When the Berlin-based RIAS Chamber Choir received an invitation to perform in Beirut, they were reluctant due to the political situation. But they soon agreed to bring a little Christmas sparkle to the Middle East.
From a hill high above the city of Beirut, Jesus looks down at his followers. The statue has been surrounded by scaffolding for the last two and a half years, much like the adjacent Zouk Mosbeh convent belonging to the Franciscan Sisters. The sisters were based here as of 1952, caring for old and infirm priests and orphaned children; they have since been forced to find alternative premises due to damage to the building during Lebanon's civil war.
But there was a glimmer of hope on a December evening in 2013. The sisters are dependent on donations to rebuild their convent and thanks to the organizers of the Beirut Chants Festival of Sacred Music, one of Germany's most renowned choirs - the Berlin-based RIAS Chamber Choir - traveled to Lebanon to take part in a benefit concert.
For the sixth year running, Christmas concerts take place in churches across the city with international artists a particularly welcome sight. According to Toufic Maatouk, artistic director of the festival, one of the aims is to show the world that Lebanon isn't a mere war zone, but also a country rich in cultural heritage. "Christian and Islamic music traditions are incorporated in the festival program which reflect the diversity of our country."
This is confirmed by festival founder Micheline Abi Samra: "The message of this event is tolerance. Everyone should see that Christians and Muslims live peacefully together in our country."
But Lebanon is a fragile state. Rigid provisions in the constitution aim to ensure an equal balance between religious groups; for example, the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary president a Shiite. A few years ago, Christians were in the majority. Today, however, they represent only about 30 percent of the population. In addition, some three million Syrian Muslims have fled to the country due to the ongoing civil war at home. Many also fear that violence will spill over the border from Syria into Lebanon.
"It's something special to be able to sing here because we see that Christians here are in a more difficult situation than we are," said singer with the RIAS Chamber Choir, Ulrike Bartsch.
The situation in Beirut remains generally quiet, with violence between the Hezbollah political party and their opponents restricted to the south of the city. In contrast, members of several different faiths sat together peaceably for the two performances of the RIAS Chamber Choir. It was astounding, really, since in a country of some five million people, there are 18 separate religious groups from Maronite Christians to Muslims to Druze.
The audience sat in silence watching the 34 members of the choir on stage performing classics like "Ave Maria" and "Silent Night," as well as more obscure songs such as "Gloria in excelsis Deo" by Italian composer Giacinto Sceisi.
Feelings of trepidation
Hauntingly beautiful sounds filled the nave, making the visitors forget all about the constant presence of armed security forces standing guard outside the church. Several of the choir's singers admitted to a feeling of trepidation as they left Berlin for Beirut, particularly because a bomb had exploded in front of the Iranian embassy just two weeks before.
Four choir members actually chose not to participate in the trip. "Many musicians saw only a city in a state of war. That the conflict is restricted only to certain places is something you obviously can't see from Berlin," noted choir director Bernhard Heß, who was in constant contact with Germany's Foreign Office while the choir was abroad.
But for those who chose to go, any feelings of nervousness dissolved after the warm reception the choir received. "They really made an effort to present their country in the best possible light," said Bernhard Heß. "That's certainly helped put people at ease."
A city of contrasts
The 34 choir members from seven countries stayed in an abbey where Pope Benedict was once a guest. While the facilities were spartan, the views of the city were terrific. Beirut is situated on a peninsula against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Many of the performers used what little free time they had to explore the city.
It quickly became clear that Beirut is a city of contrasts. Concrete high rises sit alongside Ottoman-style villas and crumbling buildings and bullet hole-ridden facades are still visible, left-overs from the civil war which raged in the country from 1975 to 1990. Churches and mosques sit harmoniously side by side and on traffic islands dotted around the city are statues of the Virgin Mary. At this time of the year, the Lebanese, regardless of their faith, take to Christmas decorations whole-heartedly with the city full of the icons of the festive season; Santa Claus, snowmen and reindeer.
A splash of color
Very few of the choir musicians dared to sample the famous hookah pipe for smoking shisha tobacco, instead preferring to sample the Mezze, a selection of small dishes typical of the Middle East - similar to tapas.
Another pleasure was interacting with the locals. "One woman said the choir had brought a splash of color to the city," said singer Achim Schwesig. "She was happy that we came despite unfavorable press reports about the country." Andrea Effmert added: "I'll never forget the feeling of having been able to bring some Christmas cheer here."
However, to claim that the RIAS performances in Beirut brought nations together is, for choir director Bernhard Heß, something of an exaggeration. "But we could at least intensify this contact," he said. "And perhaps next year, we can perform together with a Lebanese choir."
That's something the Franciscan Sisters of the Zouk Mosbeh convent would especially enjoy. While this particular trip brought a much-needed cash injection to their coffers, a further appearance of the RIAS Chamber Choir might just provide sufficient funds to be able to finally restore their statue of Jesus to its former glory.