Christians and Changes in the Arab world


Address by Dr Tarek Mitri at the Public Hearing on the Middle East
World Council of Churches – Central Committee meeting
31 August, Crete, Greece


Christians and Muslims in the Arab world were constantly warned that the alternative to dictator regimes is Islamic fundamentalism or, even worse, chaos. Receptive to the alarmist discourse of despotic rulers or used to succumb to their pressure and occasional favors, a number of Christians from different walks of life, chose to passively support whom they perceived as secular though authoritarian regimes.

They thought that stability ensured their survival as ‘minorities” while the popular uprising carried the risks of open-ended instability and the hreats of an uncertain future. Conversely, we find among various Christian communities in the Arab world many whose concerns could not justify shying away from the yearning of their people for freedom and democracy and from active participation in the movements for change.

At times, both attitudes polarized Christians after the demise of the ottoman political and juridical order. But more often than not, minority-centered consciousness was transcended by opting for causes cutting across communal barriers, and in so doing Christians tried to shake loose their minority status. Their role in the making of a new social and political order outweighed by far what their numerical importance could normally allow. The disproportionately influential contribution of Christians in the modern movement of Arab awakening might explain, although partially, why its promises seemed, in retrospect, more far-reaching than what was possible in subsequent history. Furthermore, the often justified disappointment of many paved the way, for some, to a bitter withdrawal into a preservationist conservatism.

Christians did aspire to full citizenship liberated from direct or indirect domination, external or internal. While their fight for political and civil equality opposed them to the moribund Ottoman Empire, it united them with their Muslim compatriots in the national struggle for independence. For most of them, this combat was to continue against the European nations after they had shared the spoils of the First World War. Thus the stakes of the struggles for national liberation were not just the future of the majority communities, but also the relationships between majorities and minorities. Collective identities had to be proposed in a way acceptable to different communities. However, and at the end of the twentieth century, the disillusionment of Arab peoples provoked by the failures of both national governments and nationalist political movements was quasi-general. For Christians in particular, such feeling was permeated with anxiety, arising from the effects of their dwindling numbers, the accumulated economic difficulties, thinning political participation and anguish in the face of mounting Islamism.

However, the community-specific anxiety could not overshadow the fact that the worries of Christians are lived and expressed, mutatis mutandis, by a considerable number of Muslims. A number of Muslim voices acknowledge that, while Christians have their own reasons to be disquiet, their difficulties reflect problems within the society as a whole. Quite often, it is not the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority that was, and is, at stake but justice, political participation, human rights and national dignity.

It remains true, however, that the Christian perception of relations between the majority and the minority is clouded by hostility towards Islamism and in particular towards its violent and radical movements. The way many Christians look at their future is blurred by their perception of Islamism, frequently seen as monolithic, more influential than it truly is and irresistible. Some of them risk the dangerous pitfall of considering Islamism to be the most authentic expression, even if excessive, of Islam itself.

Christians could not be oblivious to the fact that self-assertion movements in the name of Islam gained visibility and appeal against the failure of modern, more or less secular, independent and authoritarian  overnments. In some instances, this has led to anti-Christian feelings. It remains true, however, that the Islamist opposition to secular tyranny could be seen, as in a commonly used metaphor, as a wave and however big waves seem to be, they are appeased once they have used up their initial driving force. It may still be premature to suggest, that the Arab uprisings may augur an era where many Islamist movements we presently know will have to reinvent themselves or loose part of their appeal.

Islamic identity is being redefined during and after the Arab revolutions. Islamist activists played a significant role but not a leading one in the uprisings. Their strength is derived from the fact that they are regional, relatively better organized and have acquired the legitimacy of having been a long-standing opposition force.

But they will likely undergo a process of transformation and repositioning. Islamists are not a monolith. Radical Islamists whose influence had waned in the last decade are regaining momentum but they remain relatively marginal. For its part, the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential and best organized political movement, is caught in the tension between its vision of an Islamic state and its commitment to democracy. Time will tell us whether and when they will resolve the tension. Salafis, who previously were not politicized, are undergoing significant transformations, in spite of their insistence on ruling according to the law of God.

Neo-salafis, self-proclaimed or often confused with traditional and committed Muslims, are mounting. This differentiated approach does not assume that the concerns of Christians, and the fears of many, could be exorcised only by a nuanced analysis of Islamism or by the dialogue of informed elites. This is even more difficult, because despotic regimes-we know it more in the era of popular uprisings- overplay fears from Islamism and instrumentalize them. Their heavy-handed rule had long suppressed Christians, not less than Muslims. But they claim to protect them against apprehensions which they have themselves provoked.

To be sure, those who manifest minority-centered attitudes as well as the disappointed secularists have little taste for discernment. Some are receptive to a call for political activism motivated by a propensity towards an alliance of minorities.

Many more react increasingly to threats- real or imagined-by resignation leading to emigration or withdrawal. For many decades, Church leaders have tried to accompany their faithful along an arduous road. They privileged what the theologian Jean Corbon called the risk of existing over the fear of disappearing. They refrained from overplaying minority militancy and identity politics. The notion of Christian presence was their antidote to both aggressive communalism and withdrawal from public life. The role of Church institutions was defined not only in terms of their functions of preservation but by the gospel-rooted imperative of witness and service to the neighbor. Churches never perceived Christians and Muslims as two monolithic blocks facing each other, nor did they oppose rights of the minority to aspirations of the majority.

Today Christians and Church leaders ought to be reminded of their own recent history. No matter how legitimate is their anxiety. They need not succumb to a sort of engineered fear. Descending into such fear may endanger their ability to contribute towards shaping the future of their nations and of their own future. In addition, it risks alienating them from the majority of their people if they resign from their ethical obligation to condemn oppressive violence and injustice.

In Egypt and during the last three decades, many Coptic Christians were hesitant to participate in the political life of their country. They had justified complains about their marginalization and the discrimination inflicted on them. Nevertheless and perhaps surprisingly, we saw in the early days of the January 2011 uprising, many young Christians joining the ranks of the revolutionaries. Subsequently, they were empowered in their own protest against ill-treatment of their fellow Christians. The stakes for them were not restricted to the problem of religious minority rights: the right to build, maintain and repair places of worship and the freedom of conscience, including that of reverting to their religion of origin. Their grievances pertained also, and perhaps first and foremost, to civil and political rights. They asserted themselves as full citizens and not only as a religious minority.

Notwithstanding the gravity of army repression, salafi aggression, with all its human cost, and the disappointment following the election of Muslim Brother President, one should not lose sight of two significant changes in attitudes and perceptions. The force of Coptic protest may well indicate a shift from a somewhat withdrawn attitude to that of a more assertive and politically motivated posture. The second meaningful development is the fact that the “Coptic issues” have become closer to being “national issues”. Today, they are far from being reassured by policies and practices of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. They are critical of its double-language and, like many Egyptians, they do not trust its ability or willingness to curb manifestations of communal hostility.

This being said, many are aware of the need to have a role in the making of a more democratic and inclusive political process, no matter how limited it may appear to be in the recent configurations of executive power. To be sure, this is difficult but crucial for their future and the future of Egypt.

In Syria, the popular uprising is, at times, perceived or portrayed as a confrontation between the secular and the Islamists. The secular character of the Syrian regime is therefore overstated while its communal and despotic features are ignored. The Syrian uprising is over-islamized, mainstream traditional Islam is, at times, confused with Salafism, often associated with extremist and terrorist movements, and the plural character of the Syrian opposition is denied. The loss of memory favors generalizations. One of them is the claim that Christians support Assad and recognize in him their protector from fanaticism and discrimination, failing to see the sad reality that they have become, in the political sense and otherwise, his human shield. Be that as it may, Christians do not hide their deep concern about what is witnessed in Syria, nor do they deny their fears about the future. Such fears are induced, directly or indirectly, by minority-centered attitudes, rooted in historical memory, whether real or imagined. They are also related to the weak Christian participation in public life and a degree of social isolation, imposed by the dictatorial regime for fifty years. Christian communities may well have been granted certain rights and limited freedom and prerogatives in managing some of their “internal affairs” in exchange for total loyalty and acquiescence to the deprivation of their political rights and parts of their civil rights. A culture of silence prevailed, out of apprehension or caution, and the internalization of fear from state repression and from enmities created by the regime.

Today, uncertainty and fear are exacerbated today following an intensified repression and increased militarization of the uprising, after a long period of nonviolent demonstrations followed by a limited and defensive militarization. There is a greater propensity to draw comparisons between the Syrian situation and that of other Arab countries, especially in Iraq where many Christians left and sought provisional refuge in Syria. The impact of state propaganda amplifying the role of extremist Islamic groups is undeniable. it is not sufficiently counterbalanced by the limited contacts between self-isolated or isolated Christians and their fellow citizens engaged in the revolution or its supporters.

Despite uncertainty and fear, it is widely accepted that the Syrian revolution did not pursue anti-Christian identity politics, deliberately harming or scaring Christians.

There has not been any “ethnic cleansing” against Christians. But fanaticization and radicalization are well underway, order has broken down, most state institutions are not functioning and the protracted conflict exacerbates violence in all its different forms. Undoubtedly, there are Christians in Syria, who continue to support the regime strongly. But it is also true that some of them have become an embarrassment to the churches. The fact that there is, at present, a minority of Christians who identify uncritically with the Syrian regime and see their future bound to his future, does not mean that most Christians have moved closer to the opposition. There are Christians who are active in the revolution politically and not militarily. Bu they remain a minority. They may be called to play a more significant role in the future. .

The majority is silent and hesitant. The overwhelming majority of Christians refuses to take up arms and realizes increasingly that fear cannot continue to overshadow the moral obligation of Christians towards their people, irrespective of their religious identity. More Christians are becoming aware that regimes change but Muslim compatriots are here to stay and Christians have to strive towards a meaningful life with them, witnesses in their midst and servants of the common good. Sadly, they know that it is more and more likely that Syria will be left in ruins after the fall of the regime. A huge effort of reconstruction and reconciliation lies ahead. Christians have a calling to contribute meaningfully, and courageously, to this effort.

In conclusion, there is a way in contrast with the paths walked by those who opt for an exclusively minority-centered militancy and by those who chose the silence of fear or resignation. It is opened by the reinvention, through political participation, of the pact of citizenship that binds Christians and Muslims together, and the renewal of the role played during the early twentieth century awakening movement. To be sure, a new political and social order is in the making. The pact of citizenship that was a determining factor in various independence movements is to be re-claimed and enacted in the present longing of Arab peoples for freedom, dignity and democracy.

It is needless to say that the future of Christians in the Arab world does not only depend on the contributions they are capable of, but also on the attention that their fellow Muslim co-citizens may give to them. Christians deserve, but also need to be worthy of, an attention that is not condescending but motivated by the sense of common good and recognition of the wealth of religious and cultural plurality that could spare the Arab world the sad face of uniformity.

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