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Leda Zakarison brings insights from Lebanon to area churches

Three years of living and working in Beirut, Lebanon, has given Leda Zakarison new perspectives on the war and refugee crisis in Syria, the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, interreligious dialogue in that region, and everyday life in the U.S.

Leda Zakarison visits archaeological ruins at Baalbeck, Lebanon. Photos courtesy of Leda Zakarison

It has given her a global perspective and opportunity to see through the eyes of Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian friends she made.

The lifelong member of the Pacific Northwest Conference and Community Congregational UCC in Pullman, Leda returned the end of December after three years living and working in Beirut, Lebanon, as a global mission intern with Global Ministries, a joint ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ.

She worked at the Beirut-based nonprofit Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), which promotes peace building, active citizenship and human rights in Lebanon and Syria. It also engages in the long-term work of creating spaces for dialogue and community building for civil society groups to be catalysts for peace.

FDCD offers workshops, dialogue, and trainings on peace building and citizenship. It also provides humanitarian aid in Lebanon and Syria, including after the August 2020 Beirut port explosion and the 2023 earthquakes in Southern Turkey and northern Syria.

Partner in Beirut, right, shows Leda Zakarison damage after 2020 port explosion in Beirut.

FDCD focuses “on skill building to give local organizations and individuals tools to be change makers in their communities,” said Leda, who worked as communications and program associate, strengthening the English social media presence to spread FDCD’s message. She also wrote grants to support its program.

Leda was in Lebanon through as the country faced the multiple and complex crises of the COVID pandemic, political protests, economic collapse and the 2020 port explosion.

Through this time, she gained insight into disaster response, the long-term impacts of crises on individuals and communities, and the importance of community and faith in building resiliency amid disasters.

Growing up in Pullman, she spent summers at Camp N-Sid-Sen as a child, youth, counselor and director.

After high school, Leda studied religion and interfaith relations at Whitman University in Walla Walla, graduating in 2016, when she entered the PNC’s Justice Leadership Program in Seattle.

She was assigned to work with Prospect UCC and Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power and Light, continuing with Earth Ministry to support Initiative 1631. It was an effort to put a price on carbon. She also promoted other environmental protection bills in the Washington State Legislature.

While working with the JLP, Leda had attended a General Synod, where she met a Global Ministries leader told of the UCC’s global work and invited her to serve as an intern.

“She asked if I wanted to go anywhere in the world where would it be. I said I was interested in interfaith dialogue and would be interested in going to the Middle East,” Leda said. It was not what I planned.”

Leda arrived in March 2020 as COVID was beginning. She was in voluntary quarantine before three months of full lockdown began. As it lifted, there were restrictions limiting days people could drive based on whether their license plate had an odd or even number. Shops were open limited times and they could not eat inside.

“I was able to go to the office in May 2020,” said Leda, who lived at the Protestant seminary, the Near East School of Theology, with 12 others—an American, a Canadian, Syrians, Lebanese and a Palestinian.

From them, she learned about life in Canada, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

I had friends at the NEST from Aleppo who told of 6 million refugees Syria,” said Leda.

The spoke English, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish. Leda learned enough Arabic to order food and take a taxi.

“It was humanizing to hear stories of what Aleppo and Damascus were like before the war,” she said. “When the earthquake happened, I was with friends from Aleppo.”

While in Lebanon, she saw the work of the UCC sending food parcels to Syrian refugees, for relief after the Beirut port explosion in 2020 and following the recent earthquakes.

FDCD helped rebuild houses and structures damaged in the explosion.

Leda was also struck at how nations welcomed people fleeing Ukraine after the war broke out, in contrast to knowing how hard it is for Syrian refugees to be resettled.

“It’s hard for us to see people in crisis as people who went to school, played soccer and had hopes and dreams,” she said. “We see huge numbers of people affected by the war in Syria or explosion in Beirut, but behind each number is a person with a family and dreams of what they want to do with their lives.”

Leda also learned about the impact of American policies in Syria. While not involved in the war technically, the U.S. established “Caesar sanctions” in 2020, targeting people doing business with the Assad government in Syria, making it hard to buy gas, medicine and food.

“I could see the difference before and after the sanctions,” she said.

She also learned that the U.S. government has much influence on what happens in Palestine and Israel.

“We can do more to help the situation in the Middle East than just sending donations,” said Leda.

“On behalf of those who do not have access to the halls of power, we need to talk to U.S. leaders about what is going on related to the sanctions, U.S. funding of Israeli weapons and planes, U.S. training Israeli police and U.S. support for blockading Palestine,” she said.

Each month, the UCC has Third Thursday Action suggestions related to the Middle East. They are at Leda urges people to sign up and email Senators and Representatives.

“They to listen to constituents,” she said.

Leda helped promote FDCD’s three skill-building workshops reaching 100 young people a year, training them on their rights, citizenship and project management.

She was also involved in interfaith dialogue with faith leaders of 18 sects of Christians and Muslims, like Orthodox and Maronite Catholic, Sunni and Shia Muslim.

Dialogue wasn’t just between Christians and Muslims, because among themselves Christians didn’t even agree. It was quite a contrast from her studies of interfaith dialogue and her interfaith work with the office of religion and spiritual life at Whitman.

“In Lebanon, we needed to balance interfaith understanding with practical realities we needed to address in day-by-day life,” she explained. “It was less about dialogue between two faiths and more about two people coming together, people whose lives are complicated by religious conflicts.

Leda pointed out that dialogue is a long, hard, slow process. FDCD works long term, still addressing sectarian divides since the conflict in Lebanon ended in 1990.

“FDCD creates safe spaces for people to come together for conversations, for Sunni and Shia sheikhs with Orthodox and Catholic priests to discuss sectarian tensions and what it means to love neighbors of other religions,” she said.

On one level, FDCD seeks to prevent sectarian clashes.

On another level, Lebanese and Syrian faith leaders face the same struggles as PNC church leaders: the reality that few young attend worship.

“Faith leaders discussed their common desire to involve young people. It’s a common concern globally,” she said.

“The younger generation is less concerned about worship and more concerned about creation care, environmental destruction and the future,” Leda said.

Faith leaders have other common concerns: to feed and house people.

“There are people suffering and we are called to help people in need,” Leda said. “Christians and Muslims are all children of God, obligated to respect and ensure dignity.

“In interfaith dialogue, we can disagree on theology and religious practice. The dialogue will not make us agree, but Lebanon is in crisis, and everyone in the room wants to help the people, so we looked at effective ways to respond to the crises,” she said. “We need to stay grounded in our love and concern for people.”

Leda, whose work was supported by One Great Hour of Sharing donations, said the UCC has long ties in Beirut. Congregational missionaries founded American University in Beirut in the 1800s.

The UCC and Presbyterians have ties with Armenian Evangelical churches and other organizations there, said Leda, who attended the National Evangelical Church in Beirut.

Having looked at going to seminary to become a minister before she went there, she noted there were only five ordained Protestant women pastors there.

The PNC has been a support throughout her life, especially as she served the church overseas. She is now ready to give back, preaching and giving presentations on Lebanon, Syria and Global Ministries.

Leda returned to the Pacific Northwest in December 2022 and is available to speak with congregations and groups. She is available to preach and provide presentations about Lebanon and Syria and Global Ministries’ work in this region.

Meanwhile, she is again exploring going to seminary and entering ministry.

For information, email


Copyright © Pacific NW Conference United Church of Christ News March 2023


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