Christianity is in Danger in the Middle East





10-31-11

Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of "Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

"It is an incontestable historical fact that Palestine was the home of the Jews and of the first Christians.  None of them was of Arab origin.  By the brutal force of conquest they were forced to become converts to the Moslem religion.  That is the origin of the Arabs in that country.  Can one deduce from that that Palestine is Arab or that it ever was Arab?"

This quote was neither written by a historian nor by a Jewish statesman; rather, it was written by Maronite Archbishop Ignace Mubarak of Beirut in August 1947.  He belonged to a school of thought within the Maronite church which supported a Jewish state coterminous with a Christian state in Lebanon, where both would serve as refuge for Christians and Jews.  This is the same church that labored to create Greater Lebanon in 1920, and asserted the strong natural bond between the West and Lebanon.  In fact, it was initially the clergy who helped define Lebanonism as an ethnocentric identity in Western (i.e. Christian) terms, far from the pan-Arabism found in much of the rest of the region.  But little vestiges of this ecumenical ideology remain—and the Maronite church just put the final nail in its coffin.

Speaking in France during a recent visit to the Elysée Palace in early September, Maronite Patriarch and Cardinal Beshara al-Ra'i justified the presence of Hezbollah's arms outside the purview of the state and cast a doubt about the future of the Christians in post-Assad Syria.  He remarked that "if the situation further deteriorated in Syria and we reached a more radical rule than the current regime, like the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians there would pay the price, either in the form of killings or displacement.  Here is the picture of Iraq in front of us."  In a few sentences, Patriarch Ra'i implicitly reversed the longstanding position of the Maronite church regarding both Hezbollah's weapons and Syria's authoritarian rule.

This recent shift by the Maronite church is but the latest act in the long parting of the ways between the church and the West, which has forfeited its historical role as protector of Christian minorities in the Middle East.  Indeed, this attitude is in line with the near transformation of West-centric Lebanonism into Arab-centric Lebanon.  Political Maronitism, which supported the Eisenhower doctrine and refused to endorse the Arab League's initiative to sever Arab ties with the West in the aftermath of the 1967 War, has yielded to Arab nationalism.  This was compounded by Syria's support of Hezbollah as a resistance movement fighting Israel's occupation of Lebanese and disputed territories along the Israel-Lebanon-Syria border.  As Christians have been put on the defensive, Arab causes, especially anti-Israeli ones, have become uncontested national discourses.  However, this political retreat did not expunge the Christian impulse of Lebanonism.

When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, then Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir took the helm of political Maronitism by calling for the redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon and re-establishing a Christian political bloc after years of forced political slumber.  And though he promoted national reconciliation and co-existence among all Lebanese communities, he remained steadfast in supporting the sovereignty of the state over and above Hezbollah and Syria.

Meanwhile, however, his political orientation began to gradually but steadily subsume into the Vatican's policy on Middle Eastern Christianity.  Concerned about the constant decline of Christian presence in the region, the Vatican embraced an apostolic guidance for the Christians in the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular.  This apostolic guidance was enunciated during Pope John Paul II's visit to Lebanon in May 1997.  Besides emphasizing respect of human rights as a basis for the state of law, the pope called for Christians to  A)  realize the one destiny linking the Christians and Muslims in Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East;  B)  engage in a Christian-Muslim dialogue that deals with all common life aspects; and  C)  preserve and enhance the links of solidarity with the Arab world.

Certainly, the Vatican's apostolic guidance embodied Pope John Paul II's vision of Lebanon as convoked in the synod for Lebanon, convened in 1995.  The pope said that "Lebanon is more than a country, it is a mission."  He viewed Lebanese society not only as a model for religious and cultural plurality, but also as a fulcrum for Christian-Muslim dialogue.  Significantly, though the synod focused on one country, it embraced all Eastern Catholics.  Noble as it was, the Pope's apostolic guidance indirectly promoted Lebanon's Arabic identity and had the unintended consequence of undermining opposition to Hezbollah—criticism of Hezbollah endangered Arab and communal solidarity and therefore the safety of Eastern Christianity.

This papal school of thought gained momentum following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  As a result of sectarian strife, approximately half a million Christians left Iraq, and many of their churches were destroyed.  In response, in October 2010, the Vatican convened a special assembly to address the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.  Pope Benedict XVI said, "I pray that the work of the special assembly will help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs, so that just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship."  The pope also confirmed his support for continuing John Paul II's policy in the Middle East.  Significantly, ahead of the synod, the Catholic Church released a 45-page document—published in Arabic, English, French and Italian—in which it stated that the rise of "political Islam in Arab, Turkish and Iranian societies and its extremist currents are clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike."

Papal concern about political Islam has only intensified in the aftermath of the Arab revolts.  Broadly speaking, the Catholic Church has been worried about the future of Eastern Christianity in the shadow of Arab revolts.  For example, the general attitude of the Coptic Church in Egypt is now that things went from bad under the Muslim Brotherhood to worse under the Salafists, the new Islamists in post-Mubarak Egypt.  This fear is shared by the Syrian Christians whose ecumenical leadership has more or less supported a peaceful transition to democracy.  Despite the fact that thousands of demonstrators have been killed by the Syrian regime, the leadership of the Christian church has not opposed the regime.  Reacting to some clergy supporting the regime, and fearing acts of vengeance, Christian intellectuals recently wrote an open letter to the clergy calling on them not to speak publicly on behalf of the community.

It is against this background that Patriarch Ra'i's statements need to be read.  His concern about political Islam is a reflection of the Catholic Church's position; and his attitude towards Hezbollah stems from a minoritarian perspective affirmed by the unintended consequence of the Vatican’s policy.  After all, did not the Vatican support the enthronement of the new Patriarch Ra'i?  And sure enough, it was none other than Patriarch Ra'i whom John Paul II had chosen years ago to organize the synod for Lebanon. 

With all of this taken under consideration, it appears that these are tumultuous times for Christians in the Middle East, due mainly to the lack of Western support for Christian communities in the Middle East and the rise of militant Islam.  Consequently, the controversial political positions of the Christian churches in the Middle East are due as much to the influence of the Vatican as they are due to their precarious religious position.  Yet these political stands will most likely prefigure the future and fate of Christians in the Middle East.  Standing by or supporting despotic regimes could well help tip the balance in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East in favour of militant Islam, the very scourge they are worried about.


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