ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Where Dialogue Is on the Curriculum

A Catholic university in Lebanon mends sectarian and religious divisions

“As a Catholic university, we believe it’s high time to reach a reconciliation. Education plays a role,” says Dr. Assaad Eid, vice president of sponsored research and development at Notre Dame University–Louaize (N.D.U.). Located in the ancient village of Zouk Mosbeh, eight miles north of Beirut, the lush main campus offers students and faculty an oasis of calm away from the city’s hustle and bustle.

“We want to help graduates understand the values that need to be applied. There’s a lot in common between Muslims and Christians. How do we get students to engage in dialogue?

“It starts here at a university like ours, having dialogue internalized in the minds of learners,” Dr. Eid continues.

“Some people think maybe this is a dream. We want to cultivate peacemakers. Lebanon is a confessional state, unfortunately caused by hate and bloodshed. We should be teaching love, reconciliation and forgiveness.

“How do we help learners adhere to values? When we get students to do service, what should a university be doing? Most important, how do we help? What added lessons should students carry to live out their values and lead a better society one day?”

This year marks Notre Dame’s 25th anniversary. However, it traces its origins back to the Maronite Synod of 1736. Considered the most significant single event in the history of the Maronite Church, the synod mandated, among other resolutions, that the church provide universal education.

The monks of the Maronite Order of the Holy Virgin Mary hosted the synod at its motherhouse, the 17th–century monastery of Our Lady of Louaize in Zouk Mosbeh. Pursuant to the synod’s decree, the order established the church’s first coeducational Catholics — fled the sectarian violence that engulfed their ancestral homeland in the Shouf Mountains during the civil war. He eventually left the country to study in the United Kingdom, where he earned his doctorate. In 1986, he returned to Lebanon and joined the faculty at the center for higher education in Zouk Mosbeh.

“We risked our lives at the time,” he says. “This hill used to be a combat zone. This campus was hit twice and caught fire. But in the end, it proved to be a sustainable project.”

In 1990, N.D.U. established an off–campus program in the coastal town of Chekaa, 40 miles north of Beirut. In 1999, it moved further north to a campus in the village of Barsa. Referred to as the North Lebanon Campus, it offers area students courses leading to most of Notre Dame’s undergraduate degrees, as well as graduate degrees in business administration and education.

Two years later, N.D.U. opened the Shouf Campus in the village of Deir el Kamar, 22 miles southeast of the capital. Located on the premises of the 19th–century St. Abda Monastery, it offers courses leading to a variety of undergraduate degrees and a graduate degree in business administration.

For the past 25 years, Notre Dame has evolved and grown tremendously. The university now enrolls more than 7,000 students, and some 10,000 alumni live and work around the world.

Last year, administrators increased general education requirements. But regardless of the evolution of the university, the basic mission remains the same.

“Our core mission,” says Dr. Eid, “is based on the premise of forming wise citizens in Lebanon. We need to cultivate certain conditions to provide learners with opportunities and spiritual values.”

N.D.U. is as diverse as Lebanon,” declares Dr. Eid. Though the main campus’s student body is mostly Christian, the North Lebanon and Shouf campuses enroll significant numbers of Druze and Muslim students.

As part of N.D.U.’s mission, faculty and staff on all campuses promote dialogue among students of different religions and sects.

“The [main] campus is 95 percent Christian. We can’t change that, but we can create an opportunity where they can meet each other, and we can achieve great things,” says Dr. Ziad Fahed, professor of religious studies.

“I don’t think students are interested initially,” admits the professor. “There’s a barrier, and we have to cross that. Sometimes, they’re brainwashed by their leaders. They’re born into a society where there are tensions and conflicts.”

Sitting in his office, the professor pops a bottle of champagne to celebrate a research grant he just won from the U.S. State Department’s Alumni Engagement and Innovation Fund. With the grant money, he and students will conduct research on Lebanon’s ethnic and religious minorities, including Armenians, Jews and Turks.

“One of the things we do is keep our eyes on the forgotten. We’re studying the marginalized communities in Lebanon,” says Dr. Fahed. “Students go out and discover communities in Lebanon. It’s something that’s basic for Americans, but not so basic for Lebanese.”

Dr. Fahed hopes the research will help raise awareness about minority communities and expose students to members of other groups they would otherwise never meet.

The research project is Dr. Fahed’s latest effort to help heal divisions among the Lebanese people. Last year, he founded the Interreligious Academy. As part of the Dialogue for Life and Reconciliation Organization — a nongovernmental organization also established by the professor — the academy brings together students from different religious and geographical backgrounds to instill religious tolerance and understanding in future leaders. Participants attend workshops in which they learn about each other’s different faiths and traditions.

“I have a deep concern about how we can be helpful. The mission of the university is not just to teach, but to have an open–minded spirit,” says Dr. Fahed. “We did nothing before. But now we can do something to keep Lebanon diverse. Instead of blaming our ancestors for not avoiding a civil war, what can we do to avoid a potential civil war?”

Twenty–two–year–old Nadine Mazraani participated in the Interreligious Academy, something she says changed her perspective on religious coexistence.

She graduated from N.D.U. with a degree in international relations and now works as a research assistant at the university’s center for applied research in education, where she is helping Dr. Fahed with his ongoing projects.

The academy sent her to Temple University in Philadelphia, where she participated in workshops on conflict resolution. The workshops brought together students from across the Middle East, allowing them to share and compare their experiences. In the United States, she observed firsthand the diversity of American society.

“It changed me,” she says. “Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to different groups because my parents are really conservative. I understand why they think this way, but I don’t agree.”

Elie Ezzie, a 21–year–old political science student at Notre Dame, also participated in the Interreligious Academy. Though he lived in Saudi Arabia for five years while growing up, he never had Muslim friends before college. In the academy, he met people from other religions and engaged them openly on all sorts of topics, even taboos. By the end of the program, the young man had made friends with other participants.

“I’m proud to have a Shiite friend named Hassan Yousef. It’s the first time I have had a friend from another religion,” he says. “Now, I believe in dialogue.”

Notre Dame’s dormitories house students from diverse backgrounds, offering them countless opportunities to get to know one another. On the main campus, about half the students in dormitories are Muslim; the rest are Christian.

Larine Tarabay, a student from a Christian community in northern Lebanon, says she met Muslims for the first time in her dormitory’s kitchen and recreation room.

Ramzi Merhej, a 23–year–old senior in mechanical engineering, also lives in the dormitories. A Christian, he started the student club, Nahar al Shabab (“Youth Day” in Arabic), which brings together students of different backgrounds for recreational activities.

For Assil Ghaddar, a 20–year–old Lebanese Muslim who grew up in Kuwait, socializing with people of different religions has always been a normal part of daily life. In Kuwait, she attended Catholic schools, so choosing N.D.U. made sense to her.

“I didn’t think religion would be a reason not to apply,” says the third–year student in graphic design. “People were surprised. Some people asked what I was doing here. I proved that it’s normal.”

She hopes more young Lebanese will follow her lead and attend the college they want, regardless of their religion.

“People need to overcome their fear,” she says. “Lebanon is counting on the new generation. If we don’t want to know each other, then absolutely it will stay the same.”

Nadine Mazraani agrees.

“The next generation is the hope for Lebanon,” she says. “And N.D.U. is working to make this happen. They’re working to make a more tolerant society. All universities talk about dialogue on their web sites, but here they really do it.”

Journalist Brooke Anderson covers events in the Middle East.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español