Assessing change in the Middle East and North Africa

By Harry Hagopian
December 21, 2011

On 9 December 2011, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, initiated a debate in the House of Lords on the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

This debate, televised live on the Parliament channel, had also been preceded by a small and preparatory brainstorming session at Lambeth Palace where a number of experts expressed their standpoints on the situation of Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a result of the popular revolts that have altered in varying degrees the political and religious dynamics in those countries.

The Archbishop, a keen follower of events in the region, was clearly reacting to the numerous local as well as international voices of concern about the future of those indigenous Christian communities that have been living and witnessing in their homelands in one form or shape for much of the last two milennia.

In fact, concern about the minorities of the Middle East and North Africa region in general, and Christians in particular, has become rather fashionable in the West over the past year, with a number of organisations readily floating loaded terms such as ‘persecution’, ‘marginalisation’, ‘harassment’, ‘attrition’ or ‘solidarity’ without always importing with their statements a real on-the-ground appreciation of the overall conditions facing those Christians and their Muslim, let alone Jewish neighbours. After all, the challenges facing Christians in Iraq surely are different from those in Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon - not to mention the Christian expatriates in other MENA countries?

The Archbishop introduced his Motion to the House, in the presence of some 80 peers, 30 of whom contributed to the lively debate. Amongst the notable contributions were those from Lords Parekh, Patten, Carey, Popat, and Boateng, as well as Baronesses Butler Sloss, Morris of Bolton and Cox.

Moreover, the Shadow Minister, Lord Wood of Anfield, made a learned and polished summation of the “Situation of Christians in the Middle East” and was followed by Lord Howell of Guildford who responded on behalf of the Government.

As a longstanding student of religion and politics in the Middle East and North Africa region, I was quite impressed by the debate. After all, the Motion focused on the situation of the Christians in the MENA region at a time when this vast region is going through many unpredictable convolutions and painful convulsions. In countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it feels that those initial popular revolts have morphed into some sort of inchoate revolution, whilst in other places like Syria and Yemen, the bloodletting, violence and uncertainty are acquiring ever-higher and perilous pitches. Of course, one cannot speak with any wholesome authority about this topic whilst ignoring the events impacting other countries from Bahrain and Morocco to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

It is precisely in the midst of all those radical and often unforeseen events that the indigenous Christian communities often feel that they are caught up between a rock and a hard place. The question for them is almost existential at this stage: what is simply better for them? Is it the authoritarianism of decades-long regimes that have allowed them a margin of private space for their religious rites and rituals or is it the uncertain fear of the new realities spreading across this region that are bringing up hefty concepts such as ‘dignity’, citizenship rights’ and ‘equality’ let alone more unsettling ones such as ‘Islamism’ and ‘shari’ah-led constitutions’?

For instance, what would a Syrian Christian feel today in the midst of an increasing likelihood of civil war in the country? Or how does a Copt react to the recent elections that consolidated the position of Islamist movements in the country which will doubtless impact the space of Muslims and Christians alike? How does a Palestinian view those revolts and uprisings - let alone oppressions - in their neighbourhood when their real gripe is with an unending Israeli occupation before it becomes one of encroaching Islamism or internecine squabbles? Would a Lebanese become befuddled when half the Christians support the regimes and the other half the demonstrators, and will Jordanians manage to find the delicate balances that ensure the survival and conviviality of their society?

The Archbishop’s introductory statement to the House of Lords was carefully well-calibrated as it made the necessary distinctions between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’ and touched upon the history of the region and its relationship with the West.

But I would like to add a few further points that I - as well as ecumenical colleagues I associate with - believe are also crucial elucidations or else questions begging for clearer answers.

1) It might be helpful to remember always the nature and geography of the Middle East and North Africa region when addressing its problems by underlining that this is not at all a single or monolithic unit but rather a more heterogeneous one whereby both the issues and concerns differ inter partes and therefore remedies would differ too.

2) There can be no coherent understanding of the marginalisation of Christians (and for that matter of all non-Muslim ethnic communities) without a more profound understanding of the Ottoman Millet system, in terms of ghettoisation and dhimmitude or (simplistically labelled) second-class citizenship, as well as the painful history of Western colonisation of the region that followed the decline of Ottoman rule and the way in which the West manipulated the Christian communities for its own proper interests.

3) The truism that ‘not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab’ is a valid argument within the intellectual bandwidth of the whole region as it introduces into the discussion the Muslim realities in countries such as Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia (that was not dissimilar in 1998 from what Egypt is undergoing today) and shows an alternative to homebred Salafism.

4) An appreciation of how history still casts its shadow upon the region and how the Crusades impacted not only the nature of relations and perceptions between the Christians of the West and the Muslims of the East, but also amongst Western and Eastern Christians themselves.

5) Sectarian violence is more often ethnic rather than religious in nature, but the problem is that ethnicity and religion are intertwined in the Middle East and this overlap continues to be felt in different shapes in many Middle East and North Africa countries today - such as Lebanon to give only one example amongst many.

6) It is important to consider the developments in the Arabian Gulf and Iran when talking about local Christians and their relationship with Islam or the West. After all, there are established churches in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait or Qatar existing alongside equally conservative sects and schools of Islam.

7) All countries and their governments which ratified various human rights declarations, conventions or covenants, including the key 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, are legally obligated to uphold the human rights of all their citizens. But this is simply not being observed and many peoples are facing serious threats to their fundamental rights as rights-based groups, such as those of expression and worship.

8) One year exactly into the outburst of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, the following five myths can already be dispelled to a large extent from our various political analyses of the MENA region and its revolutions, popular revolts or simmering conflicts:

a) The Arab Spring is a single phenomenon: it certainly is not so.

b) This is the moment of the Facebook generation: they have alas been largely co-opted or overtaken by vested interests such as the military and religious institutions.

c) Islamists are poised to take over the Arab MENA: somewhat an exaggeration that suits some Islamists and Westerners alike as they advance their own exclusivist and quasi-irredentist agendas.

d) Palestine no longer matters: it is undeniably a central hub for the whole region.

e) The West can shape the destiny of the Arabs: neo-colonialism is a dangerous strategy.

9) While some raw or instinctive fears expressed by Christians about their current realities are founded on fact, there exists a degree of dramatisation associated with them that does not always reflect an objective appreciation of the larger grassroots picture. In other words, Christians are living in a wider context of majority Muslim populations, where many Muslims and Christians are suffering repression mutatis mutandis from those wielding political-religious power or exerting them indiscriminately at times. As such, the pluralist nature of a Middle East and North Africa region that is very much predicated upon religion cannot simply be compared to a more secularised West that deliberately attempts to cleave God from Caesar.

10) We in the West should neither impose solutions nor even forcibly propose them in a political-intellectual form of colonisation. We should not sound too alarmist either, but rather express solidarity that is pro-Christian (as part of our universal fellowship) without being anti-Muslim. We should support the regional struggles for dignity and co-equal citizenship rights, and we should also insist upon the rights of Christians to their fundamental rights, without confusing an Islamist agenda that is exclusive and often inimical of the other from an Islamic one that is a product of the electoral legitimacy of the region today.

The Motion tabled by the Archbishop of Canterbury also considered - rather lightly - some ways in which the West could be vigilant about events in the region. Perhaps a House of Lords Committee could well be set up that reports to the House annually on the situation of the Christians of the MENA region. Or else, it might be possible to increase the awareness-raising, advocacy and representation that those Christian communities seek from the West in a way that does not compromise their local ethnic, cultural and linguistic loyalties.

I include here from Hansard the opening and closing remarks from the Archbishop of Canterbury, alongside those contributions made by the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, Bishop of Guildford, and the Rt Revd John Hind, Bishop of Chichester.

The new story in the Middle East and North Africa region is only one year young and it will take a long time before we can pass any definitive judgments about its successes and failures. This is perhaps one strong reason why we should continue being watchful without necessarily becoming dogmatic, and this is why it makes more sense to win others over to our own opinions rather than antagonising them at a time when too much uncertainty swirls in the whole region. But at the end of the day, our buzz words should consistently remain those dignity and citizenship rights.

Is my suggestion a recipe for defeatism or conversely for triumphalism? Neither frankly, as it is solely one of pragmatism that is coloured by a Christian prism but nonetheless informed by the politics of a whole region.


© 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. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, 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

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