x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Christian minorities forced by fear into the dictators' fold

It may seem prudent for Christian minorities in Arab Spring countries to side with dictatorships, but it is morally wrong and also unwise.

The recent violence in Egypt between Copts and the Egyptian army, with its sectarian overtones, poured ice on the high expectations surrounding the Arab intifadas. Arab Christians in particular are worried about the future, and their anxieties are colouring their interpretation of the repression all over.

For Christians in the Levant and Iraq, communal security in recent decades has involved a static reading of political affairs. As a minority, they have feared that change might threaten the stability that was buying them respite. That is why Christians tended to be on good terms with the autocrats, whether under the Assad regime in Syria, which is led by minority Alawites, or the previous regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, led by minority Sunnis. This was true even if it led to charges from their more assertive brethren elsewhere that this exemplified the submissiveness of dhimmis - minorities protected under Islam.

Among those once levelling the charge were Lebanon's Christians. In relative terms they are the most potent of the Arab Christian communities, representing an estimated third of the population. The largest Lebanese Christian sect, the Maronites, dominated the state and security organs before Lebanon's civil war in 1975, hardily preserving a status quo to their advantage. The setbacks and infighting of the war years, alongside the community's demographic decline, have greatly reduced Maronite standing.

The situation is different in Egypt. The Copts had long been in dispute with the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, accusing them of overseeing systems discriminating against the Coptic community. For them, the "new" Egypt offers new anxieties, by possibly allowing for the consolidation of Islamist forces less accepting of Copts than before. Copts feel caught between two evils: a seemingly immovable state in which political and administrative realities are gamed against them; and a post-Mubarak society in flux, where Islamist and Salafist groups openly antagonistic to Christians appear to be gaining ground.

Lebanon is perhaps the best illustration of dilemmas faced by Arab Christians. Virtually all types of Christian communities are represented in the country, and they find themselves at a crossroads in terms of their destiny and demographic survival. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the conflicting ways that the Christians, Maronites in particular, have reacted to the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

On the one side, there have been those Maronites who dread the consequences of Mr Al Assad's downfall. Their argument is based on an assumption that minorities have a vested interest in allying with each other against the Sunni majority in the Middle East. They believe that if the Alawite leadership collapses, it will be replaced by a Sunni Islamist regime. The most vocal Lebanese proponents of this line are the politicians Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh, who have recently found an unexpected partner in Maronite Patriarch Bishara Al Rai. President Michel Suleiman has not opposed their assessment, even if he has not explicitly supported it either.

On the other side are those Maronites who insist that the end of Assad rule would be a boon to Christians. They point out that no one has undermined the community over time as has the Syrian regime, and that an "alliance of minorities" is a path toward self-destruction. There is no certainty that Sunni Islamists will dominate Syria, they maintain, and anyway it makes no sense for Christians to side with the repressive leadership in Damascus against those seeking freedom; even less so given that Mr Al Assad will likely be toppled at some stage.

Those who defend this approach have rallied, principally, around the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Christian politicians close to the Sunni-dominated Future Movement of Saad Hariri, the former prime minister. Patriarch Al Rai's predecessor, the 91-year-old Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who retired this year, has emerged as a spiritual godfather to this coalition of forces. While backing Patriarch Al Rai in public, Cardinal Sfeir has dropped remarks here and there revealing a very different philosophy.

The second view is the more sensible one, though many Christians may disagree. Ultimately, it is mad for Arab Christians to sanction tyrants slaughtering their people. Such a policy is a perennial game of Russian roulette, with Christians wagering on the triumph of the murderers. Not only is this politically reckless, it is morally reprehensible, especially when involving those like Patriarch Al Rai, who purport to speak in the name of a religion of charity and love.

As far as their existential options go, Arab Christians have few alternatives but to advocate pluralistic, democratic orders protecting social and political liberties. Only such environments can ensure that Christians are accepted for their differences and the dissonances they bring, rather than merely tolerated until alignments shift.

The problem is that if Lebanon's community is having trouble accepting this conclusion, even though the country is freer and more permissive than those in its neighbourhood, then what can be expected of those dwindling Christian communities elsewhere in the Middle East? Worse, if the Christians themselves are disorientated, will this not encourage extremists who are overtly hostile to the Christian presence, even if they are few in number?

There is great confusion in the Arab world today as revolts defy decaying authoritarian systems. The Christians are understandably worried that they may become dispensable in the pulverising political transactions ahead. Their salvation is to embrace change that brings with it freedom. The road is bound to be difficult, as many will define freedom as the denial of freedom to others.

 

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