According to a local bishop, numerous conversions of Muslims to Christianity occur every year in Lebanon but the true number is unknown because of the risk of social stigma and persecution.
“Most of them try to go outside from Lebanon, to Europe or America or Canada or Australia to live there, because it’s not possible to be converted and to stay here,” a Catholic bishop in Lebanon told CNA in a Feb. 10 phone interview.
“It’s very, very hard to know how many are baptized, because everything will be a secret.”
Given the delicacy of conversion in Lebanon – a Middle Eastern country with a slight Muslim majority – the bishop spoke on condition of anonymity. While the region is lauded for its comparative plurality as Muslims generally coexist well with the Christian population, some hostility can be present toward those who convert from Islam.
“I have heard many stories about the conversion of Muslims,” he said, in both the Maronite and Melkite communities – the two largest Catholic groups in the country.
The bishop cited one Melkite priest who baptized 75 Muslims last year. “Most of them left Muslim areas to stay in the Christian area,” he said, and many are trying to emigrate.
One young woman from Baalbek was converted, he recounted, and her family “accused the priest of having used sorcery to make her convert to Christianity.”
“The priest was then abducted and kidnapped by the family. A deal was done after that between the diocese and the tribe of the family, that the family would bring the daughter back home, without torturing her.”
Her family has since converted as well, he explained, “but in a secret way.”
If converts from Islam are not able to leave Lebanon, he said, they often move to areas of Lebanon with larger concentrations of Christians: “other people left the Beqaa valley to stay in Beirut, or in Jounieh, in the Christian country.”
Those converting to Christianity in Lebanon are by and large Lebanese themselves, the bishop explained, saying, “I know only one Syrian.”
This Syrian convert is from Aleppo, and was in Beirut studying sharia to become a sheikh.
The man “was baptized in Lebanon and now he’s married, but he cannot register his marriage in Syria. He’s in big trouble now because he cannot go to Syria, and he cannot register his marriage in Lebanon either. We are trying now to see if he can go outside of Lebanon, to Europe or somewhere else, to live there with his family.”
Lebanon, according to the U.S. state department, has no procedures for civil marriage; all marriages performed there are performed by religious officials.
“Everything is a secret,” the bishop said. “It’s not easy to speak publicly about … conversion to Christianity.”
Lebanon, where it is not easy to speak publicly about Christian conversion, “is better than other Arabic countries.”
“But we still have a problem,” he said.
The Lebanese constitution provides for freedom of religion, and members of parliament and cabinet officials are all apportioned among Muslims and Christians.
National identity cards generally include the bearer’s religion, though this is not required by law.
“It’s easy for a convert to register with the state as a Christian,” the bishop said. “In other countries it’s not possible. I know for example in Egypt there are many conversions, but they still are registered as a Muslim, not Christian.”
Even though the Lebanese government provides for religious freedom, societal discrimination against converts is widespread. The bishop reported that families of converts often “never accept” their relative’s Christian faith, and the convert “is persecuted by his family and his tribe, by his village.”
While the country has long been able to live in the tension between its religious groups – an estimated 54 percent Muslim, 41 percent Christian – the large influx of Syrian refugees in the wake of the neighboring country’s civil war has strained the status quo.
The Lebanese government estimates that more than 1 million Syrian refugees are living in the country. In 2011, at the start of Syria’s civil war, Lebanon’s population was estimated at a little over 4 million.
Now that nearly 20 percent of Lebanese residents are Syrian refugees, interreligious relations are stressed. On Feb. 3, a suicide bomber wounded several in a district of Beirut largely home to Christians and Druze.
The bishop said that his diocese is assisting both Christian and Muslim refugees.
“When we receive Muslims, we help them without trying to convert them, because when we give material help, we don’t like to play this game.”