09/11/2012, 00.00
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Fr. Samir: Benedict XVI’s courage carries the Churches of the Middle East and the Arab Spring

by Samir Khalil Samir
Despite the tensions in neighboring Syria and the winds of war between Israel and Iran, the journey to Lebanon was not postponed. Christians and Muslims are waiting for him. The exhortation to promote the relationship between clergy and laity, ecumenism between Christians and relations with Muslims, the commitment to the poor, education. Lebanon can be a model for the Arab Spring: common citizenship between Christians and Muslims, freedom of conscience (and conversion from one religion to another), beyond the excesses of Western permissiveness and Islamic fundamentalism.

Beirut (AsiaNews) All of Lebanon is preparing to welcome the visit of Benedict XVI (14-16 September). Above all the Christians are preparing themselves with national and diocesan meetings for young people, couples, families, etc... The country is teeming with Lebanese and Vatican flags, the highway that runs along the coast is festooned with posters of the pope with meaningful quotes; illuminated billboards. Even in the press every day, there are articles in preparation.

Everyone is waiting for his words of peace and reconciliation, even if the situation in Syria, a short distance from here, is very tense. Despite this, the government is doing everything to ensure safety. The fact that the journey is going ahead, that it has not been postponed or canceled, is an important sign. Many still do not believe it, but I will confirm and say: This coming of Benedict XVI is already proof that the Pope knows of the danger involved, but is not afraid. And if something were to happen - God forbid - it means: I share your concerns and worries.

In fact, the Pope and the Church at the Synod on the Middle East have pointed out that the Christians of this region must not abandon these places because "we have a mission here." But if the Pope had cancelled this visit at the first sign of danger, it would have been a counter-witness. Instead, the Pope seems to be saying: Your situation is difficult and we know it. But we want to help you and to assure you that your presence is important. This journey is already a message, for the very fact that it is going ahead.

Muslims, too, await the Pope

Muslim personalities have expressed their welcome to the Pope. Muslims are not indifferent. The figure of the Pope and of this Pope in particular, has always been a peaceful, constructive, figure which preaches understanding and reconciliation, peace between Muslims and Christians. Lebanon moreover, is a small and weak country and is content at the prospect of being in the global spotlight for a few days.

On the other hand, Lebanon as an Arab country, is unique in the widespread understanding between its Christian and Muslim communities. The fact that in wanting to address the Middle East, the Pope chose Lebanon, means that this country has a mission. And the Lebanese Muslims are aware of this. Faced with issues such as religious freedom, freedom of conscience, the relationship with modernity and the West, they have a much more moderate and open position compared to all other Muslims in the region.

They have a leading role in this area because they are supporters of coexistence. This position is not an easy one because even in Lebanon conflicts can arise over nothing. Often there are outside provocations: the problems of Syria, tensions with Iran, the Islamists from Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Qatar, refugees from Iraq ...

Yet the Lebanese community maintains its position. In recent years, the conflicts more often arise among Muslims themselves, between moderates - the vast majority - and Salafi trends that are also present in Lebanon. And the response is always in favor of moderation, not extremism. Yesterday, during a speleological excursion to Jaita, in Metn, we saw hundreds of Muslim families. They too are looking forward to the Pope's arrival.

Tensions in the Middle East

Our biggest fear comes from the situation in Syria. Every day we see Syrians cross the border, Muslims and Christians, as refugees or as combatants, to prolong the fight. The clashes in northern Lebanon are among Muslims. The army is trying to isolate them, because both groups are armed. Hezbollah, for their part, have tried to keep a low profile, full of prudence and wisdom. Hezbollah supports the Syrian regime, but has made few declarations, if not in words.

If things should worsen in Syria, no one knows what might happen in Lebanon. We hope that the coming of the Pope will help bring calm to the situation.

There are also tensions between Iran and Israel. Tehran continuously promises to destroy Israel and Israel threatens air strikes against Iranian nuclear plants. It seems to me that the Iranian threats against Israel are only words. Iran has never attacked Israel directly. And in such a delicate moment for Iran, it would be unwise to do so. I fear so-called "preventive" attacks by Israel more. I hope that at least during this visit, the presence of the Pope may bring some sense of peace. An attack by either party would be an absolute mistake: an attack or preventive war cannot be justified. It will not bring any fruit, if not a further massacre of innocent people.

The tension is rising in Syria, with the government bombing Aleppo with Albatros planes Saturday. At the same time, there was a rebel attack on a military barracks targeting new recruits. And it is always the common people who pay with their lives. In Syria things are going so horribly wrong because everyone persists in the belief that the final solution and victory for their side is close. I hope that at least during these days of the Pope's visit, the two sides will implement a ceasefire.

Moreover, that the Pope proposes a moral and spiritual support, and reconciliation among all.

The Apostolic Exhortation and mission

The Pope is to publish and disseminate the apostolic exhortation following on from the Synod for the Middle Eastern Churches. All the dioceses are preparing for the visit with debates, conferences, based on the issues discussed at the Synod. What else will this visit bring? It will certainly depend on what Christians put in place once the visit has ended.

Firstly the document will have to be studied. The newspapers will immediately help in this, through summaries and quotes of the content. But above all, the diocese will have to promote the study of the document through encounters between adults, young people, tackling the social and ecumenical problems.

For me, one of the most important issues discussed at the Synod and which will push the Exhortation is the reform of the relationship between clergy and laity. Here in the Middle East the relationship between priest and his community of lay people is a bit 'that between master and servants. In comparison to the West, where lay people are much more engaged in the service of the Church and of society, but unfortunately the priests decided, and tend to command and ask the laity only to obey. It 's time to give more space for the laity in the mission of the Church.

A second aspect is that we hope to strengthen the commitment to ecumenism. The lay faithful are much more open to ecumenical collaboration. Days ago I celebrated an ecumenical marriage between a Catholic and a Greek-orthodox. I was there, the Orthodox priest was there and then a monk. We celebrated the rites together taking turns with the chants from the two rites in Arabic. The lay are also pressing for the common celebration of important feasts, to have one calendar for Easter, Christmas etc...

The third element is relations with Muslims. Relations with them are good, especially if attempts to arrive at theological agreements are avoided. The most important reality in Lebanon is freedom of conscience, ie the possibility for an individual to change his religion without any compulsion.

Yesterday a young monk who accompanied me to a conference told me that his name was Muhammad. Before my amazement, he said that five years ago he converted and then entered a monastery. He and his family are still on relatively good terms, above all with his brothers and mother, but not his father.

The meeting - which was on the relationship between Christians and Muslims - was attended by several men and women who had converted. Among all, there was even one who said: "I was a Muslim terrorist. Then thanks to Tele Lumiere [a Lebanese Catholic television], I converted. Thanks to Brother Noor [the head of the TV channel] I changed. Now I work at the same television".  Another person, of Moroccan origin, told me that after her conversion, she came to live in Lebanon with her daughter, because of difficulties with her family.

It is worth noting that Lebanon is the only country where you can convert from one religion to another without the risk of being killed or severely marginalized by society. The country still remembers the conversion of Fr. Afif Osseiran (1919-1988) who came from an important Shiite family, and on becoming a Maronite priest proclaimed himself a "good Muslim and a true Christian." He converted at the age of 25, after reading the "Sermon on the Mount", and in particular the word "And I say unto you, Love your enemies" (Mt 7). He never renounced his dual reality! He died 25 years ago. The family, all Muslims, even today, every year participate in a Mass in memory of their beloved departed. What is possible in Lebanon is totally impossible in the rest of the world[I].

The fourth point in the program, fruit of the Synod and the Apostolic Exhortation is the priority for the poor. The Church is committed through the laity, but the criticism that is made is that the monks or bishops are too rich, or live in a manner far from the reality of the poor. This criticism is often a valid one. I hope that the Holy Father suggests that the Gospel be lived in a more rigorous manner and closer to the weak.

The Apostolic Exhortation and the Arab Spring

A focus on poverty means that the Pope will also sow in the wake of the Arab Spring. The movements that are changing the Middle Eastern world were born of a demand for greater dignity for the poor and the scandal of poverty in many of these countries reaches 40% of the population.

But the Arab Spring also emphasized values ​​such as freedom of conscience, freedom from dictatorship, democracy, equality between Christians and Muslims in society, and between men and women. I believe that Christians after the Synod and after the Apostolic Exhortation will be even greater players on this stage, maintaining the characteristic of believers, working and fighting for individual liberties - of press, association, conscience, opinion ... -. In the West we affirm these freedoms, but often in an anarchic manner that borders on the libertinism. This has pushed Muslims to turn away from the West, affirming a greater rigor and fundamentalism.

The Arab Spring was an absolute call to freedom, but not to freedom as understood in the West, which knows no limits and is often expressed only in sexual freedom, exhibitionism, provocation. Christians with their vision of freedom, can help Muslims to find a middle ground, which excludes the secularism and excesses of the West on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism on the other.

Another point that the Exhortation should strengthen is education. In Lebanon, about 50% of young Christians and Muslims are up to 12 years of age go to Catholic schools. It is very important to provide a common education and at the same time ensure the deepening of their own tradition, Muslim or Christian. 35% of students at our university St Joseph's are Muslims.

Finally, a wish: After the Arab Spring, in almost all the countries concerned, attempts to forced Islamization met with much popular resistance. This is the case in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and to some extent also in Syria. The Syrian Christians fear a religious dictatorship that could replace a political dictatorship. In fact, according to several witnesses, radical tendencies among the rebels and the Syrian opposition constitute a minority. Thus, it does not seem right to fear the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Syria, although caution is always required. The Syrian tradition is in fact marked by a positive secularism.

Here once again, the value of Lebanon and the choice of the Pope emerge: Lebanon as a multiethnic and multireligious country, open to all traditions, is to some extent an ideal for the Arab Spring, that dreams of a secular state, open to all religious and cultural traditions. And the Synod moves in this direction, in pursuit of a common citizenship and not towards fundamentalism. By joining forces we can ensure a bright future for the Middle East. Inch'Allah!




[I]         [1] See  Jacques Keryell, Afif Osseiran (1919-1988). Un chemin de vie (Paris: Le Cerf, 2009).



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