06/15/2004, 00.00
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The Church of the Arabs: Islamic-Christian conference on co-existence

Counsellor of the Sunni Mufti: helping Christians to not emigrate to safeguard against fundamentalism

Beirut (AsiaNews) -- If Islamic-Christian dialogue is not possible here in Lebanon, it will not be possible anywhere".  These are the words that opened on June 10 one of five meetings held at the UNESCO office in Beirut for the conference entitled "The Church of the Arabs".

Held until Saturday, June 12, the conference saw the participation of many Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim figures.  Among these was also the Greek-Catholic patriarch Gregory III Laham and the counsellor of the Sunni Mufti, Dr. Mohammed Sammak.  All participants focused on the obstacles to Islamic-Christian dialogue and on the possibilities of incrementing this dialogue.  Two of the final recommendations dealt with curbing the emigration of Christians from the Middle East and rejecting fundamentalism.

As explained by George Kallas, dean of the Faculty of Information at the Lebanese University, "This congress brings with it a tension toward collaboration that goes beyond the usual "booklet of conditions" and invites us to consolidate the pillars of encounter, rather than the clash, between religions and civilizations."

"What is the sense of my role as a prelate in the Arab and Islamic world and what is the sense of the Christian presence and the role of Christians?" Patriarch Laham asked in illustrating the reasons for such a "provocative" title: the Church of the Arabs.  "Do we live in a ghetto or do we form as a religious community an independent nation and worry about our presence and nothing else?".  "Do we settle for formal and useless dialogue with the other to convince him about our religion or vice versa, or do we respond by running away and marginalizing ourselves."

The speech of Mohammed Sammak, counsellor to the Sunni Mufti, was particularly interesting.  "Arab-Islamic civilization," he said, "was not the exclusive creation of Muslims, but rather the mutual product of Muslims and Christians; nevertheless the Islamic comprehension of Christianity was subsequently and enormously influenced by cultural factors which derived from contingent political and economic circumstances, such as Western colonialism in the Arab world.  Such conditions thus produced the most negative and dangerous phenomenon of Islamic society: that of viewing Christian Arabs with suspicion every time the Islamic world goes through a crisis."  Sammak then pondered the reasons that bring Christian Arabs to see Lebanon as a sort of security valve. "Why don't instead other Arab states," he asked, "become other 'Lebanons', by offering their citizens full religious liberty and equal rights?"  Sammak even attributed the spread of religious fundamentalism to the absence of democratic and elected institutions, and cited "emigration as the biggest challenge of Arab Christians".

An Orthodox "key" was struck by Ghassan Tueni, a famous Lebanese journalist and diplomat.  "They want us to believe," he said, "that religious conflict and a clash of cultures is in store for this region.  Instead, this is not so, because it is from this region that religions can show that man lies at the heart of civilization, regardless of his religion."

Former minister Michel Eddé, president of the Maronite League, stressed instead that "the main risk is to focus on religious identity with a spirit of provocation.  Whether it is to attack it or defend it.  The Church sees in current upheavals the signs of the world's radical changes and is making great efforts to foster a crystallization of a peaceful universalism enriched with the growth of particularism in which differences are not antagonistic but complementary.  This in opposition to attempts at an imposed and sterile hegemonic standardization."

The conference ended Saturday with the publication of a series of recommendations which included: affirming the role of the Church against any project aimed at creating a divide between religions and civilizations; defining the concept of Church of the Arabs; defining equivocal terms in inter-religious dialogue; rejecting ideological fundamentalism from wherever it may originate; affirming the culture of moderation in the Arab East to build a civilization of love; warning against the risks of Christian emigration from the East; setting the foundations for Islamic-Christian dialogue in the third millennium that can be a guarantee for co-existence.

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