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Displaced from Israel Border, Lebanese Christians Wrestle with Whom to Blame

As limited clashes with Hezbollah threaten to expand Israel’s war against Hamas, local Presbyterians and Baptists suffer a battle not of their making.
Displaced from Israel Border, Lebanese Christians Wrestle with Whom to Blame
Image: Hussein Malla / AP Images
Smoke rises from an Israeli army position which was attacked by Hezbollah fighters near the Lebanese border with Israel.

Rabih Taleb looked out from the pulpit at the 30 nervous believers gathered at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Alma al-Shaab in southern Lebanon, located less than one mile from northwest Israel. One day earlier, Hamas terrorists had killed 1,200 mostly civilian Israelis 125 miles south on the Gaza border.

That Sunday morning, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia designated as a terrorist entity by the United States government, fired rockets into the disputed Sheba Farms enclave occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon. And as Israel began its massive bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza, it also shelled Hezbollah positions 35 miles east of Alma al-Shaab.

A few families immediately fled, including the elder who leads worship, forcing the hymns into a cappella. The rest of the congregation pressed Taleb for a shortened service, all eager to return home and prepare for the worst. But the sermon topic—the second in a series on distinctives of Reformed faith—appeared divinely appointed. Little adjustment was needed to discuss original sin, suffering, and pain.

“They ask me: Why are we always facing these difficulties?” Taleb said. “We are believers. Why is there always war, war, war?”

Sources said this was their seventh displacement in the last 50 years.

Alma al-Shaab, one of about a dozen entirely Christian villages near the Israeli border, has a year-round population of about 700 people, Taleb said. Today only about 20 remain, including the Maronite Catholic priest who conducts services—now welcoming all sects—when there are lulls in the fighting.

Taleb and his family left Alma al-Shaab on October 9 when a bomb fell in a field only a three-minute drive from his church, rattling his parsonage home. Most of its 40 Presbyterian families relocated to stay with relatives in Beirut, with others fleeing within Lebanon to the biblical cities of Sidon or Tyre. The local synod, serving seven Presbyterian churches near the border with Israel, opened its retreat center in Zahle in case of further escalation.

So far, only three families have stayed behind.

Taleb has returned to his home village in Minyara, 115 miles north near the border with Syria. But every day he consults with elders about the condition of his scattered flock, and every 7–10 days he returns to visit Alma al-Shaab, violence permitting.

While the war rages in Gaza, Israel and Hezbollah have maintained a lower-intensity conflict, each mindful to avoid escalation. Analysis suggests that Israel does not want to open a second front, while Hezbollah is wary of Israel’s pre-war pledge to “bomb Lebanon back to the stone age” in any confrontation.

Israel has already evacuated 42 northern villages near the Lebanese border, limiting Israeli casualties to seven soldiers and three civilians. Meanwhile, at least 70 Hezbollah fighters have been killed alongside at least 10 Lebanese civilians. Nearly 30,000 Lebanese have been displaced.

“We are in the middle of a fight we have nothing to do with,” Taleb said. “We can speak out that Palestinians have the right to live freely, but it is not our role to support them through war.”

The sentiment aligns with most Lebanese citizens. A recent survey found that 74 percent reject the statement that “Hamas initiated the war and targeted civilians, so it’s legitimate for Israel to retaliate appropriately,” as many extend the timeline of grievances far before October 7. Yet 61 percent reject Hezbollah’s participation in the war, and 74 percent agree that their nation should stay neutral.

The fighting has already caused “significant damage” to local agriculture, stated the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon. Satellite data tallied 400 fires in the farmland surrounding Alma al-Shaab, while a Lebanese professor from Balamand University stated about 1.7 square miles of southern forests have been burned. The agriculture minister counted 40,000 olive trees ruined during the height of harvest season, while the environment minister estimated $20 million in damages.

One Presbyterian is staying in Alma al-Shaab to help fight the fires.

“I can manage to live, but not to rebuild what was destroyed,” said another Presbyterian, a church elder, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of his Hezbollah-controlled area. “I don’t blame anyone—I am not a politician—only a victim.”

The elder said that his farmhouse was destroyed along with about 10 other homes in the village. One blast, he said, was from a Hamas-aligned Palestinian rocket. Now displaced in Beirut, he is not sure how many of his approximately 100 olive trees were damaged, but as an Israeli missile has destroyed the village water tank, he knows the trees will soon wither along with his 200 avocado trees.

Alma al-Shaab Presbyterian Church
Image: Courtesy of Rabih al-Taleb

Alma al-Shaab Presbyterian Church

An American University of Beirut (AUB) professor stated environmental recovery of the land could take decades.

A second anonymous Presbyterian elder blames Hezbollah, Israel, and—above all—himself for remaining on his generational land. His home was destroyed in the prior border war in 2006, when a Hezbollah fighter fired rockets from the roof, he said, and an Israeli helicopter destroyed both.

He managed to rebuild on his meager salary and install cameras, so he knows his house, at least, is still standing. But after recording two young men trying to break in—presumably to hide from Israeli attention—he briefly returned home and reinforced the locks.

“What profit does this give Palestine?” he asked. “We just want peace with Jews, with Muslims, with everybody.”

Expressing desire for peace with the State of Israel, however, is a controversial stance in Lebanon. The Mediterranean nation remains in a technical state of war with what it often calls “the Zionist entity,” which invaded in 1978 and 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war. The second elder, also displaced to Beirut, lives in a home he purchased at that time to distance his sons from Israel’s recruitment of Christian young men into its aligned Lebanese militia.

Israel’s occupation of the southern regions did not end until 2000, when Israel withdrew under pressure from a nascent Hezbollah-led resistance. Its general secretary Hassan Nasrallah praised the border villages for “embracing” its “jihadist fighters” and bearing the burden of displacement and loss.

But beside Presbyterians, other evangelicals are also suffering—and helping.

The small Christian village of Deir Mimas, 25 miles northeast of Alma al-Shaab, once had a population of around 1,000 people. The 2006 war reduced it to about 350; now only about 100 people remain. In the last conflict, the home of Baptist pastor Maroun Shammas was one of the few to be hit by Israeli bombing. This time there have been a handful of strikes in the surrounding farmland, but he and 9 of the 12 church families have relocated elsewhere.

He said he has no issues with his Muslim neighbors. A former teacher in the nearby Shiite village of Kafr Killa, Shammas said he and other Christians maintain interfaith friendships and interact freely with all Lebanese sects.

“Shiites are villagers, normal people like us,” Shammas said. “But no one asked us about war in the south, and we blame Satan.”

Damage to a home in Alma al-Shaab
Image: Courtesy of Rabih al-Taleb

Damage to a home in Alma al-Shaab

Deir Mimas Baptist Church has already been partnering with local evangelical ministries to provide 40 village families with food boxes and another 20 families with school fees. Coordinating with the municipal government, Horizons has now increased its local nutritional support to nearly all who remain, while Thimar is assisting the families who have been displaced.

“This is not the first time that we have left, and every time, we come back to continue our ministry,” said Shammas. “God wants us to help people know him.”

Sources said that evangelicals have a good reputation in the Shiite-dominated south, due to the humanitarian response of serving the displaced during the 2006 war. Heart for Lebanon (HFL) was created at that time and continues assisting area Christians and Muslims alike.

In October it distributed food boxes and detergent to 340 families in eight locations in the south, including Alma al-Shaab, Deir Mimas, and neighboring Sunni and Shiite villages. In November it expanded to 15 locations—including homes with Muslim-background believers in Jesus.

Lebanon permits freedom of religion, and cross-faith service prevents undue controversy. But so does HFL’s strict ministry-only messaging.

“We pray for peace, and for God’s glory to shine among all peoples,” said Milad Nassar, HFL field manager for the south. “We don’t talk politics.”

But many other Lebanese do, and many suspect Israel has bad intentions beyond Hezbollah.

Missile attacks have now reached nearly 30 miles inland. Strikes near Haifa, Acre, and other Israeli cities beyond the border have been claimed by Hamas units in Lebanon, not Hezbollah. Nonetheless, many posit that no units can act independently of the Shiite militia.

“In the chain of actions and reactions,” stated an AUB analyst, “it is becoming difficult to know who initiates the escalation.”

But other analysts wonder if Israel is looking to provoke Hezbollah to justify a full-scale attack against it—and perhaps draw in the United States. Two US naval carrier groups are positioned in the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran-sponsored aggression. Reportedly, secretary of defense Lloyd Austin warned his Israeli counterpart about such a scenario. Israel denies this intention.

For his part, Taleb chooses to blame no one—but follow instead his “role model,” Jesus.

“It is a cycle, neither side can destroy the other,” he said. “We need them to find a way to live in peace, so that we can live in peace.”

He tells his confused parishioners that this suffering is not God’s punishment for their sins. The Cross assures them of God’s love, the experience of which they must not keep for themselves. If the writers of the Bible had done so—most of whom also suffered—we would not have the Bible today.

Now it is their turn to communicate, he said, building bridges of love and service.

But it is not easy. On every trip to Alma al-Shaab, Taleb questions the wisdom of returning to a dangerous area. It is not the provision of food boxes that drives him, however—it is the experience of God, which he longs for others to enjoy.

He prays with the Maronite priest and the resilient Christians, drinks tea, and if not for his own family of three young children, he might have remained in the village. After all, its Presbyterian church dates back to 1859.

Instead, he travels north and south across Lebanon, visiting the scattered flock.

“This is living what we believe—a working faith,” Taleb said. “It is to show people that God loves them, through us, for his glory.”

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