07/08/2011, 00.00
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Middle East Synod close to Arab spring

by Samir Khalil Samir
International public opinion is concerned that the young people’s revolt is sliding towards fundamentalism. Many religious authorities fear for the fate of Christians. The Synod of the Middle East, held a few months before the "jasmine revolution", raised many issues that have become buzzwords of Arab youth movements. Maybe for now Islam will win, but the Arab world is changing and the Church is committed to this change.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The Church and the international community view the "Arab Spring" as something that is rather ambiguous. On the one hand, we see the desire for democracy, dignity, employment, friendship and brotherhood with the wider world, on the other we fear it may cause the Middle East and North Africa to slide towards a new edition of fundamentalism. Yet, the Synod for the Churches of the Middle East, held a few months before the outbreak of this "spring", had sensed some good indications of the young Arabs’ requests.

The youth movement that has shaken the Middle East is a positive thing. It has managed to bring down dictators and continuously demanded freedom, justice, dignity, in no uncertain terms. In the case of Egypt, for example, the demand for a secular State was also very clear, one that regards religion as a positive thing, but avoids it dominating every aspect of society.

Instead the prospects for the future remain ambiguous. The youth movements are full of good intentions, but they have failed to provide for the means to achieve them, and have no clear vision of the construction phase.

In many of these countries (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, ...) the Islamic world - often dormant because it is outlawed, but active in other forms or in the underground – has formed itself into well-organized parties. This creates fear among Christians, but also among Muslims who did not want a fundamentalist drift.

Egypt, Tunisia, Syria

Because of this, in the case of Egypt, the young people have asked for the elections to be postponed by a year. But this has proved difficult, because no one wants to govern for such a long period, not even the military who are by no means prepared fro such an eventuality. So, a compromise was reached to postpone the elections for at least another three months. The hope is that by that time other parties - as well as the Islamic ones – will have been able to organize themselves. But the Islamist party is gaining ground with all available means.

For example, a few days ago, the Coptic billionaire Naguib Sawiris, the foremost representative of the Christian community, well-known secularist and opponent of President Mubarak, the owner of a highly popular private television channel was accused on a pretext. His TV has a very popular cartoon program. In a sequence, "Mickey and Minnie Mouse" appeared dressed as Muslim traditionalists: Mickey with a thick beard, and Minnie covered by a niqab. The Muslim fundamentalists have used these images as a pretext to accuse him of blasphemy. Even al-Azhar was scandalized, and the result is that he will go on trial.

I believe that the Islamists will not be defeated in the upcoming elections. The problem is not the Muslim Brotherhood, who have softened (although maybe it's a tactic): the real hardliners are the Salafis, the extremists, who continue to attack churches in Imbaba, Muqattam, Minya, ...
The parties that have most chances of success are thus the traditional and moderate Islamist movement, the new and increasingly strong Islamist movement (Salafi) and the old party of Mubarak. So I do not believe we will be able to escape the Islamist movement, but we must get to know them, control them, and maybe stop them by moving towards the project that the young people had in mind: a non-denominational State, where religion does not oppress. Moreover, if the government becomes hard line Islamist, I believe all the young people will rebel again.

Even in Tunisia there has been an Islamist revival, but they have a secular tradition, so it is likely that there will be an Islamic middle ground. From this point of view, there has been much talk of the Turkish model in the Arab press.

In Syria, so far the government has not given in, but I think it will eventually succumb. The rebellion is not in itself Muslim (perhaps less so in Hama), there are also Christians in the youth movement. Two in particular – including Jean Antar - are among its leaders.

We can say that the movement is not "Islamist", but a product of Syria's secular matrix. So I think that the secular tradition of the Baath Party (currently in power) will continue, perhaps mixed with a little Islam. What the young people reject is not the party’s secularism, but the police control of society, the suppression of dissent, imprisonments, torture, etc. ...

In Syria, society is closely controlled. The regime has made many promises but so far failed to keep any of them. If it makes major concessions, the regime may be able to stay in power. But if the young people do not accept the compromise, they will continue to fight until the Assad regime collapses.

Fears of the Churches

What has the attitude of the Churches been so far? To understand this we have to understand the situation of Christians in these countries.

In Syria, there is in reality a certain positive secularism, given that there is not even the slightest distinction between Muslim and Christian. For example, if a new neighborhood is built in a city, the government provides a space for a mosque and a church, mosques and churches do not pay taxes, water, electricity. There are even regional inspectors for the teaching of Arabic who are Christians! In Egypt, Christians are forbidden to teach Arabic in junior high schools (since Arab "is the sacred language of the Koran"!). In Syria, the practice of Ramadan is free, on Sundays the government offices allow Christians to arrive late at work to give them a chance to go to Mass ... Above all, Christians are not bothered for the sake of their faith, nor discriminated against.

Much of this does not exist in Egypt. It is clear then that the Christians of Syria, not being discriminated against (unless they dabble directly in politics), have no cause for complaint. Hafez el Assad - the father of President Bechar - even had four councilors, two of whom were committed Christians, a Greek - Catholic and a Greek-orthodox.

Because of this situation, the bishops and Christian communities in Syria are cautious about a change in the regime. They recognize the lack of freedom, government corruption, the privileges of the military, but being a minority, they know they can never take power. And because even now they have the ability to influence, they are not looking for anything else. This is why Christians in Syria are tolerant towards Bashar al-Assad, even if they strongly condemn some unacceptable aspects.

The Synod in tune with the Arab Spring

The Synod, held in October 2010, just months before the "jasmine revolution" highlighted some issues which are very close to the young people’s needs. For example, it emphasized the value of full citizenship for Christians, a rejection of the regime of "tolerance," which has ended up disqualifying Christians as "second class citizens". The claim of this new term (muwatanah) implies not only the demand for religious freedom, but the right to participate in the common good and social commitment on par with all other identities. It is this new claim which has aroused great interest and amazement even among Muslims.

In the Istrumentum laboris and the work of the Synod Assembly values such as the dignity of every person, the right to work, equality of all people, respect for freedom were often cited... In fact, this shows that there is complete harmony between the desires of young people and the Synod’s goals, to the point where some have said that the Synod has influenced these movements.

I do not think we can say this, but it remains a fact that there are many points of convergence.

We are currently writing the drafts for the final document of the Synod and these values are taken up again, especially in the part that deals with relations with Islam. There won’t be many explicit references to the Arab spring, because the document will be published much later (maybe next year), but there is a clear line between the desires of young people and our proposals.

Even Christian Orthodox with their patriarchs, have spoken about the Arab spring. For example, on Sunday, July 3, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Zakka Iwas, addressed the Syrian regime, and took up the themes of the revolt - equality, rights, labor, justice - but did not attack the regime. He asked everyone to renounce all forms of violence and support peace, security and stability and to adopt the language of dialogue. He added that the growing demand for freedom and self-awareness are positive factors that enrich the multiculturalism of Syria, guaranteeing its independence and dignity, creating an atmosphere where everyone can experience freedom of expression and belief. Finally he expressed his support for social justice, the rule of law, civil peace, coexistence and unity of the people, stressing his rejection of the chaos that is destroying the nation.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai also spoke in the same vein in his address to Roaco. The newspapers only quoted his fears for the establishment of a series of confessional states in the Middle East. But he spoke mainly about the urgency of implementing the social values of equality, dignity, justice, etc…in the Middle East.

In Egypt, the old Patriarch Shenouda was very conservative, but the young Egyptians took to the streets alongside the Tahrir Square movement.

Looking at all this, I would not be so pessimistic about the attitude of the Church, as if Christians were opposed to the Arab spring. What we Christians want is a regime in the sense of the one desired by the young people. But at the same time we also want a system that guarantees security, and not a continuous revolution.

Even if we Christians in the Middle East are a small minority, less than 2%, we too must call out for these same values of equality, justice, dignity for foreigners, for workers. This is part of our mission, of our being leaven in the dough. We are not for one party or another, but for a social project which our societies badly need. Knowing and suffering the situation, this must be realized one step at a time.

The Arab world must learn about democracy, coexistence with those who have different opinions or religion, respect for the weaker and poorer, the distinction between religion and politics - without falling into contempt of religion or atheism -; about treating women on a par with men and not as their inferiors.

Like many countries, both in the East and West, we have to unlearn corruption and injustice. These are the demands of the "rebels" (as they are termed by dictatorial governments), the young people, the demand for change, but it is also the demands of Muslim and Christian ethics. The Synod for the Middle East calls on everyone - Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, etc., to build together a more just and more humane society, respectful of the dignity of every person.

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See also
Unfinished: the Arab Spring’s Islamic winter
Christians and Muslims a year since the start of the Arab spring
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