In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, a Presbyterian community has decided to break with tradition and elect a woman as their pastor. The small parish has come to appreciate Rola Sleiman in trying times.
Sitting in her white Mercedez, Rola Sleiman makes her way through the Sunday traffic of Tripoli. A tentative calm has fallen over the streets. But the heavy army presence in and around the city reminds residents of the recent violence. "We couldn't come to church last Sunday. Protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails at the army from the roof of the church," says Rola, as Michael Jackson's "Heal the World" wafts from the radio.
The 38-year-old is Lebanon's - and as far as she knows - the Middle East's only officially appointed female pastor. Since 2005, she has been in charge of all affairs related to the Tripoli Evangelical Church, part of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. She can perform the same tasks as any ordained priest, save for sacraments.
Although Sleiman is aware that she is paving the way for other women, she says this opportunity came into her life by accident, when the pastor of her church left for the United States. "I had the same degree as him, in theology, so I decided to take over, as an interim pastor. As time passed, I gained the trust of the churchgoers and they suggested I become their official pastor. I think this was the key to the success of my appointment. People knew me personally and trusted me. The fact that I am a woman was never a problem," she explained as she prepared her sermon for the day's church service in her office in the basement of the church.
Paving the way
"When I presented my request to the synod, they were a bit astonished, but most of the members were proud to see a female applicant. I must admit I was a bit shocked," she added.
Sleiman was born in Tripoli to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. She says she knew early on that she wanted to serve God. “I was called (by God) to make a change. We have a message of love and acceptance and I felt like it had to be proclaimed and that I had to make a career in it."
Before becoming a pastor, she served as an education adviser for eight years in the Bekaa Valley. Her family was not thrilled by her choice of career. She did, however, receive support from the men in her family. "Most parents want something secure for their children. My parents didn't understand what I would do with this profession. But my father ended up being my main supporter. My brother is the one who introduced me to theology."
And she's found plenty of support in her parish. "At the beginning, some people raised the objection that she is a woman, but we decided to trust her and give her a chance. Now, people love her because she is honest and she cares about them," says Jack, a churchgoer.
Preaching in chaos
Today, despite the deteriorating security situation, Sleiman heads a small parish of 33 families, many of whose members have emigrated. Tripoli is Lebanon's second-largest city and is located only 30 kilometers (18 miles) away from the Syrian border. Since the beginning of the civil war there, Tripolitans have been affected by the increasing sectarian violence linked to the Syrian conflict. Car bombs and clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad have resulted in hundreds of deaths.
For Sleiman, the Syrian conflict has put further strain on her small and already fragmented Christian community. She says they try to remain neutral in the conflict, but people are scared.
One parishioner, a Lebanese-Palestinian woman, refuses to give her name when asked how the violence has affected her community. "People are afraid to come to Tripoli," she says, while drinking her coffee with the other churchgoers, in the basement of the building.
Today about 20 parishioners have come to the mass. It's a good turnout Sleiman says. During holidays they often number 80. Inspired by the recent sectarian clashes and the city's cultural mosaic, Sleiman decided to devote her sermon to the theme of reconciliation.
Despite the support of the parishioners, the young woman is still not sure whether she will apply to be ordained as a priest, as she believes change must happen incrementally and in a consensus.
"I am not seeking my own success. I feel the general assembly and the elders of the church are positive about me being ordained as a priest, but I am not sure everybody in our community in Lebanon would agree. If there is a chance that my ordination would affect the church or create divisions I won't do it."