The citizenship challenge for Arab Christians

By Harry Hagopian
2 Feb 2011

Living in a recession-hit but (for quite a few, at least) comparatively well-heeled Europe today, I look at the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region with one overriding thought. Simply put, ordinary men and women are at long last seeking to assert their identity and to retrieve their dignity after decades of corruption, deprivation and subjugation. Tunisia was the unwitting springboard, but it seems to have awakened a visceral and liberating instinct in the political imagination of many Arabs.

In the words of the late Tunisian poet, Abul Qasim al-Shabi, writing in The Will of Life: “If the people will to live, providence is destined to favourably respond; and night is destined to fold, and the chains are certain to be broken; and he who has not embraced by the love of life, will evaporate in its atmosphere and disappear.”

If managed prudently, this moment could well become epic for much of the Arab world where the status quo ante of dictators and despots is being challenged collectively by older and younger generations alike – without even the certainty of a final destination or of political parties muscling in [yet] with their own agendas. In my estimation, this uprising is more meaningful than the Palestinian Intifada of 1987 (certainly more than the ill-advised armed Al-Aqsa Intifada of 2000) and hopefully more resilient than that of the Lebanese Cedar Revolution of 2005.

Suddenly, after decades of political torpor and moral lassitude, many Arabs are standing up to be counted and ventilating their pent-up frustrations on the streets. The regimes - and their erstwhile allies - find themselves caught on the back foot as they scramble to come up with coherent standpoints that neither alienate the masses nor abandon those defining their geo-strategic interests. Moreover, it is a remarkable lesson in sociology that Al-Jazeera satellite channels have joined hands with the Facebook and Twitter social networking sites and the blogosphere to help choreograph much of this tidal wave starting to sweep the region.

Spontaneous and ostensibly ‘leaderless’ uprisings are now seeking to correct the successive colonial legacies that were foisted upon an Arab World in the early decades of the 20th century, and to implement the fundamental freedoms and citizenship rights inherent in democracy and good governance. However, in the midst of this groundswell, it behoves us to remember that the woes facing many parts of this region are not merely political or socio-economic. They are also ethno-religious, sectarian and confessional in nature, particularly when it comes to the plight of indigenous Arab Christians - who have, incidentally, been at the forefront of progressive movements in the past, but who for years have also faced their own uncertainties, paradoxes, quandaries, fears and persecutions.

Is it parochial to focus on Arab Christians in this moment of wider hope for the Middle East? Not necessarily, because an equitable society is one where its total represents the sum of its different components - and Arab Christians remain one vibrant, historical component of this larger Arab whole. Only last month, ordinary Egyptian Muslims showed up at Christmas masses or candlelit vigils outside Egyptian churches and formed human shields against any terrorism that might target Egyptian Coptic Christians.

Anba Morcos of Alexandria commented in his sermon that he had never seen such a degree of solidarity between Muslims and Christians and added - with a some overstatement, perhaps - that the bombing of the Coptic Al-Qidissein Church was like an aqua regia solution that would “assay the metal of the Egyptian people and reveal their golden nature”.

Such pious thoughts were not shared by Romel Hawal from Habbaniya in Al-Anbar province of Iraq, who lamented the empty Mary Queen of Peace Church in his hometown earlier this month and added: “When I come here, I feel pain. I don’t think it will ever be back again like it was, when we had a beautiful garden.”

Yet despite the many concerns over the future shared by Arab Christians, I remain convinced that the majority of ordinary Arab men and women - whether Christians, Sunnis, Shi’is, Kurds, or Druze - are inherently decent and pacific people who are willing to co-exist with their neighbours. From where I sit in Europe, the predominant Arab mentality has in past decades appeared captive to the psychological cost of political or religious repression and has often succumbed to an immobilising fear when it comes to acting or thinking for itself. A sense of victimhood has often arrested forward movement within societies that have instead resorted to identifying scapegoats to explain away their own ills or failures, or even to justify the brutality of their regimes. One side-effect of Bismarck’s divide et impera - divide and rule - has been to scapegoat indigenous Christians, in particular, as fifth columnists.

Yet the challenges of today can indeed be converted into the opportunities of tomorrow. Victimhood can turn into empowerment - as we are witnessing on some Arab streets today. So hand-in-hand with the dismantling of antiquated precepts, there should also be a concerted plan by local religious leaders to educate their grassroots toward acceptance of the other - as the Iraqi Ulema Council did recently by issuing a joint fatwa forbidding attacks against Christians. But in parallel with this proactive attitude, the West should also realise that supporting oppressive secular Arab systems that feed on slogans, or siding unfailingly with an increasingly racist Israel that eats up other peoples’ rights, does not in itself guarantee western interests, either. Rather, it is the lack of fundamental freedoms and socio-economic justice that, in combination with the whole range of discrimination and totalitarianism, eventually becomes the surrogate womb for sectarian radicalism and terror.

In recent days, the political topography of the region has shifted, and with this come a whole host of questions. Will a domino effect ensue from the events in Tunisia or Egypt - one that could well engulf Yemen, Jordan (as we are beginning to see), Sudan and Algeria – let alone Iran, the Gulf States, Syria and Lebanon, which all have their own fault-lines? Time will tell, but one weathervane for the success or failure of this long-awaited Arab renaissance - as Professor Eugene Rogan, author of The Arabs, described it recently on BBC4 television - will depend on whether an enlightened and shackles-free Arab world can rise again to reclaim its rightful nahda - and whether the Christian communities can also play their role as fully-fledged Arab citizens rather than solely as ‘Arab Christians’.

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(c) Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor and commentator (http://www.ekklesia.co.ukHarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is a member of, and adviser to, the Armenian Orthodox Church, a Knight of the Order of St Gregory, a consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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