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First Arab woman ordained as Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament

Rola Sleiman to continue serving Presbyterian Church in Tripoli

by Elmarie Parker | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Rola Sleiman is ordained as a minister of word and sacrament. (Photo provided)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Though we often hear only the dark and disturbing stories coming out of the Middle East, on February 26 Presbyterians there celebrated a historic milestone. The Presbyterian Church in Tripoli and the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) ordained the Rev. Rola Sleiman as the first Arab woman to serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.

After graduating in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in theology from the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, Sleiman moved to the Bakaa Valley in Lebanon to serve as a Christian educator. In 2001 she returned to Tripoli to work at the Presbyterian Church and teach ethics at the evangelical school.

In 2006, when the pastor of the church immigrated to the U.S., Sleiman was appointed by the synod as the unofficial pastor at the congregation’s request. She received her preaching license from the synod in 2008 to make the appointment official and has carried out all the duties of a pastor except for baptism, Communion and performing marriages. Now she can carry out the full duties and responsibilities and is well-received among her colleagues — both Christian and moderate Muslim. She continues to work toward completing a master of divinity degree.

“This has been a long and slow conversation,” Sleiman said, “and this is good, because everyone has come to see over the years that this gentle way of opening up a new practice has made for a more peaceful acceptance.”

Sleiman was born and raised in the Tripoli Presbyterian Church. She graduated from the Evangelical School in Tripoli when it was still in the old quarter of Tripoli down the street from the church. The school is well-known and loved by both the city’s Muslim and Christian residents. Many of its Muslim graduates have gone on to serve as moderate political leaders, taking the lessons they learned in school about peaceful and respectful co-existence and seeking to embody that in the political landscape of Lebanon.

Rola Sleiman, left, Elmarie Parker, center, and Najla Kassab. (Photo by Scott Parker)

Even as the city has grown more religiously conservative since the 1960s, with a small portion of the population now holding radicalized views, the church and school continue to have a strong and positive relationship with its Sunni Muslim-majority neighbors. When violence was common between the two factions several years ago, Muslim neighbors always made sure to check on Sleiman.

“There have been many people and influences that have helped us arrive today to this place of justice and love,” said the Rev. Joseph Kassab, general secretary for NESSL.

Early women Presbyterian missionaries like Sarah Smith, committed to educating girls and women, laid the foundation for Sleiman and those to come. The Church of God ordained three Arab women as pastors in the early 1920s, and at the same time, NESSL elected its first woman to serve as a representative to its General Assembly. Though the door again closed to women in “official leadership positions” for several decades after this period, many in the synod continued to advocate for including women in the life and ministry of the church.

In 1960 a Women’s Alliance was formed, with bylaws affirmed by the synod. This alliance brought together Christian Protestant women from Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Syria and Lebanon. Full-time Arab women staff, funded by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), led the way in supporting and encouraging the work of Arab women in the church across the Middle East.

The Rev. Dr. Salim Sahyouni set an example in the 1970s by participating in missionary Elsa Far’s ordination and asking her to serve as an assistant pastor in the Beirut Presbyterian Church. This also contributed to opening the way for ordaining women in the NESSL.

In the late 1980s, Najla Kassab of Lebanon was finishing her BA in Christian education at NEST and felt called to continue her theology studies. Though new faculty to NEST in the mid-1980s, like Dr. George Sabra and Dr. Mary Mikhael — who would become NEST’s first female president in 1994 — were teaching the biblical and theological basis supporting women’s ordination, it wasn’t yet possible for women to enter the masters of divinity program at NEST. After receiving a scholarship from Princeton Theological Seminary, Kassab graduated with her MDiv in 1990. Her husband, Joseph Kassab from Syria, also studied at Princeton.

When the Kassabs returned to Lebanon, they began working in Christian education at the synod level. Through workshops and conferences, they encouraged the ministry of women and built on the theological training now happening at NEST. In 1993, the synod’s executive committee and administrative council formed a committee to prepare Najla for receiving a preaching license — the first offered to a woman. She accepted the license and has worked with the women and children of the synod for the past 24 years. On March 24, Najla Kassab became the second woman to be ordained to full pastoral service in NESSL.

“Women have proven themselves faithful servants of God in the synod. We have done a lot of grassroots level work over time. We have had four women licensed as preachers since 1993, and now two of us are ordained. This is setting the track for the future not just here in Lebanon, but we pray in the region as well,” Najla Kassab said. Protestant church representatives attending her ordination from Jordan and Egypt said they look ahead with hope to the day when their church bodies will also ordain women.

“It was high time that the church take this prophetic step. … Whenever God calls someone to service, who has the right to say you cannot obey God? This is a happy day for the church to finally take this prophetic step that it should have taken many years ago,” said Dr. Mary Mikhael, who retired from service as NEST president in 2011 and currently serves as communicator for NESSL to partners in Europe and the United States focusing on the synod’s relief work with internally displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

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The Rev. Elmarie Parker is PC(USA) regional liaison to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Editor’s Note: Although the PC(USA) currently prefers the term “Teaching Elder” to denote ministers authorized by a presbytery to serve as pastoral leaders, NESSL uses the former terminology of “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” which has been retained in this article.


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