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Friday, June 7, 2013
Arab Christians and the
Crisis of Pluralism in the Middle East
President of the Republic of Lebanon, 1982-1988
Remarks delivered at the conference on
“The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East,
North Africa and the Two Sudans”
Sponsored by The Sudanese Programme of
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
Friday, June 7, 2013
Major Negative Trends in the Arab World
The Status of Christians in the Arab World
Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and colleagues, good afternoon. I would like to begin by thanking Dr. Ahmed Al-Shahi, Bona Malwal and Dr. John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International in Switzerland, for their excellent work in organizing this important conference.
In my remarks, I would like to share some thoughts on the crisis of pluralism in the Middle East. I will do so by surveying:
· Negative trends in the Middle East region;
· The status of Arab Christians; and,
· Possible solutions of togetherness that could help move the Middle East away from its crisis of pluralism towards a more democratic and hopeful future.
As I will emphasize, a stable future—both for religious minorities and for all the peoples of the Middle East—can only be secured through a culture of democracy that values pluralism and acceptance of others, including those of a different religious tradition. Therefore, some themes I hope we examine during these proceedings are human rights, freedom, democracy, and good governance.
In the Middle East, Christians and other religious communities are often victims of persecution perpetrated by state and society. Yet we must also acknowledge this fact: if Christians are among the first targets, they are not the only targets.
Within a Middle East environment that still features a notable lack of freedom and democracy, extremist Muslims often harass and oppress moderate Muslims.
Therefore, I assert, let us not focus our attention on enhancing “minority rights” in the Middle East; instead, let us explore ways and means of achieving democracy and good governance in the Arab world, a condition that will bestow the benefits of human rights and freedom on all communities in the region.
Major Negative Trends in the Arab World
Before noting certain negative regional trends, I should first express my perspective on the Arab Awakening—the collective name given to the socio-political changes that have swept across the Middle East in recent years.
Simply put, the Arab Awakening is one of the great, hope-inspiring developments of early twenty-first century history. Thanks to this Awakening, across the Arab world millions of people now live under governments, and within societies, that are far more responsive to their hopes and aspirations.
In my estimation, the Arab Awakening has featured two aspects.
In its first aspect, the Arab Awakening is a struggle between old, dictatorial governments and the forces of change. We have witnessed this struggle between dictatorship and change play out in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and—most destructively—Syria.
In its second aspect, the Arab Awakening became a clash between the forces of freedom and democracy—led by a youthful vanguard—and religious extremists bent on imposing a perversion of divine doctrine.
We have seen this second aspect of the Arab Awakening manifested in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, during the initial phase of the anti-Mubarak protests, a group of young Egyptian revolutionaries called for democracy and pluralism under the slogan, “the Cross and Qur’an together.”
In a subsequent phase of the Egyptian revolution, however, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists sought to dominate the scene by employing the rhetoric of Islamic solidarity. This was a blatant attempt to push Egyptian Christians to the sidelines.
During a third phase of the Egyptian revolution, a kind of antidote to the Muslim Brotherhood arose in the form of pro-democracy agitation that again emphasized the solidarity of all Egyptians, no matter their religion.
Overall, the spread and intensification of religious extremism in the Arab world poses a threat to religious minorities no less than it does to the forces of Arab democracy. For this reason, these two groups—which often overlap in any case—should work in tandem to overcome the crisis of pluralism that could permanently damage both.
Across the Arab world, dangerous signs of a region-wide spiral of conflict are apparent. Christian communities in Syria, for example, have been subjected to violent attacks perpetrated by religious extremists.
Here I would like to highlight the disturbing case of the simultaneous abduction in April of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop, Boulos Yazigi, along with the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop, Yuhanna Ibrahim. They were traveling by car to Aleppo, Syria, when unknown gunmen intercepted them, killed their driver, and took both hostage.
Early last month, I received assurances from the acting president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, that the two archbishops were in good health and in the custody of a Syrian rebel group. Yet this information offers little comfort to Christians in Syria or the region, who want to know why these respected figures were taken prisoner and what this dangerous incident means for the future of Christians in Syria and the Middle East.
In short, this dual kidnapping sends an extremely dangerous message that certain influential elements do not want Christians in post-Assad Syria. There can be little doubt that the disappearance of these Christian leaders was meant as a prelude to attacks on Christian churches and assaults on Christian families, all part of a campaign to uproot a community whose presence in Syria long pre-dates the arrival of Islam.
Beyond intensified persecution at the hands of local actors, Arab Christians have reason to fear larger international trends, including the wait-and-see attitude that many influential countries—including the United States—have adopted.
The Status of Christians in the Arab World
Ladies and Gentlemen, in bringing us together, our distinguished co-conveners made reference to, and I quote, the “existential crisis facing the [Middle East]’s religious minorities....” I would now like to share some thoughts, from an Arab Christian perspective, on the nature and dimensions of this existential crisis.
According to estimates, at the beginning of the twentieth century Christians constituted approximately 20 percent of the total population of the Middle East; today, that figure has dwindled to just 5 percent. Projecting population trends foreword, the Middle East’s remaining 12 million Christians may be reduced by 50 percent in less than a decade.
These grim statistics demonstrate beyond doubt that the region is facing a crisis of pluralism, and Arab Christians are, perhaps, its primary victims.
Over the last decade or so, the course of Middle East history has not been kind to the region’s Christians. The Iraq war, the Syrian war, the continuing cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence, and the political upheaval associated with the Arab Awakening have uprooted many Arab Christians, causing them to flee abroad, often to countries outside the Middle East.
In some cases, Christians have been targeted in systematic killing campaigns that can only be categorized as ethnic cleansing. Such campaigns have included the murder of priests and attacks on churches and other religious centers. Just such a pattern of persecution, for example, has forced approximately two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians to flee.
Even when Arab Christians remain in their country of origin, they often face an array of challenges, including: government discrimination, informal social prejudice, and a litany of constrictive religious laws and practices.
Operating in an environment in which their own governments either ignore or obstruct their interests, Arab Christian communities urgently need support from an array of governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organizations.
Given the undeniable facts of the crisis of Christianity in the Middle East, it is a disturbing fact that little attention has been devoted to this issue by governments, international organizations, and even the traditional and new media. The prominent American journalist Jeffery Goldberg recently told a colleague writing a story about this topic that the persecution of Arab Christians is, (and I quote,) “one of the most undercovered stories in international news.”
[Kristen Powers, “Middle East Christians need our protection,” USA Today, 2 April 2013 (available from [http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/04/02/middle-east-christians-need-our-protection-column/2047473/]; accessed 15 April 2013).]
As members of this distinguished audience know, the time is overdue to formulate and implement solutions to the crisis of pluralism in the Middle East. This project must be pursued urgently, before the prospects for democracy fade and the very category of Arab Christian all but disappears.
If Christianity disappears from the Arab world, then this will be a tremendous negative blow to the Middle East as a region and to its dominant religious community, Muslims. Without a doubt, Arab Christianity adds a vital element of positive richness to all aspects of life in the region.
I began my remarks by noting how a better future for all the peoples of the Middle East depends on a culture of freedom and democracy that respects pluralism. We can start with two dimensions involving reform of the mind and the articulation of ideas, namely: education and the media.
The first step to achieving Arab democracy and ensuring pluralism is to give the region’s youth tangible proof that their lives are improving. Here, we must remember that the Arab Awakening was at heart a movement by the young in favor of change and against a present filled with despair.
To inspire Arab youth to support universal values of freedom, democracy, and pluralism, access to primary and higher education must be enhanced. Above all, new curricula at all educational levels must emphasize the teaching of tolerance, togetherness, and partnership.
Beyond educational reform, a new Arab media must become a partner in creating Arab democracies. This new media should promote hope and the ideals, principles, and procedures of pluralism. Therefore, international agencies affiliated with the United Nations—as well as private sector NGOs—should help train media not only in technical areas, but also in the norms and standards of democracy and diversity.
In terms of accountable governance, to consolidate the Arab Awakening countries need to create those classic institutions that brace the frame of democracy, namely: parliaments, executives, and courts with independent identities and constitutionally expressed powers.
The project of reforming of Arab governments is, of course, primarily an Arab responsibility. Yet the international community can and must assist in this process. A new coalition composed of official and nongovernmental representatives from the established democracies could be created to help the emerging democracies of the Arab world.
Such a pro-democracy coalition could assist Arab governments and Arab publics in critical areas, like democracy training at all levels of society. This proposed coalition for Arab democracy must also be prepared to issue strong warnings to Arab governments if they deviate from the norms of human rights and democracy.
In certain severe cases, failure to uphold democratic governance should result in tangible negative consequences, such as a reduction in foreign assistance and even broader political and economic sanctions.
Of course, no reform of Arab societies—whether in education, the media, or government—will succeed if Arab majorities do not support such measures. If democracy and its essential feature, pluralism, are to succeed, then Arab Muslims must never view Arab Christians as intruders to be expelled.
The challenge for Muslim Arabs at this crucial moment is to demonstrate that the Middle East—a region where Muslims predominate—is capable of achieving pluralism, freedom, and modernity. Now is the time for this troubled region to transcend sectarianism and define a concept of citizenship based on universal values of tolerance and democracy.
As history demonstrates, pluralism benefits not only minorities but all sectors of a society. In this context we may ask: “How can moderate Islam prevail for the benefit of all Muslims and the wider world if Middle East Christianity disappears?” As a fit response, Muslims of goodwill can help preserve and enhance the moderate core of Islam by forging partnerships with their Christian compatriots.
If Arab Muslims create partnerships with Arab Christian to forge democracy in the Middle East, then this will send a strong message to the world that the Muslim community is, at its center, moderate and committed to pluralism.
For their part, Arab Christians should at all times emphasize that they are loyal citizens of their respective countries. In this way, they will exercise the rights and responsibilities of civic life and help guide their societies into a new, twenty-first century pluralism.
Arab Christians everywhere can find inspiration from the record of Lebanese Christians, who in accord with their best traditions have made decisive contributions to the cause of democracy and pluralism in Lebanon by championing civic law, tolerating different political views, celebrating personal liberty, upholding the independence of civil society, maintaining ties with other Christian communities in the Middle East, and remaining attuned to global trends and influences.
At this historic moment, the issue that threatens the stability and, therefore, the future of the entire Middle East region is the Syrian crisis. What is now an internal civil and sectarian war can easily become a regional war pitting states and religions against each other in a guerre à outrance. The joint kidnapping of the Syrian archbishops I mentioned a moment ago is a foretaste of what we can expect amid such a war.
Given the urgency of terminating the war in Syria, full support must be given to the diplomatic initiative co-sponsored by the United States and Russia. Should the Geneva II peace process succeed, it will bring relief not only to Syria, but to communities throughout the Middle East, including Christians.
Beyond crisis management and war termination, the international community, including religious communities, need to think how to bring about a Middle East region defined by peaceful coexistence, democratic principles, and economic opportunity.
In this regard, I have proposed a new Marshall Plan for Arab democracy, one supported by the established democracies of the Atlantic community and dedicated to forging partnerships with—and among—the emerging community of Arab democrats.
Dear colleagues, I have no doubt that leading representatives of the Arab Muslim majority are ready, and even eager, to participate in a great project focusing on interfaith dialogue and democracy building, which in the Middle East must go hand in hand.
At this time, we need an interfaith dialogue initiative to build on the great symbolism that was achieved in late 2007 when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met with Pope Benedict at the Vatican.
More recently, an important pro-democracy statement was issued in June 2011 by Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, sheikh of the prestigious Al-Azhar in Cairo—the world’s leading center of Sunni Muslim thought.
In the twin projects of interfaith dialogue and democracy building in the Arab world, the full participation of Christians is vital.
Allow me to finish with the following reflection by the journalist John Allen, which appeared four years ago in the New York Times:
Historically,Arab Christians have promoted a pluralistic vision of society, standing between resurgent Islamic fundamentalism and ultranationalist strains in Judaism.If they disappear, prospects for peace become dimmer.
[John L. Allen, “Can the Pope Bring the Peace?” New York Times, 6 May 2009 (available from [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/opinion/06allen.html]; accessed 15 April 2013).]
In conclusion, I urge all of us present here today to take the facts and analyses we have heard in the course of these proceedings and build on them in concrete ways.
Most urgently, let us consider what kind of interfaith and civil society forums we can launch that will help focus the world’s attention on managing and then resolving the crisis of pluralism in the Middle East.