Tripoli, Lebanon – To anyone’s knowledge, Rola Sleiman is the first female pastor in the entirety of the Arab Christian world.
It’s a straightforward tale: a young churchgoing girl decides to study theology in university, and upon graduation returns to the church of her youth in Tripoli, Lebanon. The only twist is that she is the first woman to reach such a vocation.
“I didn’t really have it in my head to become a pastor,” says Sleiman as she sat in Tripoli’s National Evangelist Presbyterian Church. And yet, she became an officially ordained pastor on February 26, 2017 – a historic appointment for a role which had previously been restricted to men.
It’s evident that Pastor Sleiman’s direct demeanour and good humour helped pave her path to the pulpit. She stands at the podium, making sure her pants are hidden while she jokes with the church’s organ player. “I’m getting photographed in my jeans – it’s going to scandalise our congregation!” she laughs.
Explaining how she fell into the role of the first female pastor, she recalls the initial circumstances which brought her to this point. “The way everything turned out, looking back, I think it was God’s will to make this statement.”
She says this tentatively, processing the enormity of her ordainment.
This is my church, and I wasn't going to leave it,
Sleiman didn’t come from exceptionally devout roots: Her parents were Evangelist Presbyterian churchgoers, but not more religious than the average household. She attributes her theological path to a teenage phase, when, like many her age, she began questioning: She wanted answers, so she read.
“I read the Bible, the Quran, the Old Testament … and I was convinced with my faith. I’m not saying it’s the ‘Truth’ for everyone, but to me, this is where I felt convinced.”
Her path was clear at an age where most teenagers struggle with their purpose. When Sleiman was 17, she applied to be adopted by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, the denominational umbrella which forms the Evangelical Presbyterian federations throughout the Levant.
The Synod adopted her and subsequently sponsored her degree in Theology and Christian Education.
Upon graduation, she had the option to serve in several of the Synod’s churches around Lebanon, including in her hometown of Tripoli. Sleiman was drawn to Tripoli and the church she had grown up attending. “I felt there was something that I had to do here, in my hometown … I just felt that I had to go.”
It was a gut feeling which proved accurate. In 2006, George Bitar, the pastor of the church which Sleiman grew up attending, left the country to travel. Having formal theological training qualified Sleiman to take on the task of leading Sunday services on a temporary basis.
However, as the 2006 July War with Israel erupted in Lebanon, Bitar was unable to book a flight home, and Sleiman ended up conducting services for six months.
When Pastor Bitar returned, it was brief. He had attained a visa to the United States, and in 2008 moved there with his family for good. In the absence of an appointed pastor for the church, Sleiman continued as interim minister, building a relationship with her congregation as time passed.
“This is my church and I wasn’t going to leave it,” she says with conviction.
Still, as Reverend Sleiman was not an officially ordained pastor, difficulties manifested. She was unable to perform sacraments or baptisms without supervision from an ordained cleric in the Synod – male supervision.
Additionally, the Synod’s committees, a collection of elders and pastors from across Syria and Lebanon, could not vote on a number of issues without the presence of an ordained representative from Tripoli.
Tripoli’s National Evangelist Presbyterian Church needed a pastor. It was time for the Synod to officially appoint a representative so decisions could be made.
When the church was asked who they wanted to represent the congregation, the answer was obvious. After years of being interim minister, “My church was used to me. They didn’t think of me in terms of gender, as a woman or a man. I served them, doing visitations, preaching well, and I convinced them through my service,” says Sleiman.
Ultimately, the vote to ordain Reverend Sleiman passed in the Synod 23 to one, with remarkably little resistance.
The city of Tripoli, known as “the second capital of Lebanon”, has been heavily affected by the neighbouring civil war in Syria, with sectarian fighting and car bombs making news headlines. Furthermore, in 2014, assailants set fire to Tripoli’s Christian-owned Saeh Library and torched up to two-thirds of the library’s 80,000 books and manuscripts in what was reported as a religiously motivated attack.
But mainstream media has depicted her beloved city in a skewed light, insists Sleiman, by focusing on distorted sectarian divisions and a small number of youth that join organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
While Lebanon’s delicate confessional system has historically suffered due to sectarian divisions and civil strife, Sleiman believes in representing her denomination peacefully. “To me, it was about pastoring our small group, in order to take care of it and ensure [our] continuity,” she says.
Tripoli is a historically diverse city, but its Christian population dwindled during Lebanon’s 15-yearlong civil war, that began in 1975. Heavy economic burdens intermingled with religious tension, leading many to immigrate. Christians now make up an estimated six percent of the population in Tripoli.
Evangelical Presbyterians are a tiny denomination spread across Lebanon and Syria, and representing their presence is a significant factor in Pastor Sleiman’s decision to lead and foster her congregation in its current location, which consists of approximately 33 families.
Although there is an Evangelical Presbyterian sister-school on the outskirts of town, the National Evangelical Church itself is situated in the centre of the old city, surrounded and well-known among the majority Muslim shopkeepers in the neighbourhood.
Her congregation is on great terms with the surrounding community, asserts Sleiman. “I can’t imagine living in any other city,” she says. “The people [of Tripoli] are so supportive.”
Being the first female pastor in the Arab world is a responsibility that at times seems ordinary to Sleiman; other times the enormity of the historic appointment weighs on her.
“The title hasn’t added to anything I wasn’t already doing. On the other hand, I feel there are so many more eyes on me, like people are waiting either for me to succeed or fail.”
Beyond the historic religious decision, Sleiman has been thrust into the position of promoting gender equality in Lebanese society through her work.
Lebanon’s delicate political structure has left much to be desired politically, especially for women, who frequently bear the brunt of most socioeconomic problems. The month of March marks International Women’s Day every March 8.
This year, as hundreds of women marched the streets of Beirut to demand equal rights, Rev Sleiman began her role as an officially ordained pastor in Tripoli.
Reverend Sleiman, who has a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, was born and lived in Tripoli all her life and considers herself Lebanese, but does not have Lebanese nationality. Because Lebanese mothers cannot pass on their nationality to their children, Sleiman must periodically renew her Syrian passport and residency permit to maintain legal status in Lebanon.
“We have laws that oppress women,” she says, while clarifying her position against the oppression of all peoples. “It’s time to leave all that behind.”
“Some people would tell you my ordination happened late. I think, better late than never. At least a door has opened,” Sleiman muses. “These doors need to be opened everywhere.”
Pastor Sleiman’s strides are not lost upon her. “Alhamdulillah,” she says, using the Arabic word which both Christians and Muslims use to denote “Thank God”.