The Middle East is a rich fabric of interwoven social and cultural identities which should be defended at all times. The very nature of this innate heterogeneous coexistence is the heart of our civilization and one of our greatest treasures to be valued – not destroyed. Although not a Christian myself, I feel that no one can doubt the important role of the “Christians of Levant” in the Arab world. Yet, each time a crisis happens in the Middle East, questions related to the future of Christianity in the region appear.
The Middle East is a rich fabric of interwoven social and cultural identities which should be defended at all times. The very nature of this innate heterogeneous coexistence is the heart of our civilization and one of our greatest treasures to be valued – not destroyed. Yet, each time a crisis happens in the Middle East, questions related to the future of Christianity in the region appear.
Christians and Arab Enlightenment
Although not a Christian myself, I feel that no one can doubt the important role of the “Christians of Levant” during the period of enlightenment in the Arab world. They played a significant part in creating a platform for an Arab socio-cultural and political consciousness.
From the prospective of Arab Christians, their identity was always seen from an Arab dimension. They always call for secular state, but for many Islam is considered a fundamental component of Arabism.
The last years of the Ottoman Empire, in the end of the 19th century, witnessed the new presence of the national Arab thought. Arab Christians were the main protagonists of this movement and of the Arab political life. Moreover, they were the leaders of the intellectual formation of the Arab mind, leading many initiatives such as the pan-Arabism movement. Their efforts were never related to Christianity, actually it was much related to the “Arabness“ of the society, and their awakening movement had reached all Arabs regardless their religious belonging.
Originally, Christians were too much inspired by the Enlightenment theories. In Lebanon, Farah Anton for example was considered one of the major Arab secular theorists. His theories regarding the civic state are still on the top of the Arab enlightenment thought. Since then the call for secularism in the Arab societies emerged. Prior, the Arab Christians were never seen out of a religious dimension. Their support of the secular movements turned them to be leaders of the so-called “National Arab thought”.
Here I recall Michel Aflaq the founder of the Pan-Arabism theory, the nationalist thinker who managed to give the Arab nationalism a stronger impact in the mind of Arabs regardless if be they Muslims or Christians. Antun Sa’adeh’s was another Arab Christian who favored the secular state and the Syrian regionalism.
Many analysts argue the reason that pushed Christian thinkers to adopt the concept of secular and Arab states. Some actually believe that this was the result of a latent fear among Arab Christians from the possibility of being marginalized by the Muslim majority. Therefore, the Arab identity would guarantee a leading role and presence for the Christian minority. However, today it is not fair to consider this reason as the only reason that pushed those thinkers to adopt the Arab and secular thought, as they were also inspired by a progressive vision related to the shape of the new modern Arab state in the structure of the new world.
Christians and the so called “Arab Spring”
Security within a dictatorship is better than democracy with fears?
From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the catastrophic model implemented in Iraq was ever present in the minds of strategists and decision makers. The appearance of armed groups in Syria caused serious reflection and the global response demonstrated fears and concerns due to the expected consequences of such armed conflicts. The varied bases of these fears included the potential to repeat the Iraqi experience of civilian death and persecution, especially the Christian experience that put the future of Christians in the Middle East at real risk.
This pushed many not to allow this to happen to the Syrian Christian community. Many urged that the mistakes committed in Iraq should never be repeated. For many the Iraqi scene should not dwindle and Christians should not be forced to flee their land.
Targeting the two secular states, Iraq and now Syria, was seen negatively from many Christians, as it will not lead merely to a sectarian war. It risks putting an end to the concept of accepting diversity and pluralism, the tenets of multiculturalism and religious expression, raising questions about the capacity to maintain intellectual moderation.
Many Christians asked if the world is ready to learn from the mistakes of the past? As those who are now in favor of sending arms are the same who were behind the disastrous outcomes in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and even Iraq. The whole world should strongly oppose this option simply because nobody wants the region to turn into another Qandahar or Kabul.
The Vatican repeatedly took a prominent position, stressing the urgent need to defend the future of Christianity in the Middle East and the level of danger that the whole world would face due to the application of any imprudent violent policies in Syria. Despite this, many countries insisted on the option of bringing down the Syrian regime at any cost. From here the visit of support in September 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon that aimed to address the position of the Vatican toward the Christians in the region who witnessed a real civil war in neighboring Syria.
From here the, the vision of most Christians insisted that the political solution is a real salvation for the global community from the trap of a new Afghanistan. America’s diminishing support of any military option suggests that the political solution should pass through Geneva II. While this would mark a milestone in the development of a new reality in the Middle East, it also raises questions about the capacity to maintain intellectual moderation, the existence of minorities and undoubtedly the future of Christianity in the region.
Moderate Politics: a Real Need
These recent developments in the Middle East have imposed new realities that would logically pressure countries in the region to adopt new politics and tactics. Some have developed over the last 15 to 20 years, such as the level of extremism in the Middle East being recognized as one of the major sources of danger for the whole world.
These new realities in the Middle East have created a path towards ending extremism which might lead to a competition amongst the countries to adopt moderate policies lest political isolation.
The desire to be more open to the rest of the global economy, the domination of intellectual moderation and the new realities created by the recent happenings might be the basis for re-shaping the future of the region. As a result, the countries that continue to act as sponsors of extremist and terrorist movements may be committing a political and strategic suicide.
On the other hand, King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to go to the Vatican on August 29th, 2013, and held talks with Pope Francis. The new pontiff returned the visit on May 24th, 2015, in the framework of his first mission to the Holy Land. These meetings had an implicit message that aims to promote Jordan as a moderate voice and a reference point for the defense of the future of Christianity in a turbulent Middle East.