Two Lebanese men - one Christian, one Muslim - who had bitterly fought and killed during their country's civil war, have traveled together to Washington, D.C. to teach lessons in reconciliation. They told students at American University and Georgetown University, and officials at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, that they are living proof that forgiveness and peace between once-vicious rivals is possible.
During Lebanon's civil war, from 1975 to 1990, Assaad Chaftari was a senior officer in Lebanon's United Christian militias. He said he was fighting a Holy War as he kidnapped, arrested and killed Muslims. At the same time, Muhieddine Chehab was a commander of a Sunni Muslim militia and says he was a cunning fighter of Christians in the fiercest of battles. Today, they work together to overcome deep and long-lasting misunderstandings that, they say, lead to nothing but bloodshed.
"We inherit a lot of prejudice, I think," says Assadd Chaftari. "I was one of those who inherited a lot of prejudice against the Muslims living in my country and against Arabs in general. And I thought they were a danger for my country, Lebanon, and for my Christian community there. And I felt that my ignorance and deep prejudice that I had accumulated all along my childhood years were responsible for what I had done during the long civil war in my country."
Muhieddine Chehab says he understands that kind of prejudice. He recalls that when he was a teenager, Muslims were told that the Christians intended to slaughter them. It wasn't until after Lebanon was devastated by civil war that he says he began to think differently.
"Fifteen years of war in Lebanon destroyed our country," Mr. Chehab says. "At the end of the war, many questions came into my head and I tried to find answers. There are many questions about my country, the future of my country, the future of my family. These questions pushed me to understand the Lebanese Christian. How he lives, how he thinks, how he behaves. Is he really what I thought before and during the war? In fact, I discovered that the Lebanese Christian is a very patriotic person and he deserves better treatment from me and from the Muslim community, and vice versa - I think Christians discovered this, too."
Assadd Chaftari says he did, in fact, have to discard what he had been told about Muslims and begin to think for himself:. "I frankly discovered the Muslim in a very strange situation," Mr. Chaftari says. "I heard a group speaking of a plan that God had for the world and that I should be part of that plan. And this really struck me. I thought am I really doing what God wanted me to do? Am I loving the other? On the contrary, I was killing him."
Mr. Chaftari says although he was Christian he was not following the teachings of Christ in his daily life. "I mean, I was Christian on Sunday mornings only, and my whole week was not lived the way it should have been. So I'm trying now to put God into my daily actions. And on a daily basis I ask myself, what should be done today within my small capabilities as a normal human being, to try to alleviate a little bit of the harm and pain that is around me?"
Muhieddine Chehab says one important way to alleviate harm and pain is to break down stereotypes that have become fixed in so many minds, stereotypes that so many Muslims and Christians have of each other - prejudice held by Arabs and Westerners. "Stereotyping is very bad. I myself stereotyped the United States in the past," Mr. Chehab says. "I looked at it as the devil, the big Satan, etc. Is America the big Satan or the devil himself? Now I see it is not. So let's go away from stereotyping each other. Because stereotyping and ignorance of each other is a real problem and the first reason to [go to] wars."
By sharing these personal experiences and realizations Muheiddine Chehab and Assaad Chaftari hope to foster stability and bring lasting peace to Lebanon and make their country a model for other diverse nations.