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On Monday, Nov 5, the Social Sciences Faculty of the Angelicum hosted a lecture on Christians in the Middle East, as a kickoff event for their new Al Liqa’ Project.
History Prof. Habib Charles Malik of the Lebanese American university offered his reflections and recommendations on the Christians of the Middle East focused on the events between the Arab Spring, and the release of the Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, which was delivered during Pope Benedict’s Apostolic visit to Lebanon in September.
Prof. Malik began with the state of the question. There are about 12 million Christians in the middle East he estimates, not counting Latin immigrants, which include about 8 million Copts in Egypt, another 3 million in the Levant – Melkites, Maronite, Syriac, Greeks, Armenians, Latins and Protestants – and the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq, a population that has been decimated since the U.S.-lead invasion of 2003. There remain less than a million.
Emigration out of the region has been going on since the advent of the 21st century, due laregely to attacks on the communities. During the raging civil war in Syria, he describes both sides – the Alawite Shi’a administration and the Salfist Sunni insurgents (and others) – as targeting Christians and attempting to pin the attacks on the opposing forces. They have become the primary targets of opportunity.
Malik was critical of the Arab Spring as a misnomer – the so-called Facebook generation of young democracy-minded types had not held together beyond the revolutions, and instead we have what he suggested to be called a ‘Salafi Spring.’ Tunisia is one of the few places he sees a genuine road to democracy, though throughout the region, the moderate Sunni voices are too often weak and unheard – and often in just as much danger as the Christians of the region, if they speak up against extremism.
Middle Eastern Christians are caught in the middle of several conflicting and potentially destructive polarities in the region:
- Sunni vs. Shiite: With a rough north-south border running through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the most explosive region of volatility around this divide is in Syria, with a small Alawite (Shi’a) administration and a larger Salafi (Sunni) insurgency.
- Arab vs. Persian: Centered around Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side and Iran on the other, with corollary polarities between Turkish and Israeli interests.
- Salafi and Jihadist vs. Despotic Regimes – The false sense of security under a ruthless dictator should not be preferred over the uncertain volatility of the powers emerging from the revolutions.
- Sino-Russian vs. Euro-American interests in the region, often complicated by western neglect or ignorance of culture, religion, and society in the area couple with agendas more concerned with petroleum and other natural resources than with human rights and religious freedom.
Given this, many of the region’s Christians have trepidations about the Arab Spring, fearing that it will bring not a transition to greater democracy, but simply create an extended power vacuum that could be manipulated by militant extremists.
But not all of Prof. Malik’s talk painted such a gloomy picture. There was an enthusiastic and grateful welcome of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, which Pope Benedict delivered in Beirut six weeks ago. There is, as always, a desire to be better understood by the west in general, the Latin Church, and by the Holy See. Many see Pope Benedict has grasping many of the complexities and delicacies of Christianity in its birthplace, and see in the exhortation recognition of the historic, current and eschatological dimension of the predicament of indigenous Christians, while outlining their unique responsibilities as Christians in the midst of the world of Islam.
He did suggest a few critiques, or observations for improvement, in the exhortation:
- The frequent use of Lebanon as a role model, he says, seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The potential is there, certainly, but there is still a long way to go.
- The high praise of the Middle East Council of Churches ignores the record of nearly exclusive focus on Palestine and missed opportunities in other areas
- Interreligious dialogue needs to be a dialogue of truth and charitable but honest witness, not of the common platitudes he sees throughout
- Finally, the pleas for a healthy secularity may resonate with a Eurocentric West, but make no sense in Islam where there is no differentiation between the realms of sacred and secular authority. This kind of language might just push Christians out of the area to seek the kind of healthy secularity to be found in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“How can the Christians navigate between the depressing realities of the Arab upheavals and the hope offered to them in the Apostolic Exhortation? How can they internalize and employ the latter to overcome the anticipated negative fallout from the former?” Some thoughts and recommendations presented by Prof. Malik:
- The Church and the world press need to continue to put pressure by shining light on even the smallest abuses. Even dictators don’t like bad press.
- The international community must insist that new states’ constitutions include religious liberty and hold them accountable.
- The litmus test of the Arab Spring is and will be the treatment of religious minorities. Need to consider a ‘federalism’ option.
- People of the region must actively promote rights and ’universal liberal values’
- They need the encouragement and support of the Christian World
- Inspiration from the Year of Faith and the carefully selected opening mass reading of Mark 8-27-35, with its focus on ecumenism as a witness of unity in the face of interreligious dialogue and as a prerequisite for survival and evangelization.
- Let Maronites take a lead, from their relative stability, but open more to the Anglo-Saxon world, as they have been to the Francophone
- Unhindered pilgrimage access to the Holy Places is still not guaranteed for the Christians of the middle east, as it is for those from anywhere else. This ought to change