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Published Date: December 2, 2022

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Women in Scripture and Mission: Saint Rafka of Lebanon

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, new believers spread across the Mediterranean region sharing their faith and birthing new faith in Christ. Over the centuries the churches blossomed, shaping lives and cultures in the Middle East region. But as Islam began to spread in the seventh century, and eventually came to dominate the religious landscape in this part of the world, most of the churches eventually disappeared. The Lebanese Maronite Church was one of the exceptions, quietly maintaining their small but powerful witness, continuing to worship Jesus Christ to this very day.

Rafka, born in the Lebanese hills in 1832, represents well the tenacious church that formed her. Like the strong beginnings of the Maronite church, Rafka enjoyed a happy start to life. But just as the church faced persecution and hardship, so too Rafka also experienced the devastating loss of her mother when she was only six or seven years old. She and her bereaved father quickly became impoverished. To survive, her father sent her to work as a domestic servant in Damascus. Returning home when she was fifteen years old, she found that her father had remarried. Meanwhile, her family was busy trying to arrange a marriage for her, with her stepmother pressuring her to marry her brother, and her aunt wanting her to marry a cousin. Rafka retreated to prayer to determine God’s will for her life. And just like the church that did not follow the nation’s majority religion, so too Rafka discerned that God did not want her to follow the usual path of marriage, but to instead devote her life to service in the church as a nun.

A Quiet Hero

Rafka was known for her quiet strength and devotion to children. Over her lifetime she founded several girls’ schools aimed at equipping the girls with an education to meet the changing future. But she is most beloved for her courage during the Syrian War of 1860 that targeted Christians. The tactics against Christians included breaking down the doors of homes, killing the men, looting the valuables, and then burning the homes to the ground. Simultaneously groups raped the women, destroyed churches, and looted the Christian shops and businesses. Those fleeing were often killed or forced to convert to Islam.[1] Amid this deadly chaos Rafka entered the town square where she encountered a boy who the Druze swordsmen intended to decapitate. A creative problem solver, she saved the child’s life by hiding him in her nunnery robes!

As she aged, severe pain led to eventual blindness and finally paralysis of everything but her hands. Still seeking to serve, she used her hands to knit garments for others. Rafka demonstrated an understanding of faith reminiscent of the early Christian martyrs, finding joy in the pain as it helped her identify with the pain Jesus suffered on our behalf.

Rafka’s quiet life of strength and love has earned her the deep devotion of the Lebanese Maronite Christians. Rafka provides the inspiration to carry on in their faith, despite the severe challenges they face as a minority community in Lebanon.

Learn more

Grace Al-Zoughbi talks about Christians women in the Middle East

Listen to Grace Al-Zoughbi interviewed on Mutuality Matters: Global Impact: One Body, One Kingdom: Encouraging Arab Women in the Church and the Academy with Grace Al-Zoughbi

Notes

  1. Details of the destruction can easily be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_civil_conflict_in_Mount_Lebanon_and_Damascus