x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

We must save the region's religions for diversity's sake

Aiding the survival of Arab-Christian communities is a cultural obligation, no less than preserving other threatened communities in the world.

Last October, television viewers in the West realised there were Catholics in Iraq, not to say other Christians, and that their presence was seriously endangered. Al Qa'eda announced that it intended to target Christians after militants took worshippers hostage at the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad. More than 50 people were killed when the Iraqi security forces tried to free them, and suddenly the plight of Iraqi Christians found a sympathetic ear overseas.

This was laudable, since the suffering of Iraqis, Christians or Muslims, has very little preoccupied Americans, Europeans or for that matter Arabs. The Baghdad assault was only the most spectacular in a long series of abuses directed against Iraq's Christians, following multiple killings in the northern city of Mosul early this year.

In October, the Catholic Church, alarmed by the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East, organised a synod in Rome to address the problem. The gathering issued recommendations, but much will depend on how local churches implement them. That is no easy feat. The eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox, can be calcified repositories of mediocrity, making more precarious the plights of their flocks. Yet it would be a tragedy if the ancient, diverse communities of Arab Christians were to turn into historical footnotes.

An interesting question that forms a subtext of the fate of Arab Christians is whether we might legitimately expect western countries to intervene on their behalf. At a time when many in the West have come to regard Islam through the prism of cultural irreconcilability, it is significant, even reassuring, that this has not translated into antagonistic pan-Christian solidarity. Rather, westerners tend to define themselves as secular, liberal, tolerant and so forth, rejecting what they perceive, often mistakenly, as the absence of those values among Muslim communities. However, very few will identify, or justify, their own reactions on strictly Christian religious grounds.

The downside is that the West has neglected Arab Christians. This is resented by these Christians, whose identity is often closely defined by religious community, church and communal traditions, which their minority status has reinforced. At the same time, minority fears have made them more apt to support sinister minority regimes. Iraqi Christians were partial to Saddam Hussein, for example. This did little to endear the communities to foes of Baath rule, but it is also true that in Iraq, the al Maliki government is keen to end the haemorrhage of Christians.

The fate of the Maronites, the most influential of Arab Christian communities for having played an important role in political life, is equally instructive. If there is an Arab Christian group that has aroused little empathy in the West, it is the Maronites. That is, partly, because the community has not been regarded as vulnerable. Lebanon's president is, by agreement, a Maronite, and the country's sectarian system allocates leading posts according to religious affiliation. Christians make up some 30 to 35 per cent of the Lebanese population, but officially fill 50 per cent of parliamentary seats.

The more cretinous western observers of Lebanon have described this as a form of apartheid. However, it is hardly an anomaly for mixed societies where communities dominate to be governed by so-called consociational models, in which majoritarianism is replaced by mechanisms designed to achieve communal power-sharing. The aim is to protect minorities, and to facilitate cooperation between broader religious, cultural or even linguistic communities.

Yet that alone doesn't explain the venom with which some western publicists have written about the Maronites and Lebanese Christians in general. Maronites have suffered in western eyes for standing against the consensus in the Arab world, but more damningly against the consensus that westerners approving of Arab political causes have sought to impose on the Arab world. When the region was in the throes of anti-colonialism and hostile to American neo-imperialism, most Maronites were pro-American and ambiguous about, but not especially hostile to, the legacy of the French Mandate over Lebanon.

When everyone in the Middle East was pro-Palestinian in the 1970s, the Maronites warned that the Palestinians were undermining Lebanese sovereignty, before bitterly fighting their militias. For westerners hungry for new cultural beginnings in the region, the Maronites, like other Christians, have appeared too eager to portray themselves as organically of the West, and in that way have lost their certificate of Arab authenticity.

This combination of a community at odds with its surroundings and at one time confident in the exercise of power has not quite filled the bill for evoking western concern. The only Maronite leader who has lately prompted some interest, even approval, among westerners writing about Lebanon is Michel Aoun. And while the Maronites' predicament is not comparable to that of Iraq's Christians, the community is in grave numerical and political decline. We may be witnessing the start of terminal Maronite marginalisation.

In its understandable reluctance to approach Arab Christians from the sole perspective of religious commonality, the secular West misses the point: aiding the survival of Arab-Christian communities is a cultural obligation, no less than preserving other threatened communities in the world. It's not enough to rally to the side of Iraq's Christians, who are so plainly at risk. Throughout the Middle East myriad minorities, Christian and otherwise, are caught in an existential struggle. The benefits of diversity make these struggles valuable.


Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle