image of jerusalem 2013

Indigenous Christians in the MENA Region!
Another year is behind us as the MENA uprisings continue their relentless surge in different parts of the region...

January 10   |   2013   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Whilst 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 bloodier than others.

In the midst of this uncertain maelstrom, it is perhaps appropriate to re-visit today the realities of the MENA 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 emerging ‘Islamist’ regimes. And 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 sometimes joining the revolution on the streets. Now, a year later, there seems to be a perceptible change and most Christians - old or young - are extremely worried about the changing nature of some rebels whereby the rising trend of Islamism and the presence of foreign jihadis and warlords have frightened them. 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 MENA region albeit at different levels and with varying forces. I also agree with many pundits that local Christian communities might find that their liberties are constrained further than they were during authoritarian times.

Mind you, those fearful reactions that we have experienced in different parts of the MENA region are nothing new as they subscribe to the pages of history, namely 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 to me about 'the cross we have to carry before we jumpstart into the Resurrection'. Or perhaps the late theologian Jean Corbon, author of L'Eglise des Arabes and editor of the Courrier Oecumenique du Moyen Orient, who handled such fears with his customary aplomb! Only recently, two luminous Lebanese minds in inter-faith relations, Dr Mohammad Sammak and Saoud Al-Mawla, co-authored a letter entitled Christians & Muslims together against Christian Emigration from the Arab World and stressed the need for those two faiths not only to co-exist but also to live and witness together.

My own fundamental dissent from this 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 spiritual leaders. This, I believe, will be sharply counterproductive and boomerang eventually. Mind you, 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] and hence the tensions or 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. But 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 MENA region is in the throes of change and they too should adapt to those changes. Irrespective of whether they might face some persecution, harassment or inaction as a result of the revolutionary essence of those changes within MENA societies, they should forgo their proclivity toward dhimmitude (initially a French neologism 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 know this is quite hard to attain in the MENA region where some Christians at times feel ostracised and might consider my suggestions as a pie in the sky. But 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 colonial, totalitarian or autocratic regimes would continue to do so today - whether by trying to ingratiate themselves with the old-new rulers in those MENA countries or else by asking for succour, protection and refuge from the West. Have they not learnt after many calamitous experiences that the West as a political entity is not truly interested in their fate and alas considers them sometimes no better than cannon fodder?

Despite the mammoth efforts of a disenfranchised citizenry at pursuing their sense of due dignity and free destiny in peaceful manners, albeit with bloody incidents occurring now and then, I cannot predict where we may end up tomorrow as we embark upon a fresh year. But I can 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 expect the region to revert to 16 December 2010 when a desperate man upset the regional applecart and provoked the biggest change in the MENA region ever since the 1950’s. Instead, they should exercise a leap of faith for the future alongside all other communities no matter the unknown staring at them.

Democracy might not succeed as an exercise, as an ideal or even as a peaceful concept. But something has made the pulse of this region race faster and that can never be undone anymore. We all had better get used to those unpredictable changes as the peoples of the region seek to liberate their future with dignity and freedom.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2013   |   10 January


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