A “Sustainable Network of Religious Leaders” to Address Extremism and Much More

Remarks at the #LebanonForum
“Tripoli’s Revolution: Building a City of Peace, Culture, and Development”.

The Sustainable Network of Religious Leaders in the North of Lebanon was launched by Dialogue for Life and Reconciliation (DLR) in 2016 with the aim to promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation in Tripoli and the broader region. The encounter between Sunnis and Alawite sheikhs, Maronite and Orthodox priests, gave birth to a major platform of religious leaders acting as catalysts for peace-building and conflict transformation within a context marked by decades of strife, unrest, and violent extremism.

Many of the members of the Sustainable Network had long been living and working less than one-hundred meters away from each other, in the same area, but had never interacted before the implementation of this initiative. To enter someone else’s house was never considered a possibility, as most of them, despite being religious leaders, were raised on the notion of communitarian belonging and on the fear of the “other”.

To overcome the cultural and social obstacles to the encounter, different techniques were employed, based on the two concepts of “Dialogue of Life” and “Dialogue of the Hands”, leading these religious leaders to discover and acknowledge for the first time the existence of the “other” in terms of humanity and values, and to understand the importance of communication, cooperation, and coexistence.

As Rev. Fr. Ibrahim Dourbaly, one of the most prominent members of the Sustainable Network from Tripoli, puts it, “interaction between religious leaders from different backgrounds can happen on a plethora of different levels. It happens on a daily basis through exchanges in the market, at school, at work, and in different public and private institutions. It also happens on the level of life through the sharing of similar values as well as worries, which increases empathy and decreases fear, and on the level of formal and informal meetings including lay people and the civil society, in order to promote the protection of personal identities, while simultaneously respecting and appreciating the diversity that surrounds us”.

This interactive bridge-building process opened the way to reconciliation and to the establishment of a Sustainable Network of religious leaders from different denominations, willing and able to join hands and work together for the sake of the common good in Tripoli and northern Lebanon.

Over the past 5 years, the engagement of the Sustainable Network of Religious Leaders in the North of Lebanon has resulted in a myriad of activities and programs at the grassroots level (i.e., workshops, courses, seminars, meetings, campaigns), targeting different areas of interest, such as education to dialogue, tolerance, and human rights, with special attention to women and the youth; countering hate speech and the radical discourse; building capacities of practitioners and civil society’s representatives for successful mediation and conflict management; charity and humanitarian work. Moreover, the members of the Sustainable Network have been promoting the strengthening of interfaith relations through their service as Muslim and Christian religious leaders within their own communities, advocating for change in sermons and homilies delivered in mosques and churches, as well as on their social media channels.

Another way to advocate for change has been the organization of regular activities in which priests and sheikhs appeared together in public (i.e., walks in the streets of each other’s neighborhoods; sport and cultural events), with the aim to convey a message of unity and solidarity, and make the faithful of different religious groups understand that being together is possible, is a positive thing, and is also necessary to face common problems more effectively.

These outdoor activities acted as a “parable” to the eyes of the local population, and were complemented by the frequent exchange of visits between the members of the Sustainable Network in their private residences and places of worship, as well as by the holding of joint prayers and convivial moments to celebrate respective religious festivities and traditions.

Besides supporting and expanding the role of religious leaders, the Sustainable Network initiated by DLR has succeeded in creating a strong connection between believers belonging to different faiths, who were given the chance to better understand the religious views and the cultural perspective of their counterparts, thereby better understanding their own as well.

This experience has shown that many of the stereotypes and prejudices that are built up over the years can gradually decrease if people get engaged in a process of interreligious dialogue and cooperation, such as the one that the Sustainable Network has been backing so far.

Tangible results of the work done by the Sustainable Network can be seen especially in Tripoli’s most sensitive neighborhoods − Bab Al Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) −, which used to be at war, but are currently affected by no sectarian clashes or tensions. This positive development has been achieved also thanks to the major contribution of the members of the Sustainable Network who hail from these two areas, and have been promoting reconciliation and peaceful coexistence on a daily basis.

As one of the Sheikhs of the Sustainable Network said: “The main goal of religions is to spread peace, and this is not something new. The call of Islam is peace, we are now working toward the heavenly mission of peace-building”.

The Sustainable Network of Religious Leaders in Tripoli and the North of Lebanon will thus continue in the coming future with its mission to promote the tool of interfaith as an essential gateway to foster an inclusive and peaceful society. To this end, the Sustainable Network aims to increase its activities in the field of “education to interreligious dialogue” for school and university students, targeting in particular those who have undertaken religious studies, namely tomorrow’s religious leaders and theologians, and the youth from underprivileged areas, where poverty and unemployment remain a breeding ground for radicalization and violent extremism.

To enable students from an early age to embrace the culture of dialogue, building connections, friendships, and memories across the religious spectrum, will help prevent or address new possible tensions and conflicts on a confessional level. Moreover, it greatly contributes to developing in the new generation a true awareness of the needs and challenges facing each other’s religious community, which is key to creating a sense of common belonging and purpose, involving religious leaders as well.

The latter are not separate from the rest of the society, they are also citizens, with the responsibility to voice people’s rights and demands against misdeeds and injustices. Therefore, the members of the Sustainable Network took to the street alongside their fellow Tripolitans during the October 2019 Revolution, backing the reasons of the protests and calling for unity and solidarity.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, compounded by the Lebanese economic meltdown, required them to step up their efforts to support the neediest in a context already disrupted by a heavy and longstanding socio-economic predicament. However, they have continued until today to advocate for change, reforms, development, and for the end of corruption and of the suffering of the population.

For the next 5 years and beyond, the Sustainable Network will further strengthen its commitment along these lines of action, as a platform for interreligious dialogue and cooperation engaged in all relevant sectors of the local fabric. Its innovative approach has demonstrated to be successful, amid the many challenges Tripoli and northern Lebanon have been dealing with, and the implementation of this pioneering project in other Lebanese cities and regions would be beneficial for the whole country.