09/20/2012, 00.00
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Fr. Samir: For the Pope, Lebanon is a model for East and West

by Samir Khalil Samir
A few days after Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon (14-16 September) Lebanese enthusiasm refuses to be dampened, presented as a model of coexistence for the world Muslims and Christians. The Apostolic Exhortation suggests the overcoming of fundamentalism on the part of all religions, welcoming one another in the name of reason and principles inherent in human nature. The proposal for a "healthy secularity", respectful of the presence of religion in society also has something to say to the West.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Following Benedict XVI's amazing visit to Lebanon, the first thing that struck me was how many Muslims participated in celebrating his presence. Not all the Muslims were there, but Shiites in particular wanted to express their support. The Sunni Grand Mufti was a little more discreet, but in general the welcome of the Muslims was positive. Moreover the joy of the Christian people was unstoppable. And the crowd was made up mostly of young people.

Benedict XVI and the Muslims

The Pope had a very open and friendly attitude towards the Muslims: there was no criticism or correction on his part. In stead he chose to propose a positive way forward, a way of working together. In the Apostolic Exhortation he talks about two new features in the Middle East: secularism and fundamentalism. With regards the latter, we all now think almost automatically of Islamic fundamentalism. Instead he said it was a danger, that "touches all communities" and one we must fight together. He defines it very well: people who reject the other, who destroys those who are not like them, etc ...

One journalist here commented that it seemed to him that the Pope had changed his view of Islam when compared to the Regensburg address. But in my opinion, he has not changed at all. What has changed is the style of his argument and our understanding of it.

This Apostolic exhortation is a highly constructive way forward. Speaking to the Christians he proposes a way to work together to build their city and society together with others. The work of Christians is based on what is common to human nature, not something dictated directly by God or present in a holy book. Basically this is the same issue at the heart of the Regensburg Address: the call to live according to reason, avoiding fundamentalist violence, which uses God against reason, and secular violence, which uses reason against God

Someone said that the Pope gave no political solutions and as a result was far from concrete. I say that the Pope's choice was perfect, stressing universally accepted fundamental principles including the spiritual dimension of man, because politics is our task, according to the conditions and situations in which we find ourselves.

Forgiveness and reconciliation

By suggesting principles and values ​​shared by all those who seek the good, he allows us to reflect on the paths to be followed to realize his vision.

For example, it struck me that in the excellent address in Baabda, he cited the word "human dignity" five times, emphasizing issues such as "reconciliation" and "forgiveness." This is important for the Middle East. Consider the situation in Syria: it is currently in dead lock, moving neither forward nor back. Both sides are trying to win this war resulting in a climbing death toll and growing cruelty.

Even if the war were to end, serious wounds would remain: a relative killed, violence and destruction. If we do not learn to forgive, recognizing the harm and the injury done, to be reconciled, it is impossible to think about the future. If you do not engages a dialogue for the beginnings of a new Syria, prepared by forgiveness and reconciliation, Syria will be destroyed without finding any path of hope.

The Arab media have given much space to the Pope's visit and his message. An-Nahar, the most widely read Arab newspaper in Lebanon, September 15 last, dedicated a special supplement of eight pages to the pontiff. With the contribution of Catholics, Orthodox and also Muslims. The first page, titled "Enough about dhimmi," recalls the history of how non-Muslims were treated in the past (exclusion from society; protection fee, etc. ..). On the second page, an Orthodox priest takes up this theme claiming full citizenship for Christians and not "dhimmitude". The third page is a Muslim Egyptian starting from the experience of the Arab Spring, remember that since the beginning of the twentieth century, Christians and Muslims have collaborated in society, fighting together against the British colonizers. And then there are other pieces by Muslims and Christians who support the pope's speech, terming it a "spiritual vision that goes beyond the political debate." Positive comments on the Pope's visit continues till this day.

Lebanon as a model

Will Benedict XVI's proposal have an effective impact? I think so. The pontiff has not only stated values, he also presented Lebanon as a model for the Middle East. Speaking of the plurality of Lebanon - many Christian denominations and many Islamic ramifications - he made the defense of plurality as a source of wealth for a nation.

Of course, he also mentioned the possibility that the multiplicity can lead to division and conflict. But he especially stressed that Lebanon has managed to create a unity based on diversity and non-uniformity. The Pope opposed the fundamentalist project - according to which everyone should conform to a particular style of life and dress (beard, veil and etc. ..), strictly practiced fasting, that would apply Sharia law in full - instead proposing the Lebanese reality, that is not perfect, but in many respects is successful.

Lebanon, recognizing the existence of 18 communities, affirms the existence of diversity, but at the same time affirms that they are one people. This perspective is very positive for the region. Apart from some areas of the Middle East where Christians can be found, the majority of the countries have a Muslim population. But all attempts to unify these countries under one banner, including Islamic ones, have failed: the project to rebuild the caliphate, abolished in 1924 by Kemal Atatürk, was never realized, the union between some Arab countries (the United Arab Republic in 1958, with Egypt, Syria, Yemen) never went through.

Our people and our leaders are always tempted to say that if we want to have a strong society, we must all be of one homogenous mind. Instead, the model of Lebanon presents unity and multiplicity together.

Lebanon's path, is an effective one because it has developed an element present in the Ottoman Empire, recognizing the community and binding it to the State through the head of that community (this is the millet, an Arabic word pronounced in Turkish, which means "confessions "and more precisely, a" legally protected religious community "). After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French tried to recover this respect for the community.

In addition, Lebanon has always been a land of refuge for many communities: Maronites, Druze, Shia, etc. .... And that is why for centuries the Lebanese are used to dealing and coexisting with religions, languages ​​and communities. The constitution created in 1923 with the French influence gathers all of these communities under the "Most High God". Article 50 states that the President of the Republic, before taking up his duties, must take an oath of allegiance saying: "I swear to God Most High, to observe the Constitution and laws of the People of Lebanon, to maintain the independence of Lebanon and its 'territorial integrity. " The formula is important: it is neither the loving God of the Christians, or the merciful God of the Muslims.

This has created a diversified reality, which respects religion in a "healthy" secularism. Of course, there is also the risk that the community will become a ghetto and that each remains closed in on itself, but in the end, this style Lebanese seems really good and I believe it can offer itself as a model for the Middle East.

Moreover, Lebanon is considered a developed and happy country throughout the Middle East. This is even more amazing when you think that it has so many communities that live within its borders. But the groups have put the unity among them as a condition, with a discreet reference to God, who is above all.

I am convinced that the Pope touched on a key point: unity enriched by diversity, not unity stifled by uniformity.

The pope also suggested that Lebanon could be a model not only for the Middle East, but also for the world. We must not forget that even now in the West there are many communities of different religions and cultures, which requires a rethink in coexistence.  For this reason the Pope - in the Apostolic exhortation -  critiques secularized secularism, instead emphasizing a "healthy secularism" (see note  29).

"A healthy secularity - he says - ... frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres. No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds. "


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