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Mideast's religious minorities approach point of no return

The Pope's visit to Lebanon will not long disguise the shaky status of Christian minorities in the region.

It's been 10 days since Pope Benedict XVI left Beirut, but his portraits still hang along Lebanon's roads. That is not because of the pope's popularity - the Lebanese preferred the more charismatic Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1997 - but it does symbolically capture the anxiety among Arab Christians today, as if acknowledgement of the pope's departure were an admission of the Christians' abandonment.

Officially, Pope Benedict's visit was organised so that he could sign the Apostolic Exhortation that followed a synod on the Christians of the Middle East held in October 2010.

More prosaically, his aim was to give renewed confidence to Lebanese and Arab Christians at a time of political uncertainty in the region. He also came to urge them not to abandon their homelands, in that way exacerbating their demographic regression.

On both counts, Pope Benedict must have few illusions. While the pontiff could hold Lebanon up as a model of religious coexistence (although, a often very troubled one), the future of Catholics and other Christian minorities throughout the Arab world remains in serious doubt. Worse, for the Vatican, the Arab uprisings have largely benefited Islamists, which does not bode well for Christian minorities.

While the Catholic Church has endeavoured to take a more nuanced view of the uprisings, its initial ambiguity about the transformations in the region endures. For instance, upon arriving in Beirut, Pope Benedict called for an end to arms transfers to Syria. This was directed as much against the Syrian regime as the rebels, and yet in presuming equivalence between the two sides, particularly at a time of barbaric repression by the forces of President Bashar Al Assad, the pope surely angered many in the Syrian opposition.

Last year, the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite community, Beshara Al Rai, made controversial statements suggesting the Assad regime was a guarantor of Christian rights. He was much criticised by Syria's Christian foes in Lebanon, but the patriarch was probably reflecting a strong trend in the Vatican at the time. That he has since backtracked is as much a response to the indefensible brutality of the Syrian leadership as to the Catholic Church's own shifting attitude.

One should not expect an ardently conservative pope who heads a traditionally conservative institution, particularly in Arab countries, to take naturally to an uninhibited drive for popular emancipation. Moreover, minorities in the Middle East have often paid a hefty price for the ideological passions of the day. However, the church's early coolness did pose problems on a moral level, implying that autocrats were acceptable if they didn't happen to massacre Christians.

And yet, there is understandable fear for the Christian presence in the region because in several countries we may already have reached a point of no return. In Iraq, it is difficult to imagine a massive homecoming of Christians in the foreseeable future, if ever. In Syria, unless the conflict ends soon and a post-Assad government takes urgent measures to reassure the country's myriad minorities, the exodus of Christians will only gain momentum.

In Egypt, relations between the state and the Coptic community were never very good under former President Hosni Mubarak. Since the revolution last year, however, things have gotten worse. Neither the armed forces nor the Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohammed Morsi hails, has given the Copts reason to feel at ease. The recent furore over a film critical of the Prophet Mohammed, reportedly produced by a Copt, will not have improved matters.

In Lebanon, the one Arab country where Christians hold leadership positions, circumstances are more complicated. While Christians are believed to make up roughly a third of the population, their political weight and the fact that Lebanon's Sunnis and Shia are divided has allowed Christians, potentially, to play a vital balancing role in politics and society. What's more, Muslims have generally been sympathetic to the Christian presence, and have endorsed, at least in principle, the merits of a sectarian mosaic, even when they have pursued political agendas that do little to preserve it.

A major problem is that Lebanon's Christians, particularly the Maronites, are divided. The community has long been litigious, if also democratic, presenting an obstacle to the formulation of a unified strategy of communal adaptability and survival. This continues, with a portion of the Christians siding with Hizbollah and the Shia, another with the March 14 coalition led by the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, a Sunni, and a third that is neither here or there.

Pope Benedict's message was one of self-assurance, but it will not be easy for Lebanon's Christians to embrace such an outlook. For one thing, Christian politicians frequently adopt demagogical rhetoric to enhance their authority, playing on Christian fears of being overwhelmed by Muslims. Even the Maronite Church has gotten into the act, moving to sponsor an accord over an election law where Christian candidates are chosen solely by Christian voters.

All such actions only reaffirm Christian weakness. That may be justifiable, but when it comes to preserving the future of the community in Lebanon and the Arab world, much will depend on projecting Christian strength, not a sense of irreversible doom. At the same time, overconfidence can lead to faulty assessments of the true Christian condition, while provoking a backlash from Muslim communities. For example in Egypt, Iraq or even Palestinian areas under the control of Hamas, the willingness of Islamists in power to respond positively to Christian assertiveness is negligible.

Pope Benedict's visit to Lebanon reinforced Christian-Muslim harmony. However, it will not fundamentally alter the dynamics of the Christian retreat in the Arab world. What Christians need is to redefine their role beyond the numbers, boldly but also realistically.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

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