Syrian refugee Sheikh Abdul Rahim Hassian, an interfaith dialogue activist, recently received the 2017 Spiritual Solidarity award from Adyan Foundation in Lebanon for his work in promoting dialogue and peaceful co-existence.
The award, presented to Hassian during an October 29th ceremony at the Antonine School in Ajaltoun, north of Beirut, recognizes his work as a peacemaker.
Through a centre he established in Akkar, Hassian has been teaching young Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities the values of diversity and interfaith dialogue and communication.
Al-Mashareq spoke with Hassian about his work as an interfaith dialogue activist.
Al-Mashareq: What are the reasons that compelled Adyan Foundation to grant you the award?
Abdul Rahim Hassian: Before the outbreak of the war of Syria, I was a preacher at a mosque in Homs and active in interfaith dialogue and social work. When I arrived in Lebanon, I continued what I had started in Syria.
In 2013, I established the al-Ihsan Centre in North Lebanon, which is today named the Academic Centre in Akkar, to serve Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities.
I became acquainted with Adyan two years ago when the centre's team and myself took part in training workshops offered by the foundation, the most notable of which were 'Education for Peace and Resilience', and 'Diversity Management and Inter-religious Education'.
I gained experience that I shared with the volunteers and staff at the centre as [the workshops] presented us with solutions to the problems we face with our Syrian students.
We were facing problems related to violence and the students being influenced by religious programmes that were inflammatory and extremist by nature.
By virtue of our participation in Adyan’s workshops, we were able to fight extremist ideas and banish them from [the students’] minds, acquaint them with 'the other' and [teach them] openness to other religions and cultures.
Al-Mashareq: What did these workshops consist of?
Hassian: The Education for Peace and Resilience workshop focused on nine themes: security and its sources; identity, self-acceptance and openness to the other; understanding emotions; empathy; violence and dealing with conflict; shared values; inclusive citizenship for cultural and religious diversity; and children’s rights.
We implemented the content of the programme with 250 children in our centre and the public school in Qubbat Bashmara [in Akkar], and the result was that violence dropped by 80% and they took to resolving their conflicts with dialogue.
The students today are inoculated [against violent behaviour] through communication, dialogue and openness, which improved their behaviour, discipline and their interaction with the administration, teachers and Lebanese students.
They realised that diversity, which we adopted as a slogan at the centre and the school, builds unity and gives strength.
We are also implementing the programme in a number of refugee camps in the north in co-operation with civil society organisations to promote dialogue.
Al-Mashareq: How did you attempt to instill the concepts of interfaith dialogue among students?
Hassian: We focused on the customs and traditions of each sect and taught them that all religions have the same purpose, namely to serve humans and not to lead to hostility between them.
We also conveyed the message that all human beings are equal in rights, duties and freedoms, and that it is not right for a cleric of one religion to accuse another religion of kufr (unbelieving), or deem the shedding of the blood of its followers permissible.
We assured them that religions do not call for killing, but rather came for the good and service of humans and to meet their basic needs, and to call on them to accept others. [...]
We taught the students that each one of them has their own beliefs, and that they must be respected and not be a cause for conflict.
We do this work so the students, who have experienced the consequences of wars, can develop cultural, pluralistic and diverse thought so that they can look to the future with confidence.
Al-Mashareq: In your opinion, what factors helped the initiative succeed with the students?
Hassian: The success is attributable to the Academic Centre's team members, who believe in the importance of religious and cultural plurality to our Arab society. The team itself embodies this diversity.
We all work with the mindset of moderation and centrism that accepts and respects others.
We did not stop at what we learned from Adyan’s programme, but launched an initiative with the Lebanese NGO Arcenciel that had Syrian students exchange visits with Lebanese Christian students, wherein they became acquainted with each other and exchanged gifts and letters.
These visits created friendships and communication between the parents of these Syrian and Lebanese students.
The initiative broke down the prejudices that existed between the Lebanese and Syrians, and between Muslims and Christians. It effected a level of social integration between the refugee and host communities.
Al-Mashareq: What do you aspire to achieve?
Hassian: I dream of spreading a culture of peace, dialogue, nonviolent communication and peaceful conflict resolution, and of ending the bloodbath and returning to our country.
We need to promote moderate thinking, dialogue and nonviolent communication, not only in Lebanon’s schools and those that educate Syrian students, but also in mosques, churches, places of worship, and local institutions and communities.
We must spread this culture to assert that war does not bring peace, and that what creates peace is dialogue and the acceptance of others.
I wish that clerics, teachers and activists could become peacemakers from their platforms [and pulpits], and teach and educate children, the youth and people in general that wars lead only to killing and destruction, while everyone wins with the culture of dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution.
I hope to spread this culture and values to end conflicts, extremism and terrorism. We must embrace the message of love, peace and co-existence with others.
Al-Mashareq: Do you think this is easy to achieve?
Hassian: The path of community service is full of challenges and thorns.
But we need determination, will and goals, as having them will make all challenges easier to overcome.
I say this from personal experience, as I was subjected to takfir (accused of being an unbeliever) for what I advocate and work toward.
This served as motivation for me to continue my mission, which is a mission of benevolence and love in the face of evil, and I will keep on with it until its goals are achieved.