“As christians, we can be a bridge”

Archbishop Stefan Hebe sums up his trip to Lebanon © Elisabeth Schomaker (KNA)

The Refugee Commissioner of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stefan Hebe, spent almost four days in Lebanon. In an interview, he takes stock of his encounters with Syrian refugees and political leaders.

CBA: You traveled to Lebanon for just under four days to see the situation of Syrian refugees there. How would you describe this situation?

Archbishop Stefan Hebe (Archbishop of Hamburg and Refugee Commissioner of the German Bishops’ Conference): I have seen how they live in very modest circumstances and in cramped spatial conditions. But they are grateful for the security they have there and for the welcoming attitude of the Lebanese. Many are still under the impact of what they suffered in the civil war, especially those who experienced firsthand the terror of the so-called Islamic State.
CBA: What distinguishes the situation of refugees in Lebanon from that in Germany??
Hebe: First of all, these are the numerical ratios. Both countries have taken in more than a million refugees, but the relations are quite different. There, about every fourth person is a refugee, while here it is less than two percent of the population. And because there are so many people for such a small country as Lebanon, no one wants them to stay there for a long time.
CBA: So integration of refugees is not an ie in Lebanon…
Hebe: There is a consensus there that most refugees will return to Syria after the war ends. It has to do with physical proximity. But also with the fact that, as I learned on this trip, there is a finely balanced proportional representation between the denominational groups in Lebanon, and that would be endangered by such a large group from the outside. It is different with us, and that is why we expect them to stay longer in Germany. Unlike in Lebanon, the possibility of integration is given with us.
CBA: Some of your interlocutors said that Europeans are a little naive about Muslim immigration. What did they mean?
Hebe: They see that some people in our country believe that one can ignore the differences between Christianity and Islam in order to find a common ground. The Middle East sees it quite differently. One knows each other better and thus also knows the differences. But at the same time there is a deep mutual respect, and so you really meet each other at eye level.
CBA: Most Syrians in Lebanon have been living there for years, they have been with us for just under a year now. After the culture of welcome, we are only now taking the next steps. What contribution can the churches make?
Hebe: Without participation – and this includes normal housing, school and the workplace quite significantly – there will be no integration. But then we also have to face the more long-term questions: How do they arrive in our society? How can we overcome tensions? And this includes, in particular, that we in Germany endure the tension between two poles: The refugees must respect the social order and the laws, they should know our culture, but we also cannot simply trim them as we would like them to be. We must at the same time respect their cultural identity.
CBA: And what does this mean for the churches??
Hebe: In Lebanon, I often heard the phrase that Christians should be a bridge between different groups and identities. Perhaps, in view of the situation of refugees in Germany, it is also our task to build a bridge, for example by promoting interreligious dialogue. After all, many refugees bring a strong faith with them, which is first of all positive.

Perhaps we Christians can be the bridge between them and a largely non-religious, secularized society. Our faith is admittedly different, and it’s also not easy to figure out who exactly our interlocutors can be on the Muslim side. But we show them a different form of respect, just as in Lebanon many Muslims treat Christians or other believers with respect.

CBA: Is there anything else you learned in Lebanon?
Hebe: Both political and church representatives have made it clear that, despite war and terror, they are holding on to the vision of peaceful coexistence between people of different religions. Only dialogue in mutual respect can prevent the spread of war and terror, and as Christians we have a lot to contribute to that.

The interview was conducted by Ludwig Ring-Eifel.

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