LEBANON: In Muslim Middle East, Jehovah's Witnesses congregate in secret
An elegantly dressed Lebanese woman in a black and white Chanel suit stood up and offered her seat to a Philippine domestic worker, "Please sit, I'll go look for more chairs."
The unusual scene in Lebanon, where wealthy locals more often than not abuse and exploit migrant workers from Asia, was at an undercover Jehovah's Witnesses congregation just outside of Beirut.
Recently, more than 200 Jehovah's Witnesses gathered in the basement of a posh building north of the capital. They divided up into two rooms, one for the English-speaking and one for the Sinhalese-translated session for Sri Lankans.
Unlike other parts of the Arab world, Lebanon is known for its tolerance of multiple religious confessions. But even that has a limit, especially for faiths like Jehovah's Witnesses that are not registered or officially recognized by the government.
It is estimated that there are over 15 "Kingdom Halls," or prayer gatherings, in Lebanon, which for now appear to be tolerated despite fears that participants could be harassed or deported. "My employer is Greek Orthodox, but she likes that I am a Witness," a young Philippine woman explained. "She knows that she can trust me. She lets me come to the meetings."
Unlike in the West, however, she does not go door-to-door preaching. Proselytizing to Muslims is a punishable offense in most Arab countries. Though the Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the government relies on a confessional system in which each state-sanctioned religious community holds an independent civil court to adjudicate personal status matters, namely marriage, divorce and child custody.
Jehovah's Witnesses say they feel like an oppressed and silenced minority. They say that the Maronite community in particular vilifies them. "They spread lies about us, claiming that we are Jews," said an Armenian convert.
Jehovah's Witnesses is a relatively young faith. In the late 19th century, an American named Charles Taze Russell led a Bible study group after the publication of his "Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society." The group dubbed itself Jehovah's Witnesses in 1931.
Followers believe that the End of Days began in 1914 with Armageddon approaching. They observe only one holiday: The Last Supper of Jesus, or the Memorial Service as they call it. An estimated 18 million adherents regularly attend Kingdom Halls or proselytize worldwide, including in the Arab world. The Council of Elders, based in Brooklyn, oversees the activities of the group, publishes religious materials and disseminates doctrinal interpretations.
The Beirut service began with a warm welcome from one of the "brothers," who then summoned another member to deliver the sermon. He discussed their beliefs, reading from the New Testament and arguing that, after Armageddon, only 144,000 true believers will accompany Jesus as he rules from heaven.
The witnesses listened solemnly, rising and praying when called to do so. Finally, the preacher concluded, offering to dispatch learned members to the homes of newcomers.
Two Lebanese and two African members walked to the front of the hall to collect a plate of unleavened bread and a glass of red wine.
Once the memorial concluded, they rose from their seats and chatted quietly with one another. The Ghanaian and Philippine couple rushed their daughter home "to finish homework." A Lebanese man carried his young son on his shoulders; the Lebanese women giggled with their Philippine sisters and most of them gave a smile and a handshake to all new faces.
"I hope to see you Thursday so we can talk next time," a young Liberian man said kindly to an American newcomer. "You are always welcome here."
-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut
Photo: The front cover of an Arabic-language Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlet. Credit: Los Angeles Times