Paris (AsiaNews) - During his official visit to France, Maronite Patriarch Card Beshara Rai took part in a conference last Wednesday at the Institut Catholique de Paris (Catholic University of Paris); the topic of the meeting was 'The Christian presence in a theocratic context', held as part of a symposium dedicated to "Christ and Caesar, the opinion of the Churches" organised by the Institut Supérieur d'Études Œcuméniques (Higher Institute of Ecumenical Studies, ISEO), which is part of the same university and is led by Fr Jacques-Noël Pérès.
The event was topical and educational for two different reasons. It underscored the ambiguity of the 'Arab Spring' as perceived by the Eastern Churches, and provided insight into what Patriarch Rai discussed with various French officials, especially President François Hollande.
For the patriarch, the Arab spring must turn into a 'spring of man' if it wants to redeem itself, or even justify the violence that has come with it. In his lecture, Card Rai analysed in depth the changes that have taken place in Egypt and warned against the danger of radicalisation of moderate Islam and the lack of influence of Christian political thought, custodian of man's inviolable rights, in an environment that is theocratic, in both Muslim and Jewish contexts, and deaf to others.
The ambiguity of the Arab Spring
At the start of his address, the Maronite Church leader said, "On the one hand, the Arab Spring has been an effective revolt against totalitarian systems [. . .]. This way, the right of peoples to decide their own destiny found all its greatness. On the other hand, its darkest, the collapse of the totalitarian systems paved the way in some cases to the rise to power of Islamic extremism under the guise of democracy and political reform. [. . .] We," Card Rai added, "believe that political reform and democracy must be the work of the populations concerned, in accordance with their own aspirations. In these countries, the so-called 'silent' majority must be able to speak freely. Its moderation is a necessity."
On the fundamental role of the Christian contribution to the full development of their societies, the Patriarch Rai further and bluntly said: "It is because of Jesus that Christians are sensitive to the dignity of the human person and to the religious freedom that goes with it. It is because of this love for God and for humanity, glorifying the dual nature of Christ and the love of eternal life, that Christians have built schools, hospitals and institutions of all kinds, where all are welcome without discrimination of any kind (cf Mt, 25:31 ff). It is for these reasons that Christians show special attention to the fundamental rights of the human person.
What is more, it is not fair to say that these rights are only 'Christian' rights for man. They are simply the key points of the dignity of the human person and of all citizens irrespective of origin, religious convictions or political choices." (Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, no. 25).
Arabism and pluralism
Historically, during the period of the 'Nahda' or Arab Renaissance, Christians introduced two fundamental notions, Arabism and pluralism, the Maronite Patriarch said.
"Arabism is about people, not religion," he explained. "It is related to modernity, not fanaticism and decline. Pluralism is about the individual and community, as pillars of a civilised modern state, not of fragmented communities and entities that are detrimental to national and political unity.
The primary, immutable and existential pillar of Arabism and pluralism is man in his dignity, his freedom and his rights. It is with this spirit that Christians became politically active and it is through the door of humanism that they have integrated Arabism.
This spirit is still valid and good for a new role in the 'Arab Spring', which could benefit from it so that it can become the 'spring of man', putting an end to despotism, repression, domination, stifling of freedom and corruption. "
The duties of the West
On such basis, the cardinal insisted, the task of Western powers is "to maintain a Christian presence, one that is effective and influential, among the nations of the Middle East, despite the growing influence of fundamentalist groups and jihadists who could push Muslims, the majority of whom are moderate, to adopt fundamentalism, which is a threat to world peace."
The international community, the cardinal added, must also "fight Christian marginalisation and make sure that they are well integrated in the social, cultural and political life of their countries of origin. This is not a matter for the majority to protect a minority," the patriarch explained, "but a fundamental right shared by all, without distinction and without discrimination."
The international community must also "contain the bloody conflict between Sunnis and Shias and oppose the partition of nations in small sectarian states, which are a threat to peace in the Middle East, but with repercussions on a global scale."
It must adopt "a policy of welcoming [Christians] on humanitarian grounds, when it is necessary," but in no way should it "promote the emigration of Christians from the lands of the East". Instead, it "ought to help them strengthen their links [to their countries] by means of specific development projects."
Incidentally, the Patriarch is outraged by the fact that "in Syria, no one is able to understand the reasons for the violence and the war between the two factions that are fighting each other. We see nothing but bloodshed, destruction and citizens fleeing. Nations in the East and West do nothing but stir war. They have failed to appeal to the parties to fight for peace, dialogue and negotiations."
"In such times of crisis and search for truth," the patriarch noted, "our hope is to see Lebanon play its role of messenger" of peace and co-existence.
"Lebanon is more than a country," the Blessed Pope John Paul II once said. "It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West."