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The Arab world has just got its first female pastor, meet Rola Sleiman

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The Arabic word for “clergy” literally translates into “men of religion.” But this notion seems to be changing as the Arab world has just got its first female pastor.

Rola Sleiman is now the Reverend of the Presbyterian Church in Tripoli, Lebanon, thus breaking a long-standing tradition that gave preference to men in priesthood and becoming the first woman to assume such position in both the Arab region and the Middle East.

The decree to appoint Sleiman, who holds a degree from the Beirut-based Near East School of Theology, was issued by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon on February 26, 2017 following her request for appointment. Sleiman’s ordination gave rise to speculations over setting a precedent that might transform Christian practice in the region and maybe extend beyond it.

According to Beirut-based analyst Halim Shebaya, Sleiman’s ordination might not seem significant when compared to other demands related to the empowerment of women since her job is solely spiritual, yet it is extremely progressive on a symbolic level.

“Her ordination is doubly significant in a context where women are assumed to be of an inferior status to men when it comes to certain functions: theologically (priesthood reserved to men only), politically (vast underrepresentation of women in local and national politics), and legally (discrimination in law),” he wrote.

Shebaya added that the ordination of a woman means that the church is finally not contradicting itself as it did it before as one of its most venerated figures is a woman—Virgin Mary—then no women are entrusted with church affairs. He also said that Sleiman’s example is religious, yet might still send a powerful message across the region about the role of women: “And who would disagree that this message of equality and non-discrimination is exactly what Lebanon and the Arab world needs, regardless whether it comes in religious or non-religious language."

Father George Massouh, director of the Center for Christian and Muslim Studies at the University of Balamand, said that while Rola Sleiman is the first female pastor in the Arab world, the ordination of female pastors in protestant churches in different parts of the world is not unusual.

“While Catholic and Orthodox churches do not have female pastors, they are well aware that protestant churches do that so I don’t see why they can be surprised,” he wrote, in reference to reports that the two churches in Lebanon and elsewhere were taken aback by Sleiman’s appointment. “Pope Tawadros of Egypt received the primate of the Lutheran Church of Sweden [Antje Jackelén], who is a woman, and Pope Francis met with the same woman during his trip to Sweden,” he wrote. It is noteworthy that when asked following his visit to Sweden about the possibility of ordaining female pastors at the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said that the ban is final. Massouh explains the detractors of women’s ordination mainly cite one of two reasons.

“The first reason is based on the fact the Jesus Christ and his apsotles were male, which means that priesthood should be reserved for men. The second reason is not religious, but is rather based in social traditions and biological considerations,” he said. In response to how this contradicts with Virgin Mary’s status, Massouh said that many Christians believe that despite this status she was never made priest or the like, which means priesthood is not for women. “The discourse of Eastern Christianity will never progress as long as these ideas are still treated as givens.”

Before her ordination, Sleiman was performing all the duties of a pastor with the exception baptism and communion: “My duties focused on Sunday sermons and pastoral care visits until the 24-member Synod decided it was time to vote for ordaining me and I got 23 votes,” she said in an interview.

“This decision was supported by members of the church.” Sleiman noted that members of her church are a minority among Christians in Lebanon. “Protestants are 10,000 out of Lebanon’s 4 million and are mainly concentrated in the Mount Lebanon Governorate,” she explained. “The first protestant presence in Lebanon started with the Quakers in 1873 then the number of churches increased to reach 24.”

Sleiman said that people in her hometown seem skeptical about her ability to carry out the duties of a pastor. “I can see this in the way they treat and look at me because this is new to them,” she said. “This is despite the fact that when I was performing the duties of a pastor informally they were okay with it.” Sleiman said she believed that because Tripoli is her hometown and all members of the church already know her, they will gradually get used to it. “Women in the West proved that they can be as good as men in priesthood, but in the Arab world only traditions are the main barrier that can be overcome by one first precedent like this and there is always a first time.”