Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Role Of Christians In The Arab Spring

By Walid Choucair

                                   Patriarch Beshara Rai
There has been a media commotion in Lebanon caused by reactions to statements by the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, who raised Christian fears of some aspects of the Arab spring, and the changes it might lead to, especially in Syria. One of the positive aspects is that this commotion has launched a debate, overtly and covertly, over the role of Christians at this particular juncture in the Arab world, as well as the repercussions of these events.
This discussion quickly moved from thinking about one issue to contemplating something wider in scope, namely the role of minorities and their position in the process of change, and the new political formulas that might result.
Patriarch Rai might not have meant to launch this discussion, which transcends the current political moment and approaches something deeper. Rai was eager to talk about the fear that Christians will pay the price of the Muslim Brotherhood's coming to power in Syria, and of a "Sunni alliance along with the Sunnis of Lebanon, which will lead to further crisis with the Shiites;" these remarks were preceded by the patriarch's comments about giving Syrian President Bashar Assad an opportunity to carry out reforms. However, the ramifications of these comments will not be limited to the Lebanese political arena, where it is easy to see such opinions exploited amid the current political division and rivalry.
The more important consequences of the domestic political uproar over Rai's comments are those that have appeared, and will appear, in three significant places, which are concerned with what Rai said. One is the Council of Maronite bishops, where some people do not share Rai's opinions about the Syrian regime and Hezbollah's weapons, which Rai linked to the Israeli occupation. The second is the Vatican, which shares the anxiety over the situation of Christians in the Middle East amid the growth of fundamentalism, but which has taken a stance on the events in Syria, as expressed by Pope Benedict XVI. On 8 August, the pope issued a "pressing appeal for the re-establishment as soon as possible of living together peacefully and an adequate response to the legitimate aspirations of the citizens, respecting their dignity, and for the benefit of the region's stability." Addressing Syria's ambassador to the Vatican, Benedict asked Assad to "respond to the aspirations of civil society and international organizations."
The third place is France, which informed Rai of its disappointment with his remarks.
The patriarch's anxiety raised the issue of whether the church in Lebanon, which can legitimately express the fears of the Christians in the entire east, has a new position vis-à-vis conditions in Lebanon and the region and the coming future, which will certainly witness changes due to the Arab spring. The patriarch acted based on the presumption that the Syrian regime will end, when he talked about the fear of a post-regime phase. This presumption remains debatable, unless Rai arrived at it as a result of the French affirmations that "the regime is finished" and was thus led to hastily express his fears.
In any case, there should be a search for answers to the Christians' questions about the post-revolution phase, and there should be more accuracy when discussing the reality of Islamist movements taking part in this process of political change. In an interview published a few days ago, Syrian opposition figure and writer Michel Kilo cautioned against looking at these movements based on the view of past experiences in the 1970s, when such groups used slogans of "God's rule" on earth and accused others of apostasy; today they are calling for pluralism and a civil state.
For a serious discussion of where Christians stand in terms of these revolutions, one should not link the matter to the survival of a given regime. The change that is coming to the region is the result of decades of injustice; moreover, the anxiety about Sunnis leading this change does not apply in all cases; the face of change in Iraq, which rid itself of dictatorship, was Shiite. The pan-Arab movements in the region have employed slogans and Islamic names that we now see every Friday, to mobilize people, since the day of prayer is when people can gather. The means of this mobilization extended to "Good Friday" at Easter time, while secular and Christian national leaders have used Islamic means of mobilization (Michel Aflaq and George Habash, for example).
Sectarian minorities cannot stand against the current phase of change in the region, if it is true that the Sunni majority alone is the fuel for this change, and will benefit from it.
The quickest way to overcome the anxiety about the post-revolution phase is for Christians to play a leading role in spreading the culture of human rights, democracy, the rotation of power and public freedoms, a culture that is enshrined by their presence within a larger majority.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 16/09/2011

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