Why the Lebanese Church has not spoken out against Assad

By Aline Sara
2 Sep 2011

“The three fundamentals on which a church is built are faith, hope and love,” said Harry Hagopian, an international lawyer and Middle East and interfaith advisor to the Catholic Bishops' Conference in England and Wales. “Those fundamentals include speaking out on peace, justice and reconciliation, let alone standing in solidarity with the poor, disenfranchised and powerless.”

Yet events in Syria have left the Church in Lebanon tongue-tied.

Only recently, six months into the Syrian pro-democracy uprising and the government’s violent crackdown, US and EU officials called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Meanwhile, in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Commission called for an urgent probe into possible “crimes against humanity,” noting that more than 2,200 anti-regime protesters are believed to have been killed since the demonstrations began.

Yet members of the clergy in both Syria and in Lebanon have voiced support for the Syrian president, calling him a reformer and backing his claims that the protesters are armed.

According to Georges Nassif, the former editor of An-Nahar's religion supplement, humanitarian issues are not high on the agenda of the Middle East’s clergy. “Churches here are mostly liturgical and little concerned with human rights,” he told NOW Lebanon. In addition, Patriarch Bechara al-Rai is less politically active than his outspokenly anti-Syrian predecessor Nasrallah Sfeir, Nassif added, noting that Rai recently accepted an invitation by President Assad to visit Damascus.

NOW Lebanon was unable to reach Rai, but during a rare interview on French television, the patriarch voiced concern over the spread of extremism. And while he acknowledged the need for greater freedom in the region, he also pointed out that Assad had protected Christians in Syria.

The latter is an argument cited by many Lebanese Christians, who likewise note that Assad, as a member of the Alawite sect, is also a minority in a mostly Sunni country. If the regime is toppled, the argument goes, there may be a Sunni backlash against the Christian population.

The issue is, of course, also politicised in Lebanon, as a major bloc of Lebanese Christians is with the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition, Nassif noted.

For his part, Father Abdo Kassem, director of the Catholic Center for Information, an organisation that acts as a liaison between the Church and the press, did not express outright support for Assad, [though] he was wary of condemning the regime.

“Yes, I’ve seen images on camera phones, but the reports are ambiguous … and Assad has spoken of making reforms,” he told NOW Lebanon when pressed about the evidence of government violence toward protesters. “But I don’t know really what is happening. It’s up to the Syrian Christians themselves to tell us. Lebanese Christians cannot speak up,” he said.

Because the issue is so politicised in Lebanon, addressing the uprising’s humanitarian dimension is up to the Vatican.

Earlier last month (August 2011), Pope Benedict XVI said that the demonstrations testified to the need for “real reforms" in Syria and that the Assad regime must show "respect for truth and human rights.”

The pontiff added that Syria was "an example of tolerance, of conviviality and of harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims.”

Nassif said that while he and other Christians may support the uprising themselves, he stressed that the larger Church will not budge on its stance—or rather silence. Indeed, most clergy members NOW Lebanon spoke with supported the uprising personally. “I support the revolution,” said a Lebanese priest who asked to remain anonymous. “And what is most disturbing is that some priests endorse Assad’s rhetoric that peaceful protesters are armed ‘terrorists’.”

“Whether in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, I often feel that Church leaders are engaged in the unenviable task of juggling options or choosing between different factors,” said Hagopian. “As mere mortals, they sometimes get it right and at other times they get it quite wrong.”

Until now, only Syria’s Jesuit community has voiced recognition of the uprising’s legitimacy. In the meantime, the slaughter continues.

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© Aline Sara is news editor of NOW Lebanon (http://www.nowlebanon.com/). His detailed profile is available through the Peace and Collaborative Development Network (http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profile/alinesara).

This article, referencing Ekklesia associate Dr Harry Hagopian's work, is reproduced with grateful thanks and acknowledgements.

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