Fear and hope for indigenous Christians in the Middle East and North Africa

By Harry Hagopian
January 13, 2013

As a new year arrives, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings continue their relentless surge in different parts of the region. While Egypt and Syria have grabbed our attention throughout 2012, it is quite clear that much is also happening elsewhere.

From Tunisia and Libya to Morocco and Yemen, from Jordan and Lebanon all the way to Bahrain and Kuwait, the tensions are manifesting themselves in different ways - some more subtle than others, some far bloodier than others.

In the midst of this maelstrom, it is appropriate to re-visit the realities of the smaller Christian indigenous communities as they oscillate between fear, hope and uncertainty.

It is true that many of those communities in various countries are fearful that their rights will be squelched further under the emerging ‘Islamist’ regimes. They might well be right, in the sense that some of those more conservative brands of Islam are so unequivocally exclusive of the ‘other’ that they simply cannot govern equally, let alone equably.

Almost a year ago, for instance, I recall coming across an article which stated that the clergy and hierarchy of the churches in Syria were solidly supportive of the regime, while many of the younger men and women were aspiring for human rights, democracy as well as freedom and were joining the revolution on the streets.

Now, a year later, there seems to be a marked change. Most Christians, old or young, are extremely worried about the changing nature of the rebel movement, whereby the rising trend of Islamism and the presence of foreign jihadis and warlords has frightened Christians. There have even been reports of evictions from homes, robbery, rape and extortion from Christians.

I do not disagree with those who suggest that there is a reassertion of Islam, even an Islamist wind, blowing across the whole Middle East and North Africa region, albeit at different levels and with varying forces. I also agree with many pundits that local Christian communities may be finding that their liberties are constrained further than they were during authoritarian times.

However, the fearful reactions that we have experienced in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa region are nothing new. Subscribing to the pages of history, we can see that smaller (minority) communities are often -- almost inevitably, perhaps -- at the receiving end of destiny. This is why one of my mentors, Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, used to talk about "the cross we have to carry before we jumpstart into the Resurrection".

The late theologian Jean Corbon, author of L'Eglise des Arabes and editor of the Courrier Oecumenique du Moyen Orient also learned to hande such fears with customary aplomb.

Recently, two luminous Lebanese minds in interfaith relations, Dr Mohammad Sammak and Saoud Al-Mawla, co-authored a letter entitled 'Christians and Muslims together against Christian Emigration from the Arab World'. They stressed the need for those two faiths not only to co-exist, but also to live and witness together.

My own fundamental disagreement with the magma of fear is that many of its statements articulate the hierarchs’ viewpoints, and I personally am not ready to expect the majority of the 'citizens' of a country putting their quest for whatever dignity, freedom or emancipation they are seeking on hold, simply because it does not favour some Christian leaders.

This, I believe, will be counterproductive and boomerang eventually. That said, there is certainly an argument here that needs to be teased out, as the fear is legitimate. But everybody I have spoken with is afraid to address it (whether in favour or against). Hence the current tensions and statements are exacerbating realities and fuelling prospects for emigration.

Yet as the late US diplomat and politician John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” So there are still many of us who believe that all the smaller communities should support the uprisings since they carry with them the fresh winds of democracy, dignity and fundamental freedoms.

This does not inure us from the realisation that what is being practised against those communities - namely in Iraq, but also at times in Egypt, Syria, Gaza or elsewhere - leads one to be prudent if not downright anxious. However, I still maintain that those communities - including Christians - should accept that the Middle East and North Africa region is in the throes of change and that they too should adapt to those changes.

Irrespective of whether they (we) face some persecution, harassment or inaction as a result of the revolutionary essence of those changes within Middle East and North Africa societies, they should forgo their proclivity toward dhimmitude (a neologism found in French initially that denotes the surrender of some civil rights in return for protection as non-Muslim communities in a larger Muslim state) and struggle to be full and assertive citizens in their own countries.

I realise that this is quite hard to attain in the MENA region, where some Christians who feel ostracised at times might consider such a suggestion fanciful. I do feel concerned when members of minority communities that suffered the demerits of dhimmitude under Ottoman rule and then again, in different rapacious forms under totalitarian or autocratic regimes, would continue to do so today; whether by trying to ingratiate themselves with the old-new rulers in Middle East and North African countries, or else by asking for succour, protection and refuge from the West.

Have they not learned, after many calamitous experiences, that the West as a political entity is not truly interested in their fate, considering them no better than cannon fodder at times?

Despite the mammoth efforts of a disenfranchised citizenry in pursuing their sense of due dignity and free destiny in a peaceful manner, albeit with bloody incidents occurring now and then, it is not possible to predict where we will end up tomorrow. But it is possible suggest where we are now: in the midst of a grand reshaping of all the regional assumptions that have stood for almost a generation.

For no matter where we go with those uprisings, the minorities should understand that they can no longer claim that the MENA will revert to 16 December 2010, when a man upset the regional applecart and provoked the biggest change in the Middle East and North Africa since the 1950’s.

Instead, they should exercise a leap of faith for the future alongside all other communities, in spite of the uncertainties that face them. Democracy might not succeed as an exercise, as an ideal or even as a fully peaceful concept. But something has made the pulse of this region race faster, and that cannot be undone.


© 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 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). 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), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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