In the shade of the warm sun shining on the Bekaa valley, in one of the rooms of his sanctuary, Father Jean Nasrallah finally joins us, leaving his exhausting work behind for a few minutes. Wise, the man with eyes shining with energy, agrees to entrust us with a little of his life. A life worthy of the places in which he welcomes us: luminous and captivating.
In a calm voice, speaking French, the Father reveals some of the secrets of his faith and his strength, which he draws from his story. An intimate story linked to the history of his country, Lebanon. A tumultuous tale that demands an almost religious attention.
June 1978. The 15-year Lebanese civil war rages on. Attacked by the Syrian army, more than half of the inhabitants flee Qaa and its region for Beirut. There is no work or university and death and fear reign. The Father was 10 years old that year when 26 young Christians, including 3 of his uncles, were massacred in the forest by the army of the nearby eastern country.
"Serve God a little more". Since that tragedy, these words have been in the mind of the 10-year-old boy, he explains. But the religious life that awaits him is far from the usual patterns. His search for truth begins at an early age in the Christian schools followed by several years of theology. Having entered holy orders, he realized that his place was not in a convent but in the heartland of his region, among the inhabitants of the Lebanese Bekaa. "How can I understand the need of the people if I stay in an environment where everything is guaranteed?"
With the approval of the bishop of Baalbek, main town of his native land, he postponed his ordination to the priesthood, anxious to discern his vocation, and joined Qaa to serve the youth of the village. Lessons, parish activities, the creation of a scout group or the setting up of basketball tournaments with the french association “Foi et Lumière”... there is something for everyone!
In the course of the discussion, the bright sun becomes heavier and heavier. The Father sweeps the flies and the room with his eyes before continuing the story of his life. The volunteers listen attentively and carefully, captivated.
The scenery of the arid Bekaa metamorphoses into a tropical forest. It is in Bahia, Brazil, that Father Jean flies away. There, harmony, joy and charity are present. The “Point Coeur” association welcomes him to their farm among the many other volunteers. There they cut wood, play ball with street children, pray fervently, all in the greatest destitution, without electricity or gas. Strengthened by this experience, he returns to Qaa in 1997, determined to become a priest in the neighboring parish: Jdeidé.
It was in this small village in the Bekaa that he was struck by an intuition as he celebrated the Mass of Saint Anthony on the morning of January 17, 2001. He does not know the reasons for it, but his idea is clear: he has to build a church dedicated to Saint Anthony near the river, two and a half kilometres from the town. Even though the small Christian community of the village of about three hundred families does not necessarily need an additional church, the Father's intuition goes beyond purely practical logic. To carry out his spiritual project, he obtains from his parishioners an empty piece of land of 4000m2. From this arid land where nothing was growing will be born a prosperous and fertile haven of peace, entirely dedicated to the Christians of the surrounding area, in honour of the Lord.
The Sanctuary of St. Anthony, whose Arabic name is Mar Mtanos, comes to life step by step. The creation of the wonderful complex, which the volunteers know today, began in 2003 with a cave that became an intimate chapel in the valley. This first symbolic step refers to the extraordinary story of the Patron Saint of the place, who himself lived in a cave at the dawn of the 13th century, and was only possible with the diligent help of the young people of Jdeidé. In this, lies the secret of the Father.
His approach is easy and his ideals vast. "When the young Phalangists of the Bekaa were shot in 1978 I understood that my mission was to help these young people. "From the age of 10, the idea of a more tender, healthier world, of a youth sacrificed to be saved echoed in his heart and finally took shape with his sanctuary that came out from the depths of the earth. "From the very beginning of my project, God put a young boy from the parish who was part of the Lebanese army on my path. He led a life far from God, far from everything," he lamented, moody, before his features illuminated by this key episode.
He then tells us about the friendship he created with this young man following his unexpected declaration: "I make a vow to work in a convent for two weeks. Take me with you". The place was still deserted but Father accepted. The "convent" was then just a simple piece of unbuilt land, and a caravan had to be brought in to house it. The construction of the cave could thus begin.
Weeks went by and he stayed for a whole year, leaving the army for good to begin his quest for Truth. "He was very strong, but destroyed in his strong interior. His work at the shrine changed his life and formed the man of faith he became". Indeed, this young man decided to become religious! His meeting with Father Jean was a total turning point in his life.
Gradually he discovers the importance of the church: at the beginning people did not accept the idea of a third church far from the village. They were afraid that ill-intentioned people would take advantage of the distance to come and rob them. But as time went by, trust grew and a few houses were built.
The economic crisis was then a great hindrance to the work. Due to a lack of financial means, he had to stop the work several times. In addition, regular thefts and problems of expertise weakened the project leading to a consequent delay of the construction site.
But thanks be to God, they managed to finish just in time, only half an hour before the long-awaited opening Mass. This is a good example of the way the work was carried out: many problems appeared without warning, harassing the Father, who cannot help but make a comparison with St. Anthony, who was often put down by the devil. But Saint Anthony always got up and returned to the fight, and always solutions arrived to allow the construction to continue: unexpected solutions and even unhoped for, as if nothing could ever hinder this project in the service of a cause greater than us.
On May 28, 2017, while the war is still fierce against Daech's forces, positioned in the surrounding mountains, a big party is organized to inaugurate the church. More than a thousand people were present, coming from all the local parishes, as well as many Muslims. 2017 was definitely a special year, since it was also at this time that a small chapel dedicated to Pope John Paul II was dug in the cave.
The land thus became the heart of a new place to live.
Young people can gather there to organize activities, small parties, scouting gatherings, families can come and have a picnic... The Father even had football and basketball fields installed! He calls it all "his village garden full of life".
Today, the church has made it possible to develop the region. It represents more security, it has brought electricity, and above all, it facilitates the harvesting of the Christian and Muslim fields, thanks to a good irrigation network.
In 2017, he met Elise, a volunteer from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, who offered to finance the drilling of a 32-metre deep well with irrigation systems to water the Christian farmland of Jabboulé. The installation now makes it possible to irrigate the 370 hectares of arable land surrounding the village, and provides a livelihood for a significant number of families and young people in the village.
SOS Chrétiens d'Orient manages to collect more than 30,000 euros to carry out the operation "A well for the Christians of the Bekaa". The aid provided by the association does not stop there, since in 2019 donors are financing the purchase of lavender plants needed to make incense and soap, through a distillery project. In addition, since the beginning of 2020, volunteers have been coming every week to help dig the cave and maintain the vegetable gardens, and also enjoy the opportunity to recharge their batteries by playing with the children.
Father Jean stops to meditate for a short moment on his work. He then resumed by explaining that he never thought he would have made such a large centre, he had only imagined at the beginning a simple place of prayer. "God worked well, there wasn't a single engineer in the project".
Today, the crisis is crushing Lebanon. There is no more money in the banks, the formerly autonomous families find themselves in difficulty. Basic necessities are also becoming unaffordable, a refrigerator costs $600! The Lebanese family with a limited income can no longer afford to live as before: it is a war of every moment.
Sixtine, communication officer in Lebanon.