By Aaron Weaver
For Chaouki Boulos, learning to love his enemy has been a Christ-celebrating, and life changing, process.
And it’s been a 30-year process as Chaouki has shared Christ with anyone willing to listen. Today, he and his wife, Maha, who serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, feed the hungry in the middle of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency — the Syrian refugee crisis.
Hence the challenge for the Chaouki, a native of Lebanon.
“They were the real enemy to me,” he said.
In 1977, when living in Beirut, Chaouki’s father was murdered on his way to the store by a Syrian soldier. It was a massacre — a brutal slaughter of everyone in sight. His father was left to die in the street for hours with the other victims, slowly bleeding to death.
“When that happened, I was extremely sad,” Chaouki said. “If you asked me, ‘who is your enemy?’, I would tell you, Syrians are my enemy. They were the real enemy to me.”
Prior to the murder of Chaouki’s father, sectarian fighting in Lebanon had erupted into a full-fledged war. The Lebanese civil war witnessed Maronite Catholics, who held the presidency and other key government positions, pitted against a coalition of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, including the forces of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The war would last 15 years, leave more than 150,000 dead and nearly a million displaced.
The murder of his father had transformed the soft-spoken Chaouki into a hardened person trying to survive in the midst of chaos. Several years later, Chaouki found Jesus at a revival. He became a Baptist believer and enrolled at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut.
Chaouki also fell in love with Maha, the daughter of a successful Lebanese businessman. Maha was a graduate of Beirut’s American University, where she majored in English and discovered her talent as a translator. The couple soon married.
In 1989, Chaouki and Maha left war-torn Lebanon for the United States. For almost a decade, Chaouki worked to establish Arabic-speaking congregations in North and South Carolina. During that decade, Chaouki never once returned to his homeland. But he never stopped praying for a great revival to sweep across the Middle East. Then in 1999, as the world was planning to celebrate the new millennium, Chaouki sensed a call to return to Lebanon.
“I called one of my best friends and told him that I had a dream,” Chaouki said. “I wanted to come to Lebanon and gather all the Christians, invite all the Muslims, the Druze and everyone to celebrate 2,000 years since the birth of our Lord.”
His friend questioned how Chaouki could pull this off. Chaouki didn’t know. He did know, however, that Lebanon’s embrace of religious freedom might offer “the open door to reach the peoples of the Middle East.”
Since the Taif Accord that marked a beginning to the end of the Lebanese Civil War — forming a government jointly-controlled by Christians and Muslims — Lebanon has been regarded as one of the most democratic nations in the Middle East. Religious groups exist side-by-side in mostly amicable relationships, in a country where Muslims account for an estimated 60 percent of the population and Christians make up 39 percent.
Chaouki and Maha returned to Lebanon and connected with Operation Antioch, a non-denominational ministry, to organize a high-powered evangelistic service in July 2000 in downtown Beirut. Around 500 people showed up for the first night of lively music and preaching. Attendance doubled the second night. By the fourth night, the crowd had topped 2,300, surpassing the event’s seating capacity. More than 200 professions of faith were made that night, according to Maha. They were inspired to continue organizing “Celebrate Jesus” rallies.
In the 14 years since that July 2000 event, the Bouloses have helped coordinate close to 30 different celebrations in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. They have celebrated Jesus with thousands in Egypt and Jordan. The couple even crossed Lebanon’s northern border into Syria to hold three separate celebrations.
“No one can believe you can do a celebration there,” Maha said. “But we did, and we were welcomed.”
Their faith is what drives the Bouloses, who were commissioned as CBF field personnel in 2002. Chaouki preaches a simple message of Jesus’ radical love to the rallies’ diverse crowds — crowds that have included Chaouki’s former enemy.
“I tell them that Jesus came for everyone,” Chaouki said. “I don’t say this is a Christian celebration. I say this is a Jesus celebration.”
For the Bouloses, evangelism isn’t only about bringing others to a transformative relationship with Jesus. Evangelism is also a means to affect much-needed social change in the Middle East.
“Our task is to reach the unreached, the poorest of the poor,” Chaouki said. “But sometimes we have to think about the rich. We have to think about the president of the country. We have to think of the key leaders in every place. Because if you win them to the Lord, big changes happen for everyone.”
‘The biggest humanitarian emergency of our era’
In March 2011, peaceful protestors took to the streets of Syria to call for the release of political prisoners and demonstrate against human rights abuses. The situation in Syria soon spiraled out of control, exploding into a full-blown civil war as many civilians armed themselves and organized into rebel groups. Three years later, there have been more than 200,000 deaths. And, at least 6.5 million people have been internally displaced, according to United Nations estimates.
More than 3 million Syrians have fled to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, creating a serious refugee crisis that has a crippling economic impact on the region. Lebanon has received more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees — far surpassing the totals of any other country.
“The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” said António Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, in a statement in late August marking the milestone of 3 million refugees.
Feeding the hungry
While the world may be failing, the Bouloses are working to meet the needs of their new neighbors in any way they can.
The Syrian refugee crisis took their ministry in a different direction. In October 2012, Maha started a group for women, which included Syrian refugees, to pray and study the Bible together. With food in short supply, the women began preparing food packages for refugee families. Every four-to-six weeks, the women distribute more than 350 packages, comprised of rice, sugar, lentils, beans, oil and milk.
“You see what is going on,” Maha said. “You cannot just sit and watch. Jesus told us to love everybody, to help everybody in any way we can, regardless of where a person comes from.”
What started as a small gathering of 15 to 20 women in the apartment of a refugee has become a group of more than 350 women. It now has a leadership team responsible for ensuring childcare for infants and toddlers and Sunday school-like activities for children ages 4 to 12.
The group’s response to the refugee crisis has not been limited to passing out food. They have also distributed blankets to the Syrian refugees — and also medicine, when they have the resources to do so.
The Bouloses helped organize a medical and dental clinic in November 2013, and again in February and September of 2014. The clinics provided check-ups to refugee families, many of whom suffer from poor health due to a lack of safe drinking water and proper medical care. Unsanitary and overcrowded housing conditions also contribute to local health challenges.
“When we help refugees, they are seeing Christ doing it. Because any time we do it, we tell them this is from the hands of Jesus,” Chaouki said.
Bouloses have devoted their lives to feeding the hungry and caring for refugees like Claudia from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. Three years ago, Claudia migrated to Lebanon with her husband and children, but the war has kept Claudia separated from the rest of her family.
‘Our Lord is visiting the area’
“We have been here for several years, and I haven’t seen my family,” Claudia said. “Every once and a while I talk to them on the phone, but I hear the sounds of bombs and shells. I hear them say there is no gas, no water, no electricity, no food.”
Now, Claudia serves as a volunteer at the center where the women’s group meets. She helps Maha and the other women pack and distribute food to families like her own, who have escaped the violence and bloodshed in Syria and now struggle to find adequate food and medical care.
Ibtisam, another volunteer, identifies with the Syrian refugees. Twenty years ago, her family was displaced from their home in south Lebanon.
“We feel the pain the Syrians are feeling, because we were refugees in our own country before them,” Ibtisam said. “We came here homeless with … no shelter, nothing. We come to [these meetings] with Sister Maha to help our Syrian brothers and sisters.”
Since 2013, the Bouloses have helped an Armenian congregation to provide food packages to Bedouin and other refugee families in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where more than 400,000 refugees reside. They also partner with an Armenian church planter in Damascus.
As the Bouloses continue to feed the refugees in Lebanon, they seek to remain faithful to Jesus’ revolutionary command in the Gospel of Matthew. And they do so remembering Chaouki’s dream that led them back to their homeland almost 15 years ago to celebrate Jesus — more convinced than ever that a great revival will sweep across the Middle East.
“I believe this is the Arab Spring,” Chaouki said. “I believe it’s our visitation time here in the Middle East. Our Lord is visiting our area.”