Ordination of female Lebanese pastors marks precedent for Arab Christians
Beirut - “God does not love men more than women. We are equal in the eyes of God,” said the Reverend Najla Kassab, the Arab world’s second woman to become a pastor of the Evangelical Church in Lebanon.
Kassab and the Reverend Rola Sleiman, who was ordained February 26 following a 23-1 vote of the Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, entered history as the first Arab women to lead a church in the Middle East where gender discrimination is widespread in religion, politics and business.
“Nobody can convince me that God loves men more than women. Nobody can rob us (women) of our ministry in the church,” Kassab said. “We have a different style of ministry in which our talents in the service of the church are used to complement the talents of men.”
A mother of three and wife of a pastor, Kassab said she regarded her ordination and that of Sleiman the result of the natural growth of the church.
“It is the outcome of a journey that started some time ago when in 1993 and for the first time the synod gave a preaching licence for a woman,” she said. “It ushered in a new start in which women are allowed to preach in our churches.
Kassab has been preaching for many years. Her work, she said, was focused on empowering women in religion by creating awareness about “how their talents can be used fully in the life of the church”.
“I think the integrity of the church in allowing women to fully participate in the life of the church would create more of a positive encouragement for women and show them that in the eyes of God they are valuable and they are equal to men as human beings,” Kassab said.
The ordination of two female pastors is not expected to make a big difference in the fight for equality between the sexes in Lebanon or in the Arab world; however, it did force an opening into a vocation that had been reserved exclusively for men.
Sleiman said her ordination and that of Kassab were a “true expression of love and justice”.
“In principle, women should find justice in the church,” Sleiman said. “Women are being dealt with unjustly and discriminated against in the society; having them discriminated against in the church as well would be a tragedy.”
“Any woman who has capacities and is serving the church deserves to be recognised. We thank God that the ordination of women has occurred although I believe it came a bit late,” she added.
Sleiman, who heads the Evangelical Church in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, has been technically performing all the functions of a pastor, except for the sacraments of baptism and communion, since 2007.
“I preached in the church and presided at Sunday mass but I could not do baptism and communion without the assistance of a male pastor. Now I can do everything without any men of the cloth to assist me,” Sleiman said.
Though their ordinations broke long-established traditions and cultural sensitivities, Sleiman and Kassab said they were overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received from churchgoers and colleagues in the clergy.
“We thank God for acceptance in our churches,” said Kassab. “The recognition that we got from our colleagues, the pastors, made this change more of a natural move than anything else. I personally was so honoured that my ordination was attended by Catholic nuns and priests, as well as Assyrian bishops.”
She hailed the “positive” move by the Evangelical Church as this year it marks 500 years since the Reformation.
“In the Middle East and in Lebanon, we have a lot of capable women and we don’t want them to succeed only outside the church. We want them to use their talent in the service of the church as well,” she said.
“The reformative movement should be a continual process. Female pastors can reach out to women more than men because they know very well their needs, sufferings and struggles. Who is better than a woman to preach about God’s love, to talk to believers and to hold a child and baptise him? The woman is a mother after all,” Kassab added.
Sleiman said “God gave women great roles in Christianity” from the exalted status of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and female saints and Jesus’s first revealing himself after resurrection to a woman.
“The ordination of women is like a candle lit in the midst of darkness in the region,” she said. “Christ is love and love does not distinguish between men and women. Christ’s justice has been finally fulfilled.”