Amine Gemayel

President of Lebanon 1982-1988

A Guiding Charter for Arab Democracy


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Religious Pluralism in the Middle East: A Challenge to the International Community


Religious Pluralism in the Middle East:
A Challenge to the International Community

Amine Gemayel
President of the Republic of Lebanon, 1982-1988

Boston College and Christian Solidarity International
Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Problem of Religious Pluralism in the Middle East
The Crisis of Christianity in the Arab World
What Must be Done: Military and Diplomatic Measures
What Must be Done: Regional Safe Havens
What Must be Done: Protect Lebanon
What Must be Done: The Arab Marshall Plan


Thank you. It is indeed a privilege to be with you here at Boston College, a great institution of learning. I would like to thank the College and its various units which have co-sponsored tonight’s proceedings.

And I must also thank my dear friend—John Eibner—and his dedicated colleagues at Christian Solidarity International, for all they have done to uphold the principle of religious freedom and to protect the dignity and lives of those threatened because of their faith.

It is no mere coincidence that CSI and Dr. Eibner are discussed and quoted at length in a major report entitled “The Real War on Christianity,” published this month in the influential magazine, Foreign Policy.

Before sharing the substance of my remarks, I must also acknowledge my longstanding personal connections to the City of Boston, which over the years has served as a kind of intellectual refuge for me—and a very welcoming one.

From my perspective, the history of Boston is the story of America, and also the story of the universal struggle for freedom—a theme directly relevant to our subject tonight.

The Problem of Religious Pluralism in the Middle East

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been asked to speak on the critical theme of religious pluralism in the Middle East as a challenge to the international community. If I may be permitted, I would like to take a few moments to define terms and provide context.

First, I will speak about “religious pluralism” rather than “religious freedom.” These concepts, of course, are directly related, but I think they are distinct.

Pluralism indicates the co-existence of a diversity of religious communities; freedom implies the right of individuals to decide on matters of faith for themselves, and even to change or give up their religion.

In the present Middle East climate, both religious pluralism and religious freedom are important issues, and both face mounting obstacles. Nevertheless, I believe that under present conditions—in which pluralism is under daily assault—we must start by doing everything possible to safeguard religious pluralism.

Because this region is the birthplace of three threat faiths, upholding religious pluralism is a sacred task.

Next, when I say “Middle East,” I mean primarily the Arab countries of this region, or what is often called the Arab world. This world really is a remarkable mosaic of religions, ethnicities, and cultures.

Also, I employ the phrase “international community” in a broad sense, to cover states as well as non-state actors, most especially religious institutions and civil society organizations.

Finally, I must stress the following point. I speak tonight as a former head of state from a country—Lebanon—where Christians have always played a leading political and cultural role.

I am myself a Christian, and we have convened at Boston College—a Christian-run institution—under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International. For these reasons, I make no apologies for focusing my remarks on the extreme plight of Arab Christians.

At the same time, when discussing the crisis of pluralism in the Middle East, this fact must be understood above all: if Christians are among the first victims of persecution, they are by no means the sole victims of persecution.

Within a Middle East environment that features a steadily contracting space for pluralism, religious extremists oppress, and even kill, anyone who does not submit blindly to their authority. They murder Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Alawites, and more—in short, they kill “the Other,” meaning virtually everyone.

The Crisis of Christianity in the Arab World

I condemn all forms of persecution, no matter who is targeted. But the Christian dimension of the crisis of pluralism is worthy of particular attention because it carries special—and tragic—implications for civilization.

This is because, even under the worst-case scenarios, there is absolutely no danger that the Middle East will lose its Muslim character. In contrast, if present negative trends continue to intensify, we must start thinking about the unthinkable, namely: the extinction of Christianity in the region.

We should all care about the possible of disappearance of Christianity from the Middle East, not only because of the human toll this process is imposing, but also because it will destabilize the region for generations, perhaps permanently.

In this regard, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch recently warned of the “end of Christianity in [the Middle East], where its presence has often served as a bulwark against fanaticism.”

[Daniel Williams, “Christianity in Iraq is Finished,” Washington Post, 19 September 2014 (available from []; accessed 3 March 2015).]

If Christianity were extinguished in the Middle East, then we would also need to alter the very lexicon we use to describe the region. A decade before his death in 2011, the Lebanese scholar Kamal Salibi noted that, “It is the Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world ‘Arab’ rather than ‘Muslim’.”

[William Dalrymple, “Lost Flock,” The Guardian, 29 October 2001 (available from []; accessed 3 March 2015).]

Having indicated the dire consequences of the collapse of religious pluralism in the Middle East, a few words need to be said about the nature of the crisis of pluralism.

The essence of the crisis is not difficult to grasp, and is revealed in the words used to describe the latest atrocities in Iraq and Syria: massacre, execution, beheading, crucifixion, murder, rape, and sexual slavery.

Witnessing these conditions, serious, circumspect observers have correctly raised the specter of genocide. Earlier this month, for example, the Vatican’s representative in Geneva issued an extraordinary call for the creation of a UN-approved multilateral force to stop “genocide”—this is the word he used—against Christians and other groups.

Just last week, human rights investigators with the United Nations accused ISIS of committing acts of genocide against the Yazidis in northern Iraq. And here I should mention the work of Christian Solidarity International, which years ago had the foresight to circulate a “genocide warning” alerting the world to the impending fate of religious minorities in the Middle East.

From my personal perspective, I am a native and lifelong resident of a small country that, for better or worse, absorbs every imaginable Arab, Middle Eastern, and global trend; I have been a close student of and participant in Middle Eastern politics on the national and regional levels for well over half a century; I have served in government as a peacetime parliamentarian and wartime president; I have directed an international think tank and one of the Arab world’s oldest political parties; in all of these capacities, I have traveled extensively and visited almost every country in the Middle East, some numerous times over many decades.

Given the arc of my career, I am deeply saddened to report that I have never in my political life witnessed Arab Christians in such extreme danger. For my community, 2014 truly was an annus horribilis—a year of existential crisis.

Designating 2014 as a disastrous year for Middle Eastern Christians is doubly disturbing, given that their numbers were steadily dwindling even before the rise of ISIS. According to estimates that pre-date the Islamic State and all its horrors, at the beginning of the twentieth century Christians constituted approximately 20 percent of the total population of the Middle East; today, that figure has been reduced to less than 5 percent.

The persecution of Christians is often blamed on the conditions created by the occupation of Iraq in 2003 by the United States. Although the reverberations of the Iraq wars have certainly hit Arab Christians particularly hard, it should be remembered that in the last two decades of the twentieth century—that is, during the period ending just before the 2003 Iraq war—it is estimated that about two million Christians left the Middle East to settle in Europe, the Americas, and other regions.

Projecting current population trends foreword, the Middle East’s remaining 12 million Christians may be reduced by 50 percent in less than a decade.

Given the long-term and immediate catastrophes that have befallen Arab Christians, it is inexplicable how little attention they have received from the media, national policymakers, and officials of multilateral agencies.

Regarding this trend—or non-trend—two years ago, the respected journalist Jeffery Goldberg said that persecution of Arab Christians is, and I quote, “one of the most undercovered stories in international news.” [USA Today, 2 April 2013]

And despite the most recent bloodshed, not much has changed. In fact, the Foreign Policy article I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks amply documents what it calls “Washington’s passivity in the face of an ongoing wave of atrocities against the Assyrian, Chaldean, and other Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.”

[Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Yochi Dreazen, “The Real War on Christianity,” Foreign Policy, 12 March 2015 (available from []; accessed 15 March 2015).]

I would like to place atrocities in a human context by focusing on the case of the Christian town of Maaloula, Syria, occupied by one of the al-Qaeda splinter groups. There, the town’s ancient and historic church was completely demolished, and its Christian residents—including a community of nuns—were forced to flee for their lives.

In the wake of such attacks, the response by the United States has been a resounding non-response. We have seen:

• Failure by the White House to name an incumbent to the newly created position of special envoy for Christians and other religious groups under assault by ISIS;

• Failure by the U.S. military to deploy warplanes to protect internally displaced Christians in Iraq;

• Failure by the Congress to pass legislation expediting asylum for Iraqi Christians; and

• Failure by executive branch officials and members of Congress even to speak up on behalf of targeted Christian.

Every reasonable critic, myself included, must recognize that the United States is constantly buffeted by demands that it do more to intervene in crises around the world. And so even as we criticize the U.S., we must recognize its numerous and significant contributions as a force for good.

The United States, for example, has been a key supporter of the beleaguered Lebanese armed forces, which represent the last best hope of democratic Lebanon.

Yet, as we witness Christianity disappearing from the Middle East mosaic, appealing to the United States is logical because it has the military means to do more. The U.S. is also politically positioned to act—if it has the will—thanks to its strong relationships with regional governments and leading position within the United Nations.

What Must be Done: Military and Diplomatic Measures

If I may be permitted to do so, I would like to canvass options for aiding Arab Christians; these options include policies that could be pursued by states unilaterally, bilaterally, and multilaterally.

What I think the international community must consider, first and foremost, is creating a region-wide strategy for dealing with the Middle East’s crisis of pluralism. And by international community, what I really mean is the leading democracies of Europe and North America.

As early as 2011, Dr. Eibner offered a wise proposal that is even more necessary today. He urged President Obama to, and I quote, “establish a high-level interagency task force [within the U.S. Government] to prepare a strategy aimed at securing religious freedom and diversity in the Middle East.” [Boston Globe, 11 May 2011]

Without a well conceived plan to secure religious pluralism over the long-term, this critical goal will almost certainly be lost amid the confused and confusing welter of problems and crises that the Middle East has become.

Previously, I mentioned the call by the Vatican’s representative in Geneva for the creation of a UN-endorsed military force to combat ISIS. It is surely the case that the Islamic State will only be contained and then destroyed if it is subjected to sustained military attack.

We must remember how well equipped ISIS is, thanks to its capture of equipment and heavy weapons from Iraqi and Syrian government arsenals, its control of oil fields, its funding by wealthy but naïve Muslim supporters, and its rampant criminality, including bank robberies, kidnappings, and extortion.

Beyond military operations, the United States and other leading powers should activate diplomatic channels to assist Arab Christian communities.

Such diplomatic measures could include the creation of a “contact group” at the UN headquarters which, if properly staffed, could collect information and encourage policy responses, not only by UN agencies and individual UN members, but also by other multilateral organizations such as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the various Arab and international development funds.

Hopefully, the seeds of a new, integrated diplomatic approach will be planted later this week, when the French foreign minister is scheduled to chair a UN Security Council session devoted to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

A surge of diplomacy on behalf of Arab Christians and other endangered groups could be guided by a document circulated by the Vatican, Russia, and Lebanon entitled “Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities.” This is the first official paper on this topic to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Adroit diplomacy would mean working in tandem with diplomats and religious and political leaders from majority-Muslim countries. For example, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein—himself a Muslim and a member of the Jordanian royal family—has strongly condemned ISIS, and has done so by invoking widely accepted Muslim teachings.

Similar declarations against religious extremism and the persecution of non-Muslims have been voiced by leading Muslims such as His Royal Highness King Salman of Saudi Arabia, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, former prime minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri, and the grand imam of Beirut Abdel Latif Derian.

Among the important declarations by Muslim authorities in support of non-Muslims, the following two statements particularly gratified me. In late 2013, His Royal Highness King Abdullah II of Jordan said:

“The protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor. Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations.”
[Christian Science Monitor, 22 December 2013]

And in September of last year—following the lightening rise of ISIS and its reign of terror—the rector of the largest mosque in Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, declared: “We are all, no matter our religion, Christians of the Middle East.”

[Associated Press, “French Imams to Use Pulpit Against ISIS,” The Daily Star, 9 September 2014 (available from []; accessed 9 September 2014).]

These strong voices that have spoken in favor religious pluralism are the true Muslims and the genuine defenders of Islam. Now is the time to bring together these sentiments and distill them into a comprehensive plan of action.

The forum for such an effort already exists, namely the International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, founded by the late King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia in 2011. Advantageously, the Center is located in Vienna, a world capital of diplomacy and international relations.

To better engage institutions such as ICIID, the United States and its European allies should, perhaps, consider retraining and repositioning their diplomatic corps to address with greater skill issues of religion and faith.

What Must be Done: Regional Safe Havens

I would like to focus for a moment on a proposal, which has received some attention: the creation of “safe havens” in which targeted communities could enjoy temporary residency, thus allowing them to remain within their home countries. Among others, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, has advocated such an approach.

In-country safe havens as alternatives to refuge abroad do offer certain advantages. After conditions stabilize, safe havens would enable Christians to return to their home communities far more rapidly than if they were abroad.

However, the placement and conditions of proposed safe havens need to be considered with extreme care. There must be a sufficiently strong local force to provide on-the-ground security, and this force will need logistical and air support provided by international partners who enjoy the legal authority—and political will—to act swiftly and decisively.

In considering the establishment of protected zones, we must recall the tragic fate of the United Nations “safe area” in Srebrenica, Bosnia, created in April 1993 but overrun a little more than two years later, resulting in the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims at the hands of Serb paramilitaries.

After establishing the necessary background conditions—including international military guarantees—it might be possible to create an officially declared safe haven for Christians and other groups in the Nineveh plains region of northern Iraq. Historically, this region has been a bedrock of Christianity, and its Christian residents have for centuries lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors.

A proposed safe zone for Christians in the Nineveh area would only be secure if created in cooperation with the Muslim communities of the region. This need for support at the local level is symbolic of the region-wide necessity for cooperation among different faith communities.

An officially declared safe zone must function as an integral and cooperative component of the surrounding community. Over time, such an approach will help rebuild trust among Iraq’s various religious and ethnic groups.

What Must be Done: Protect Lebanon

Lebanon is central to religious pluralism, because it is both a symbolic and applied center of interfaith dialogue. For this reason, the international community has a fundamental interest in protecting Lebanon’s national security, which acts as a shield for its positive internal dynamics.

Lebanon is, in fact, the only Arab country with an intricate array of confessional communities that has not experienced widespread internal conflict; therefore, it can and should serve as the springboard for a regional effort to protect and extend religious pluralism.

In Lebanon and the Arab world generally, the two most pressing religious pluralism issues are first, securing the status of Christians, and second, placing Sunni-Shiite relations on a long-term peaceful footing. A secure and confident Lebanon will certainly contribute to both tracks.

I have already mentioned the important aid that the United States has provided to the Lebanese military; other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and France, have been forthcoming with military assistance, as well.

But to secure Lebanon from attacks and infiltration by ISIS and other terrorists, more needs to be provided in terms of money, equipment, advisory personnel, and training.

The consequences for Lebanon of the ongoing Syrian crisis have been tremendous. In January, an official with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told America’s National Public Radio:

“…the international community has got to provide more support to Lebanon....They are totally overwhelmed. I mean, you imagine what it would be like if one-quarter of the U.S. population were refugees? It’s put an enormous strain on the infrastructure, education, health care, sewer, water, sanitation. Everything is being overstretched. [The Lebanese] need a lot more help than they’ve been getting because Lebanon simply is buckling under the pressure of 1.1 million refugees.”
[Ron Redmond interviewed by Steve Inskeep, “Lebanon Imposes Restrictions On Syrian Refugees,” National Public Radio, 6 January 2015 (]

Other estimates place the number of refugees currently in Lebanon at between 1.2 and 1.5 million. Even if the low estimates are accepted as valid, the fact is that one out of four people now residing in Lebanon is a refugee.

Translated into American terms, this would be the equivalent of hosting 80 million desperate people in need of every possible necessity of life, from food to housing to education to employment to medical care.

If the international community should do more to support Lebanon, then the Lebanese must demonstrate that they are worthy partners. I refer here to the embarrassing, counterproductive, self-defeating, and partially self-inflicted vacancy of the Lebanese presidency.

Simply put, the Lebanese system of shared powers among its various communities, by definition, cannot work if it is disrupted at the summit, where the Christian president, the Sunni Muslim prime minister, and the Shiite Muslim parliamentary speaker are expected to provide individual and collective leadership.

Lebanon needs a strong, capable, and experienced president who can engage three critical issues:

• First, reconciling internal Lebanese differences and contradictions through sustained dialogue;

• Second; coordinating economic development and governmental reforms; and,

• Third, serving as the voice of Lebanon within the international community by defending sovereignty and core national interests.

What Must be Done: The Arab Marshall Plan

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have spoken at length, and wish to thank you sincerely for lending me this distinguished platform. I would like to conclude by sharing some thoughts about the need to promote concepts of democracy and human rights in the Arab world.

These goals, of course, are related to but broader than the struggle to preserve religious pluralism.

Today, a political vacuum of the kind that it has not experienced seen since the retreat of the European colonial empires after World War II buffets the Arab world.

In this maelstrom, Arabs are confronted by three competing realities of governance: the old failed states, the so-called “Islamic State,” and what can be called citizen-states, or the emerging democracies.

For some years now, I have been discussing a concept that could help move the Arab world toward citizen-states, a concept called the Arab Marshall Plan.

This plan is not a detailed blueprint, with specified funding levels, metrics, and timetables. Rather, the Arab Marshall Plan is meant to be a moderate alternative that will encourage Arabs—especially Arab youth—to embrace democratic ideas as a prelude to democratic systems.

Other priorities of the Arab Marshall Plan are physical reconstruction and economic development, and new systems of governance, both domestically and on the level of regional cooperation.

One may legitimately ask: with a rampaging force like ISIS on the loose, how can alternatives like the Arab Marshall Plan succeed?

In response, we must remember the sage advice given by the wily statesman Talleyrand to that great believer in military force, Napoleon: “The only thing you cannot do with a bayonet,” Talleyrand cautioned, “is sit on it."

By this he meant that the logic of power does not create legitimacy, the only basis for stable, long-term governance.

And so I say to those who support the best aspects of Arab civilization—including religious pluralism: the ideological and actual bayonets of ISIS will fail.

The mental and physical bayonets of an evil army will not frighten us, intimidate us, or deflect us from our goal of building freedom and dignity in Lebanon and across the Arab world.

Thank you.