUS SERVICE
Zealous and enthusiastic people continued to learn God’s truth. For example, in 1936 a young man in Beirut named Jamil Sfeir was contacted by the Witnesses at his place of business. Within a short time he was associating with God’s people, but he encountered strong opposition. His uncle was a Maronite (Catholic) priest.
The priest, along with other members of the family, sought to pressure Jamil into breaking his association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. His parents went so far as to inform him that if he persisted in his activity with the Witnesses they no longer would consider him their son; they would view him as dead. His response? He offered them his condolences for their dead son. Shortly thereafter, in April of 1936, he began to preach the good news from house to house. This stirred up such a controversy among his relatives that they made efforts to have him put in an insane asylum, but without success.
Jamil now decided to go back to his village and share the good news with friends and relatives there. He covered the village thoroughly with the Kingdom message, distributing a great quantity of literature. Later, the bishop, who had his headquarters in that village, instructed the priest to collect the literature from the people and burn it. Some persons gave their publications to the priest, but others said they were free to do what they wanted to in their own homes and would not give up the literature. The bishop was so infuriated by this development that he issued a decree of excommunication against Jamil, thereby saving him the trouble of resigning from the church. This happened before Brother Sfeir was baptized in 1937.
Back in Beirut, Jamil Sfeir continued to preach the good news. One day a bootmaker and his son, who had shown interest in Bible truth, invited him to accompany them to the nearby village of Aley while they visited relatives. Jamil took along a phonograph, some records and a quantity of literature. A very enjoyable evening followed, with a group listening attentively to the recorded lectures.
A priest of the Hadad family was present and surprisingly was enjoying the message. When the records were finished, he placed half a gold pound on the phonograph. But Jamil told him: “The phonograph neither eats nor drinks and so it does not need contributions. But I would be very glad to give you some books for the money you have contributed.” To this the priest agreed. Years later the grandchildren of this priest became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
About mid-1937 Brother Sfeir became a pioneer or full-time preacher. A few months later, while preaching in an apartment building, he was invited into an apartment where he talked to a group of people, including a Jesuit priest. The discussion became quite heated and Jamil decided it was time to leave. As he stepped out the door, the householder gave him a strong push, causing him to fall down the stairs and break his leg. The householder went back inside and left him lying on the stairs. Jamil began to shout to people passing by on the street a couple of floors below. However, the householder shouted from the balcony of his apartment, telling the people not to render aid, saying that the man calling out was crazy.
Finally, someone passed by who knew Brother Sfeir personally, and he was taken to a hospital run by priests and nuns. Only after they had set his leg did they learn that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then they began to ridicule and threaten him, also saying that if he would abandon Jehovah’s Witnesses they would put him in a first class room without charge. Of course, these threats and the offer had no effect. Finally they expelled him from the hospital. He was obliged to hop up the road for about 200 yards (180 m) on one foot before he could get a car to take him back home.
Brother Sfeir also encountered priestly opposition at a later time when he was working among the villages in Lebanese territory. Though this was a solid Maronite Catholic area, people were willing to listen to the Kingdom message. But when the priests learned of his presence, they began to make trouble, forcing him to keep moving from village to village. Thus, much Kingdom seed was sown in these territories.
Often people living in these areas had no cash. Consequently, Brother Sfeir would find himself carrying home much grain, cheese, eggs and other things that he had accepted in exchange for literature. In these remote areas there were many robber bands who preyed on people as they traveled along the road. None of these bands ever molested Brother Sfeir, however. In fact, he used to preach to them. One of these men a very fierce person feared even by the other robbers—listened to the Kingdom message like a little child.
MAKING CHANGES TO PLEASE GOD
About 1937, in the little village of Kfarhaboo, there lived a sincere Orthodox man named Louis Yazbek. He heard about Jehovah’s Witnesses, searched for them, and found them at the clinic of Dr. Shammas in Tripoli. Of course, the Witnesses gladly gave him spiritual assistance.
Interestingly, in one of the discussions, the subject of smoking came up. It was explained to Louis that it was not appropriate for a servant of God to be a smoker. Louis, who rapidly was becoming a Witness, took his cigarettes and other smoking materials out of his pocket, threw them out the window and never again smoked. This well illustrates how those who love Jehovah can and do make changes in their lives in order to please their heavenly Father.
For many years Brother Louis Yazbek was the only witness of Jehovah in the village of Kfarhaboo. However, through perseverance and aid from other brothers, interest was stimulated in that village. Today there is a zealous little congregation covering that territory, and Brother Yazbek is still among them.
During 1937 Brother Petros Lagakos, a Greek-American, arrived in Lebanon, having served zealously in other countries of the Middle East. After working the Syrian towns of Eskandurun, Aleppo, Antioch and Latakia he and his wife came to Beirut, Lebanon. There were many Greeks living there and Brother and Sister Lagakos preached diligently among them.
One day Sister Lagakos knocked at the door of a Mrs. Katina Nicolaidou, who was very zealous for the traditions of the Orthodox Church. In fact, upon entering the home, Sister Lagakos observed an entire wall covered with images and pictures of religious saints, with a small oil lamp burning in front of them. It was the woman’s custom to kneel and pray before these objects daily.
In time, with the help of the Lagakos couple, Mrs. Nicolaidou advanced in knowledge of the Scriptures. Soon it was time to decide what to do about all her religious pictures and images. “Maybe I could just send them over to the church,” she reasoned.
“No,” was the answer given by Brother Lagakos.
“Well, I have many religious friends; I will just give them away to my friends,” she responded.
But Brother Lagakos said: “That would not be the thing to do either.”
“Well,” she asked, “what should I do with them?”
“Why, they should be treated as God’s Word instructed,” it was explained. “They should be broken in pieces and done away with.”
This was quite a decision for the woman to make after so many years of praying before these “holy” objects. But she made that decision, and the pictures and images were broken up to be used for fuel in heating the family bath.—2 Ki. 18:1-5.
When Mrs. Nicolaidou made the big change in her life and became a Witness, the Greek community was determined to ruin her sewing business. They all vowed that they would never have any more of their sewing done by her, and they kept their word. But, undaunted, this new sister soon found that she had more customers than ever before. And she also had a precious relationship with Jehovah God! Moreover, she and her husband raised their daughters in the truth.
PRESSING ON DURING THE WAR YEARS
In the early 1940’s the world was at war. Conditions were upset and no one was sure what the future held in store. It was not easy for Lebanese Witnesses to maintain contact with the Watch Tower Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, and preaching materials were not plentiful in those years. Many people in Lebanon feared that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party would take over the Middle East. On the other hand, some of the clergy and others sided openly with Hitler and his policies. They made strong threats about what they would do to Jehovah’s Witnesses as soon as Hitler took over. But, of course, Hitler did not win the war, and Jehovah’s Witnesses continued preaching the good news throughout the war years.
Though the sound car and phonograph were not used as extensively during those years, the brothers made maps and systematically worked from house to house in the cities and villages that they could reach. Also, in the early 1940’s small assemblies were held in Tripoli and near there. These strengthened the brothers spiritually. They were saddened, of course, when they heard of the death of Brother J. F. Rutherford in 1942. But they were determined to keep on preaching the good news, knowing that the work of Jehovah’s organization would not come to a halt.
Lebanon and Syria were French mandate territories prior to World War II. After France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, French authorities in Lebanon decided to side with the French regime, called the Vichy government, that had collaborated with Germany. Consequently, the tide of war eventually rolled over Lebanon and in 1941 battles were fought between the Vichy forces and British, Australian and other troops. Beirut and some other places experienced air raids and bombings. Eventually, Lebanon was taken over by British and Australian troops. In spite of the warfare, however, it was possible for the brothers to keep preaching the good news.
PREACHING CONTINUES IN SYRIA
In Syria freedom to preach steadily lessened. Even so, Jehovah continued to bless his people there. During 1942 Christian meetings were organized on a regular basis in Damascus under the direction of Adib Kafroony. Often the brothers were arrested and their literature confiscated. As usual, the clergy made false accusations against Jehovah’s people.
For instance, clergymen falsely charged Jehovah’s Witnesses with being Communists. Nevertheless, the work of witnessing spread into various parts of Syria. For example, pioneers Jamil Sfeir and Brother and Sister Lagakos were able to cover Aleppo thoroughly. At the village Amar El Hussan in northern Syria a small congregation eventually was formed.
AID FROM ABROAD
During World War II contact had been lost to a great extent with the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn. Consequently, during the 1945 service year only one Kingdom publisher had reported field activity in Lebanon. However, by the end of the 1946 service year a peak of 72 publishers was reached. Why such an upsurge?
This increase was largely because of getting things better organized, since actually there had been more than one preacher of the good news in 1945. The first graduates of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead to arrive in Lebanon, Brother and Sister Afif Farah, were a great help. Brother Farah assisted the brothers in conducting meetings more in line with arrangements that existed elsewhere, and in organizing the field service work. He visited scattered publishers and arranged for them to report their preaching activity regularly.
In the spring of 1947 another event took place that greatly assisted the work in Lebanon. This was the visit of the Society’s president, N. H. Knorr, and his secretary, M. G. Henschel. During their round-the-world trip they came to Lebanon, where the brothers eagerly awaited their arrival. Hundreds attended assemblies held during the visit and were upbuilt spiritually through the talks the brothers gave. It was arranged for Gilead graduate Afif Farah to travel to different parts of Lebanon and Syria to organize groups of Witnesses into congregations. Accordingly, by the end of the 1947 service year, seven congregations were functioning throughout Syria and Lebanon.
“SOLDIERS OF THE FAITH”?
Among those listening to Brother Knorr’s discourse in Tripoli were five fleshly brothers. Some of them had come rather reluctantly because, until recently, they had been very much opposed to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were Greek Orthodox by religion and Greek by nationality, although having lived in Lebanon all their lives. They had been members of a local Orthodox religious society called the “Soldiers of the Faith,” which had been organized specifically to oppose Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The head of this religious society was a priest named Stephen. He was well known as a violent man who always carried a pistol on his hip and was known to use it on a number of occasions. Among the most ardent supporters of this religious society were the six Stavro brothers.
This society planned a variety of ways to oppose Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some extremists suggested threatening the Witnesses with violence, killing some of them, if necessary, in order to frighten the others. However, one member of the society, a lawyer, suggested that it would be best to fight the Witnesses with their own weapons. Since the “Soldiers of the Faith” belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church and thought they had the true religion, why not study the Bible and prove Jehovah’s Witnesses wrong? Many agreed to this, among them the Stavro brothers.
However, one day Brother Michel Aboud walked into the tailor shop of Costi Stavro and began talking to him about the Bible. To Stavro’s surprise, what he was hearing was quite reasonable and in harmony with the Scriptures. As matters turned out, Brother Aboud called on him repeatedly and eventually a Bible study was started with him. This greatly angered Costi’s fleshly brothers. Strong discussions ensued, violent ones at that, reaching the point of the brothers even throwing chairs at one another. But Costi continued to study.
Now the other Stavros had a meeting with the priest. ‘How are we going to refute these Jehovah’s Witnesses?’ they wanted to know. The priest showed them John 1:1 and said it could be used to prove the Witnesses wrong, since they did not believe in the Trinity. When the Stavros met with Brother Aboud they found that their one scripture was far from enough. This man could refer to many, many Bible texts to support his point. So they spent more time listening than talking. Within a few months four more of the Stavro men accepted Bible truth as taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The priest was astounded. How could they join the enemy? Soon the priest was at their house trying to talk them out of it. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Jews,” he said falsely. “You are Greeks, so must certainly remain Orthodox. You are the pillars of our Greek Orthodox community here.”
These strong efforts of the priest seemed strange. For when the Stavros used to hold wild parties, with no little drinking and the like, the priest had never corrected them. Now, when they had begun to study the Bible, he was rebuking them for it. So they told him that he had come much too late. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses and intended to remain witnesses of Jehovah God.
The Stavro brothers continued to grow in knowledge and eventually their mother and sister accepted the truth. The youngest one became a pioneer. Later he was privileged to attend Gilead School and thereafter serve in Syria, as well as Baghdad, Iraq, and Teheran, Iran. Having to leave there, he continued as a missionary in Lebanon until he took up circuit work. Two of his brothers were privileged to serve as congregational overseers.
BRANCH OFFICE ESTABLISHED
Brother Afif Farah did fine work in Lebanon, but, for personal reasons, he found it necessary to leave the country after about a year. Nevertheless, the Society soon sent other missionaries to Lebanon. In the spring of 1949 Gilead graduates Don Tuttle and John Chimiklis arrived. They were assigned to Beirut, where they rented a home for use as a missionary home in the Ras Beirut section of the city.
In September of 1949 a branch office of the Watch Tower Society was opened up in Beirut, with Don Tuttle serving as the branch servant. This office looked after the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lebanon, as well as in Syria and Jordan. By the end of the 1949 service year a peak of 172 publishers were serving in five congregations in Lebanon. Syria had three congregations with a peak of 20 publishers of the Kingdom.
NEW MISSIONARIES MAKE THEIR MARK
A number of brothers from the Middle East attended the international assembly at Yankee Stadium in New York city during 1950. They brought back many points that helped them in the service to Jehovah’s praise. However, more help was on the way.
In January of 1951 four more Gilead graduates arrived to do missionary work in Beirut, and in October more arrived. They were Keith and Joyce Chew, Olive Turner and Doreen Warburton, and Edna Stackhouse, along with Anne and Gwen Beavor. All were assigned to Tripoli temporarily.
The congregation in Tripoli still met in Brother Shammas’ clinic, with 30 to 50 people present regularly. Since Eastern customs still prevailed in that congregation, few brother’s brought their wives and daughters to the meetings. The women who did attend always sat in the back row, never in among the men. Of course, the missionaries were unaware of this custom. So, the brother and his wife sat up toward the front and the single missionary girls sat wherever they could find a seat. This created no little stir among the brothers.
During a discussion after the meeting the missionary brother kindly explained that they were all brothers and sisters. So he did not see why it would be necessary to have segregation. Surely a brother could sit next to his wife any place he liked. Well, in a short time wives and daughters no longer stayed at home and questioned their family heads about the meetings after they had returned. Rather, they were attending the meetings personally.
The same Eastern custom extended to field service. Rarely if ever did sisters go from house to house before the missionaries arrived. But those missionary girls were out there knocking on doors every day and soon they were taking local sisters along with them. What joy they all had! Soon the brothers were very happy to see the progress of their wives and daughters, and noticed the wonderful difference it made in their spirit and attitude around the home.
ON TO SIDON AND TYRE
Eventually it was possible to locate a suitable missionary home in Tripoli with a Kingdom Hall attached. Meeting attendance grew and soon the Hall was full. In time that one congregation became four. By the summer of 1953 such progress had been made that it seemed advisable to move the missionaries to other territory. Two of them were assigned to ancient Sidon.
Sidon’s rolling hills and many orange and lemon orchards made it a delightful assignment for Sisters Olive Turner and Doreen Warburton. Much of their work was done in the old part of the city, with its covered streets and small entranceways. In the rainy season this was a good section to work because they could keep dry when walking along the streets. Too, the people were surprised to see two English girls moving about through those small streets, knocking on doors and talking to people about God’s Word. The populace treated them with respect and the girls felt safer there than most people do walking down the streets of Western cities today.
Twenty-five miles (40 km) south of Sidon is the little town of Tyre. Here is where King Hiram once ruled. Tyre was the maritime mistress of the ancient world, building such distant trade cities as Carthage. Alexander the Great conquered Tyre by building a land bridge out to it, since the city of his time was on an island just off the coast. Today the little town of Tyre is built on the ruins of those ancient cities, part of it right on the causeway constructed by Alexander. It was to this town that Sisters Turner and Warburton were sent, to witness among its predominantly Moslem population. Bible studies were conducted, Moslems were helped to learn the truth, and they progressed well. Later, some became Kingdom proclaimers with the congregation at Sidon.
On the road between Tyre and Sidon there were large camps where Palestinian refugees had been living since the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Their lot in life was a difficult one, but they were humble and the missionary sisters were able to move among them freely. Some of them accepted Bible studies and two families became especially interested in the truth. Later, they moved to the vicinity of Beirut and could associate with Christian congregations there.
The missionary sisters were pleased indeed to note the open hospitality to strangers that was displayed by people in the southern part of Lebanon. No matter how long a visitor stays, even though he be a stranger, the householder will offer him refreshments. In their conversations these people are willing to tell you who they are, what their work is, how many children they have, how much rent they pay for their house, and the like. And never do they ask the visitor what his business is. They just make him welcome, with the thought in mind that when he is ready to state his business he will do so. Till then he is a welcome guest. In fact, some desert Arabs carry this so far that if a person spends two days and nights without stating his business that is soon enough to ask him politely to state his reason for coming. Of course, our missionary sisters never stayed that long at any of the houses. And they were glad to give the important reason for their presence.
Sometimes the people are just interested in being visited by such pleasant individuals. Yet, many learned the truth in Sidon and later moved to other territories and countries, where they continued to serve Jehovah. The little congregation in Sidon still continues to press on with the work of declaring the good news.
ON TO DAMASCUS IN SYRIA
Toward the end of December 1951 Lebanese Witnesses again were visited by N. H. Knorr and M. G. Henschel. A peak of 401 Kingdom proclaimers reported field service during that service year in Lebanon and 82 in Syria. A permit was obtained to hold a public meeting, and the brothers were overjoyed to have an attendance of 793 people at Brother Knorr’s public discourse given at the large lecture hall at the American University of Beirut. What a wonderful occasion it was!
During this visit it was decided that it would be timely to send missionaries to Damascus in Syria. A missionary home was located and four missionaries began witnessing as inconspicuously as they could. The small Damascus congregation of 10 to 12 publishers was meeting at the home of Adib Kafroony. Soon, the missionaries were growing in their ability to use the Arabic language.
Only a few months passed before the authorities noticed the work of the missionaries and began to have them followed. A short time later an official from the Security Department came to the missionary home and informed the brothers that they would have to leave the country within 24 hours. So the short period of missionary work in Damascus ended. However, the brothers of that city continued their service to Jehovah’s praise, and later local special pioneers were sent to help them.
In April 1952 Brother Atif Naous, a special pioneer, was assigned to the Syrian town of Homs. There were a few zealous brothers there, but the territory was large and they needed help. His experience was much like that of the missionaries in Damascus. After only two months Brother Naous was arrested, put in prison and held under military law for 42 days. During the first five days and nights, he was given very little food and he slept on a narrow wooden bench in a cell with only a barred window and nothing to keep out the cold. Had it not been for the pity of a prison guard who regularly gave his overcoat to Brother Naous at about midnight, he might have fared much worse. As a result of the treatment he received, his health was permanently affected. But he was still able to continue serving Jehovah as a special pioneer.
BLESSINGS IN THE FACE OF PERSECUTION
Shortly after returning to Lebanon from Damascus, two of the missionaries, a married couple, were assigned to Zahle, a town in the Rift Valley about 32 miles (51 km) north of historic Mount Hermon. It was a predominantly Catholic town, with a good-sized Greek Orthodox community and not many Moslems. Jehovah’s Witnesses had never established a congregation there, but the few Kingdom publishers in the town were helped to make progress in the truth as they worked with the missionaries. Meetings were held regularly, with about eight or ten persons present.
Most of Zahle received a witness in about six months. In the spring, two more missionaries, Olive Turner and Doreen Warburton, joined the others in that territory. By then the clergy had gotten the people stirred up against Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were no other foreigners in the town and so the missionaries were very conspicuous as they went about in field service each day. It was their daily experience to be shouted at and mocked. Often stones were thrown at them, some of which found their mark. One sister had her glasses knocked off by a stone, and there were numerous bruises and a few cuts. But the missionaries escaped serious injury and were able to keep on visiting the people’s homes for two years. A small congregation was formed and the meetings were held at the missionary home, with from 10 to 15 persons in attendance each week.
The missionaries found it necessary to avoid the schools because nearly all of them were church-operated. Both the teachers and the clergymen in the schools would incite the children to stone Jehovah’s Witnesses wherever they found them. If the missionaries happened to be walking by a school during recess, they were sure to be barraged with a shower of stones coming out of the playground.
The situation was much the same in surrounding villages. Once the three missionary women, accompanied by three local sisters, were preaching in a nearby village. After witnessing about an hour, two of the sisters were warned by a householder that the priest was getting the schoolchildren organized to stone them. By the time these sisters found the others, the priest had gotten the children together and it was not possible for the sisters to leave by means of the road in the usual manner. So they cut across the fields in an attempt to avoid the mob. However, they were pursued. Fortunately, they found some men working in the fields. When the sisters appealed to them for help, they said that they would stop the children. But in order to do so, they had to throw stones even at their own children who had been so worked up by the priest.
As the missionaries walked along the streets of Zahle, the favorite “catcall” came to be Shuhoud Yahwah (“Jehovah’s Witnesses”). Nevertheless, the residents had learned who Jehovah was and they realized he had witnesses in that village.
Incidentally, years later, at a Christian assembly in Beirut, the missionaries who had served in Zahle were approached by a young man. He introduced himself and said: ‘You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you. I was among those children who used to throw stones at you when you were in Zahle.’ This former Moslem had become their Christian brother, having dedicated his life to Jehovah God.
A PRIEST AND HIS BELL
Mainly in the summertime, Kingdom proclaimers would travel by bus from Tripoli to various isolated villages. Leaving early on Sunday morning, they took along a lunch and spent the whole day in field service, returning home in the evening, tired but very happy. Kingdom songs were sung and Bible games were played as the bus was traveling along to and from these territories.
Sometimes special tactics had to be used in these areas. Groups would go into a specially difficult village and plan to be back at the bus by a certain time. In this way the villages could be witnessed to quickly before the clergy or someone else stirred up trouble for the publishers. One such village was visited on the occasion of a rich man’s funeral. Since all the clergymen of the village were at the funeral, the brothers covered the entire village while that gathering was in progress. By the time the priests got back to their normal business of the day, the brothers had completed calling at all the homes and were on their way.
On another occasion, however, a village priest learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the area and began to hunt for them. By the time he came to the house where the presiding overseer was giving a witness he was furious indeed. The priest began cursing and using bad language, addressing his remarks mostly to the people listening to the brother. The people tried to calm the priest, but were unsuccessful. Finally, he shouted that anyone not leaving that house immediately would be excommunicated from the church. Only about half the people left. At that, the priest became even more furious. He ran to the church and began ringing the bell. Surely, he thought, this would gather all the villagers. He was going to teach these 30 Jehovah’s Witnesses a lesson!
The bus was parked at the village square and the publishers had begun to gather there after calling at all the homes. When the presiding overseer arrived, the bell-ringing had gathered together quite a large crowd and the priest was still ringing it with all his fury. People kept coming and the publishers mingled among them, giving a witness. Why, it was such a good opportunity to preach that the presiding overseer stood on a rock beside the bus, got the attention of everyone, and delivered an abbreviated public discourse! The villagers were quite amused that their priest was still ringing his bell and gathering people to listen to a lecture that was being given by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They even apologized for their priest’s anger and vile speech. So, outrageous opposition had turned into quite a unique occasion when a priest and his church bell unwittingly summoned people to a Christian Bible talk.
THE MAGAZINES BANNED
By 1955 the peak number of Kingdom proclaimers in Lebanon had grown to 501. An outstanding feature of that year was the special distribution of the booklet Christendom or Christianity—Which One Is “the Light of the World”? This booklet was translated into Arabic and 10,000 copies were printed in Lebanon. What a fine witness it gave! But, of course, it stirred up the clergy and they made renewed efforts against the preaching work.
Each year thousands of copies of The Watchtower and Awake! were being placed in the hands of the Lebanese people. In fact, during 1956, 1,106 new subscriptions were obtained by Kingdom publishers. Many magazines fell into the hands of businessmen who would leave copies in their offices and waiting rooms. Why, every time a clergyman walked into an office he would find an Awake! or a Watchtower lying on the table! Clerics were not happy about that.
By the summer of 1956 the clergy were successful in getting both The Watchtower and Awake! banned in Lebanon. This deprived the Witnesses of these fine instruments to use in field service, but they were thankful that spiritual food brought by these publications still continued to get to the brothers and sisters. Even at present the magazines are banned in Lebanon despite many efforts to have the ban removed. Yet, Jehovah sees to it that the Witnesses receive their spiritual food.
TIME FOR SOME ADJUSTMENTS
During September of 1955 Brother and Sister Lee Plummer came to Lebanon as Gilead School graduates and missionaries. In May of the following year Brother Plummer was appointed as branch overseer. Arrangements also were made to reorganize the circuit work and various features of our preaching activity. For instance, Lebanese publishers had used the Bible very little in their house-to-house service. But this was encouraged through the circuit overseers, and soon Kingdom proclaimers all over the country were going from house to house with the Bible in hand.
During the winter of 1956-1957 Brothers N. H. Knorr and F. W. Franz, along with the zone overseer, Filip Hoffmann, visited Lebanon. This was a fine occasion for spiritual upbuilding. An assembly was held, and both Brothers Knorr and Franz were able to offer fine counsel and encouragement to those in attendance.
In 1958, however, much trouble arose in Lebanon, and this interfered greatly with theocratic activities. Early in the spring a circuit assembly was planned in Tripoli. But while preparations were under way a revolution broke out. Eventually many areas were ruled by revolutionaries, as they called themselves, who ran their own little governmental organization independently of the Federal government. Many difficulties were encountered by the brothers in these areas. Some were arrested by these revolutionaries. Usually the brothers were released when these men found out who they were. Jehovah’s Witnesses had become well known as neutrals as far as political affairs were concerned, and this was a protection to them during that time of trouble.—John 15:19.
The year 1958 was notable for the large Divine Will International Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York city. In Lebanon the airport from which the conventioners were to depart was surrounded by government troops and was under seige. However, at departure time air traffic was normal, and the missionaries and others got away safely.
Jehovah’s servants who remained in Lebanon during that time of trouble had to make adjustments in their field service. There was a curfew in most of the main towns, and a person was not able to be out except for a few hours in the afternoon. Even then, often there were dangers because of gunfire and bombs exploding in the populated areas. Beirut, the capital, especially was a troubled spot in the country, with heavy fighting between government and revolutionary forces. Several of the brothers were wounded by stray bullets, but happily not one of them was killed during the whole affair.
Eventually, the United States Marines landed to keep the government from being overthrown. This calmed things down to a great extent. After some months, matters were settled between the government and the revolutionaries to the reasonable satisfaction of both parties. So peace returned to Lebanon. It was a shaky peace, however.
Nevertheless, Jehovah’s people kept right on preaching. Once again they were able to work openly from house to house, discussing the peaceful Kingdom message. The people were more willing to listen than they had been before the time of trouble. By November of 1958 all the missionaries were back in the country, again happily sharing in the Kingdom-preaching work with their Lebanese fellow believers. By 1960 a peak of 608 Kingdom witnesses were serving with 15 congregations in Lebanon.
FURTHER PROGRESS IN LEBANON
Back in 1954, two missionaries—Anne and Gwen Beavor—had begun witnessing in the community of some 60 to 80 thousand Armenians living in Beirut. They did fine work for some time. Then, in the winter of 1957-1958, an Armenian sister, Sona Haidostian, began serving among the Armenians there. Progress was good, and in February 1959 the first Armenian congregation was formed in Beirut. Later, Sona was joined by her parents, and the work continued to move ahead. By 1971 there were two Armenian congregations.
Brother Lee Plummer had been serving as the branch overseer of Lebanon since May 1956. But for personal reasons he found it necessary to relinquish this privilege of service. So, Brother Afif Fayad became the branch overseer as of January 1962. By then there were 17 congregations in Lebanon and two in Syria. But in January 1965 Brother Fayad no longer was able to take care of the branch responsibilities. So, another brother, who had recently completed the 10-month course at Gilead School in the United States, was assigned that privilege of service.
ON TO ALEPPO IN SYRIA
In 1962 Sona Haidostian was assigned to another Armenian territory in Aleppo, Syria. At that time there were about 100 Kingdom publishers in all Syria. Sona had some fleshly relatives who were not Witnesses living in Aleppo, and within a short time several of them accepted the Kingdom message. Sister Haidostian’s father and mother joined her in Aleppo, and in 1966 a congregation of 25 Kingdom proclaimers was formed. By then the number of Witnesses in Syria had increased to about 120.
The Haidostians remained in Aleppo as a missionary unit for another two years, doing excellent work. However, Sona began to experience ill health, and after quite some time it was determined that she had multiple sclerosis. Hence, the family decided that they would return to the United States.
However, just a few days before the family was about to leave Syria, another Arab-Israeli war broke out in June 1967. The police in Aleppo had been watching the brothers for some time, at the instigation of the clergy, who had made false charges against them. So, the authorities came to the house of the Haidostian family, and they, along with two local brothers, were arrested. Brother Haidostian was over 70 years of age and his wife was in her late 60’s, while Sona was in very poor health. Despite this, they were put in prison.
For the first few nights they had to sleep on the bare floor. Later, they were given a couple of blankets, one to sleep on and the other for covering. They were kept in prison for about five months, but they were not unhappy about their experience. Sona said that the doctor had told her that she must rest in order to make progress in overcoming her illness. In prison she could do nothing else. Brother Haidostian commented that the stone floors were hard at first but got softer after a few weeks of sleeping on them. The family set a fine example of faithfulness for the new congregation in Aleppo.
After about six months the Haidostians were taken to Damascus. There they experienced more questioning. After a while, they were told they were being released immediately. They were taken to the Lebanese border, without having their passports returned and without being allowed to return to their home in Aleppo to get their belongings. But it was a happy occasion when they were met at the border by Christian brothers.
Over the years, freedom to carry on the Kingdom preaching in Syria has continued to be limited. But the brothers have not given up. They have been doing what they can to share the truth with others, and new ones keep on being added to the faith. In the mid-1970’s peaks of over 200 Kingdom publishers were reached in Syria.
ADDED HARDSHIPS IN LEBANON
In May of 1968 Brother N. H. Knorr visited Lebanon and spoke to the overseers in the country. His fine talk encouraged them very much, and they were more determined than ever not to forget Jehovah’s law, but to go on serving their God forever.
During the early 1970’s hardships developed as a ban was placed on all of the Society’s publications, and all the Kingdom Halls in the country were closed. But informal witnessing continued to produce good results. Accordingly, by 1971 there were 29 congregations and three isolated groups in Lebanon. Then the next five years—from 1971 to 1975—saw 600 more persons baptized in Lebanon! Indeed, sheeplike persons were continuing to be found! There was a new peak of 1,882 proclaimers of the good news in March 1975, and these were organized into 46 congregations.
PERSEVERING DURING CIVIL WAR
In April 1975, armed conflict erupted in a suburb of Beirut. It continued to escalate in stages until the whole country was involved in civil war. The war went on for nearly two years, with the death toll eventually numbering into the tens of thousands. Many brothers’ homes, businesses and other property were destroyed, three Witnesses were killed and an unknown number were injured.
One Witness died by sniper fire as she was hanging out her wash. And another, who ignored warnings not to leave the house where the Witnesses had gathered, was shot dead when he returned home. Other Witnesses were wounded by bullets and shrapnel, one by a bayonet. But gratefully such incidents were remarkably rare.
The religious aspect of the war has been felt very strongly, and it is perhaps the most frightening feature of the whole conflict. In areas where the Moslems predominated, professed Christians were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and many of them were never seen again. Moslems received the same treatment from professed Christians. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to be different.
PEACEABLE WITH ALL
Jehovah’s Witnesses have always tried to deal with everyone alike, whether they are nominal Christians or Moslems, applying the Bible counsel: “If possible, as far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men.” (Rom. 12:18) On one occasion members of the Catholic Maronite League visited a Witness in an effort to persuade him and his children to join the vigilantes and to contribute 300 Lebanese pounds for ammunition.
The Witness told them: “I cannot share in anything to do with war. And besides your war isn’t God’s. In fact, God soon is to bring to an end all men with their guns and usher in a peaceful system under Christ’s rule.” Later, when conditions in the area improved, the Witness noted that his firm and neutral position had won the respect of his neighbors.
This neutral stand has repeatedly worked to the benefit of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just being able to prove that one was a Witness often was lifesaving. One brother produced the card he always carried refusing blood transfusion, and his life was spared. Similarly, another brother escaped execution by repeating a student talk that he had earlier given in the Theocratic School to convince a group of would-be executioners that he was a Witness. There were many instances where the Christian conduct of Jehovah’s Witnesses saved their lives.
For another example, one evening a Witness offered a ride home to a Moslem fellow worker. They were stopped by armed men who were going to kill the Witness because he was a Christian. But his Moslem companion pleaded for his life, explaining: “This man is different from the others who call themselves Christians. He is neutral. He doesn’t involve himself in politics.”
When the gunmen refused to listen, the Moslem man said: “If you won’t leave us alone, you will have to kill both of us.” Because of his sincere plea, they both were set free.
Another Witness relates that he had no food in his house, and because of the armed men everywhere it wasn’t safe to venture outside. But then a young Moslem boy from a nearby village appeared at his home. “My parents,” he said, “sent you this bread. And whatever else you need, please tell us. We are ready to get it for you.”
REPUTATION OF WITNESSES SPREADS
In the north of the country there is a “Christian” village that is surrounded by Moslem villages. There are two congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this village. When the Moslems attacked the village and came to the house where the Witnesses had gathered, the gunmen were told: “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have no weapons and we are completely neutral. Here are our houses, do to them as you see fit.” The gunmen were surprised and promised not to harm them.
In another village, even the Catholic priest had armed himself with a machine gun. Extreme pressure was put on the Witnesses to give up their neutral position and also to arm themselves for an anticipated attack. Because they would not, one rightist leader said: “When this war is over we will turn our attention against you!” Yet what happened when the attack began on January 20, 1976?
Regular defenders of the village fled. The priest discarded his weapon and hid. Other villagers who had armed themselves sought to hide their weapons; still others threw theirs away. One rightist leader tried to give his gun to a Witness, saying: “It’s known that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have weapons.”
Also, many persons sought refuge in the homes of Witnesses. In one such home over 60 persons gathered! After one of the Witnesses offered prayer asking Jehovah’s protection, a daughter of the political leader remarked: “Now I feel at ease, for Jehovah is the God who can protect.” Though armed men entered the home and stole some valuables, no one was harmed.
In another Witness home about 50 persons gathered. The presiding overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses there reports: “I heard a Moslem neighbor tell the armed men, ‘Don’t touch this house. They are Bible students, different from the others.’ Later, though, gunmen did appear. But I had opened all the doors purposely. So when they called I answered quickly, inviting them in. I spoke kindly and unhesitatingly, explaining that we were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finding no weapons, they left.” All the homes in the neighborhood were looted except this one.
In the northern city of Tripoli clashes between the fighting factions were extremely violent. Hundreds of shops and homes were looted and burned. It was particularly dangerous for Christians to go outside, so one Moslem neighbor told a Witness: “These people don’t know that you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. So tell us what you need and we will get it for you.”
HEADQUARTERS FAMILY IN DANGER
At the beginning of the civil war the branch headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses was in a Moslem section of Beirut. Before moving from there to a safer place outside the city, the headquarters family had some scary experiences. On February 6, 1976, one family member described conditions this way:
“For about a month we didn’t even bother to go to bed in our rooms. When it was time to sleep we put mattresses in the little entranceway, as it was the safest room in the house. We all curled up there and slept in our clothes, since we never knew what the night would bring. When that phase of the fighting passed, the rightists tried to get control of strategic buildings on our side of town.
“Then it got down to real street fighting, from street to street and from house to house. It looked like the rightists would come up the street in front of us and the leftists behind us, so we decided to evacuate. However, there was no way to get completely out of the area, but there were safer houses, so we went to the home of a Witness about a mile (1.6 km) up the street from us. We stayed there for two weeks and then we were able to go back home.”
One night was especially harrowing for the headquarters family. It was a night that the main commercial center of Beirut was set aflame, and the section around the branch home was also marked for destruction. Witnesses at the branch give some of the details:
“About 10:30 p.m. we were startled by a burst of machine-gun fire right in front of the house. As two members of our family looked from the veranda, they saw five or six gunmen come out of the hotel directly in front of us—then, suddenly, a loud explosion. What a racket when seven floors of glass windows and doors came shattering down in front of us!
“Then shop after shop was set afire, and gunmen drove back and forth in front of the shops adding fuel to the flames, making sure they burned. They shot at anyone who tried to put the fires out. The night sky was red from all the blazes.
“As we were watching the fires from one of the back bedrooms, we were rocked by another explosion. We rushed to the front of the house and saw that a bomb had exploded in a grocery shop in our building. Our own building was on fire! What worried us most was a gas-storage room in the building. If the fire reached it, it would probably bring down our building and the one next to us. All the neighbors on the street cooperated and we got the fire out before it did much damage.”
CHRISTIAN MEETINGS AND PREACHING
Through all the violence Kingdom interests continued to be looked after. Congregations held their meetings in small groups or in large ones, depending on conditions in an area at a given time. Even circuit and district conventions were held! It was not at all unusual to hear the sound of nearby gunfire and exploding shells during meetings. On occasion the speaker had to pause for a time until the din of battle subsided sufficiently so he could make himself heard.
The brothers kept on in house-to-house witnessing wherever possible, and much informal presentation of the good news continued to be done. Many responded favorably to the message, while others were so preoccupied with just staying alive and out of harm’s way that it was difficult to penetrate their thoughts with the Kingdom hope.
PRESENT SITUATION AND THE FUTURE
Four-and-a-half years have passed since the beginning of the civil war, and still matters are not settled. There is an Arab peace-keeping army in most of Lebanon and a United Nations force in the southern part of the country. In parts of the country violent clashes and sustained artillery barrages still occur. In December 1978 machine-gun fire and shell explosions were still echoing through the area where the branch office is located. During one 12-day period in the fall of 1978, the branch family had to spend eight days in a shelter in the lower part of the building while some 200 shells and rockets landed in the immediate vicinity. It has been much worse for brothers living in other areas.
What the political and social future of this troubled land will be is uncertain. But it is certain that Jehovah will continue to accomplish the preaching of the good news in Lebanon and Syria until the “great tribulation” ushers in his peaceful new system of things. The brothers in these countries pray that Jehovah will continue to use them in that work until it is finished.
[Map on page 165]
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Lebanon and Syria
[Picture on page 172]
Brother Macmillan (center), visiting from Brooklyn headquarters, baptized Salim Karam (left) and Hanna Shammas, a Tripoli dentist
[Picture on page 176]
Kingdom truth was brought to remote areas by means of this sound car
[Picture on page 204]
Witnesses walking through a war-torn Beirut suburb during a cease-fire