04/16/2012, 00.00
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The Pope in Lebanon for the mission of Christians and the Arab Spring

by Samir Khalil Samir
The Lebanese president and the Catholic Church in Lebanon have announced that Benedict XVI will visit the Land of Cedars 14 to 16 September next. The occasion is the presentation of the Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Middle East, held in October 2010. AsiaNews asked Fr. Samir Khalil to comment on the significance of this trip. Fr. Samir was one of the experts who worked closely with the pope before, during and after the Synod.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Benedict XVI's announced visit to Lebanon (14-16 September 2012) has a particular urgency for the upheaval that is preying on the region. Of course, the obvious reason is primarily to deliver the Apostolic Exhortation that he wrote based on the suggestions from the Synod. But there is another reason and that is to ask Christians to bring back to their societies the profound sense of the Arab Spring, often distorted by politicians and extremist movements.

The Synod of the Churches of the Middle East took place in October 2010. In December 2010 and January 2011 the so-called "Arab Spring" began. Since then the whole Arab world has exploded. Someone said that the Synod had pre-empted all the changes that are occurring today. But the immense transformations taking place in the Arab world are radically changing its face and the lives of its Christians.

The "Arab Spring" and its evolution

The Arab Spring was above all a great hope: the youth movement in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, rose up to ensure justice, equality, democracy, human dignity, and above all, freedom which was somewhat lacking throughout the region . Freedom was one of the major themes of the Synod, together with the other issues mentioned.

Another aspect - mainly present in Egypt, where there is a strong Coptic Christian community - was the idea of equality between Muslims and Christians, they said "we are all one hand", "we no longer want to only see or be restrained by religious diversity "," we are all citizens". We all remember the Egyptian flag with the symbols of the cross and the Koran, the joined hands, etc..

When the Islamist movement began to make itself felt - after having distanced itself from and opposed to the "Spring" - young Muslims and Christians together declared no to sharia, a religious system, instead they asked for respect for all religions and faiths. They shouted: "We are all believers, but let us believe as we choose to."

A few months a second stage began to emerge: marked first by the slow penetration of the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and later the more extreme Salafis. With the support - both financial and ideological - of Saudi Arabia and also Qatar, a struggle began within Islam. Today the "Arab Spring" is dominated by a conflict between different types of Islam. This can be seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

The result is in plain view for everyone to see: the Islamists have taken power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and threaten to take over Syria. This new situation is alarming for everyone, and especially for Christians, with the risk that some of them (the most capable of integrating in the West) leave their homeland to emigrate to more liberal countries.

Supporting Christians and building a new society

Faced with this unexpected and unchartered situation, there is an urgent need to strengthen Christians who are hesitant about the choices to be made. And this is the underlying reason for the Pope's visit to Lebanon and the Middle East. This is even more urgent in the case of Syria. Here, every day tens, even hundreds of people are killed. For Christians, there seems to be no other choice than to flee[1], or be killed.

Why is the pope going to Lebanon? The first answer is that there are no other Middle Eastern countries to visit, where there is security and Christians. In Iraq there are Christians, but there is no security. In Egypt, Catholics are a minority; they do not exceed 250 thousand and have no weight in a society of 84 million inhabitants. In Tunisia there are almost no Christians. There is security in Jordan, but very few Catholics. Moreover, from the political point of view, he should also go in the Palestinian territories and Israel ... This leaves Lebanon, where there is a Catholic community of weight, respected and active, with a strong organizational infrastructure.

But there is also another reason: the pope comes to Lebanon with one eye on Syria, with which Lebanon and Lebanese Christians have many ties. He comes to give an address to Christians, who are politically divided as well as on how to respond to the Syrian crisis.

In Syria, the crisis is very serious. The Christian hierarchy in Syria - all denominations - prefers the non-democratic, absolutist Assad regime, which provides security and a large amount of religious freedom. The people are divided: the highest class is with the regime because it space to live and negotiate in tranquility. This also applies to rich Muslims from big cities like Damascus and Aleppo. But the lower classes suffer problems and abuses. Anyone in search of justice and democracy can not be with the government, especially those who of a different political view to the government.  They can not express themselves at risk of imprisonment and torture.

The point is that if this government changes, the only one to replace it, will be an Islamist government, with support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

I hope that the Pope, in coming to Lebanon, will speak of the need for balance, helping to overcome the current unease of Christians.

Why Lebanon

Another reason is that the Christian and Catholic presence in Lebanon is a valued one and helps the rest of the Christians of the Middle East through the media. The free press, the Catholic radio (such as the Voice of Charity), or TV channels (Noorsat, Telelumière, etc. ..) are followed by the worldwide Diaspora in America, Sweden, Germany, Kuwait, etc. .. Speaking in Lebanon means speaking to all the Eastern Christians throughout the world to give them the message of the Synod: stay in the Middle East, this is your mission.

What's more, Lebanon is not a Muslim country. It's a multi-religious Arab state. The President of the Republic is automatically a Christian (Catholic), while the Prime Minister is automatically a Muslim (Sunni). The higher functions are shared between the two religions. The Parliament is composed of 128 members: 64 Christians and 64 Muslims (including Druze) and is headed by a Shia Muslim.

Finally, there is only one public university, the Lebanese University with various geographical sections, founded in 1951. But there are 7 Christian colleges: the two oldest (American University founded in 1866, of Protestant origin, and the University of St. Joseph, 1875, the Jesuits) and the five most recent: Kaslik (1962, Baladite Maronite Monks), Louaize ( 1987, the Mariamite Maronite Monks), Balamand (1988, Greek Orthodox), Antonina (1996, Maronite) and Sapienza (1999, the Maronite Diocese of Beirut). These universities educate part of the elite of the population of Lebanon and not only Christians. For example, St. Joseph's University has about 11 thousand students, of whom 34% are Muslims.

Restoring the Christian sense of their presence

This mission has a specific aspect: to witness the gospel to Muslims. In this, the Arab Christians are the most suitable: the same language, a common culture, etc. .. In other Muslim countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Senegal, etc..), Christians are a small number, or have no Arab cultural roots. The Arabic language is the de facto reference point for Muslims around the world. We Arab Christians have those roots and we can talk more easily with them. The Holy Father could insist on our mission for all the Muslims of the world (including Europe), and the evangelization of our societies through our witness.

The current moment in history is of utmost importance: a revolution of such a general nature has never before taken place in the Arab world. And there is the risk of these revolutions slipping into a spiral of fanaticism and violence for decades; of Islamic regimes emerging with new and harsh problems for Christians, but also throughout the region.

Thank God, it seems that in Tunisia, attempts by Salafis to impose Sharia law has been delayed and there is hope for a more democratic government. This example helps us understand how this dramatic situation is also an opportunity: we need to force Christians to collaborate and engage on issues of the Arab Spring like human rights, democracy, justice, freedom, education, and especially the essential role for women in society.

Tensions with Iran are also spiraling at the moment. This is also a new stage in the regions' turmoil. In our countries the opposition between Sunnis and Shiites is clear for all to see. But the tension is taking a more and more pronounced shape and is expressed in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and other countries against Iran. Syria is also fighting this war, with the Alawites (closer to Shiism) against the Sunnis; in Lebanon there is a tension between Hezbollah and Sunnis ... The presence of the Holy Father could help assuage this conflict.

We Christians can not be happy about a struggle within Islam. It would be a "political tactic" unworthy of a Christian. We have a role to play even among these contrasting movements. The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran and Syria threatens to explode across the region and seems unstoppable, because it could involve Israel, the United States, and others. Also our contribution to peace between Palestine (and the Islamic world) and Israel is essential.

 From now until September, it is important to use reason to understand the steps to be taken. The pope is the best ambassador of peace and has no special or hidden interests - unlike the politicians of other countries in the West. I think his presence and his thoughts will help not only Christians, but all involved to better face our situations and build societies that are more just, more democratic, more open to all, in short, more worthy of mankind.



[1] In recent weeks, it was reported that many Christians have fled Homs because their homes have been occupied by Muslims. In following days news reports said that Christians are returning: their homes were occupied temporarily by Muslims who in turn had been driven from their homes.



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