Arab Christians need to feel secure

24215613741.jpgBy Joseph A. Kechichian, Special to Gulf News
A file photo shows Iraqis pray during the Christmas Eve mass at St Joseph’s Chaldean church in Baghdad.

Fleeing native lands is not the answer; they have to insist on equal rights, elect capable and sensible leaders and muzzle clerics who thrive on fear

Despite understandable rhetoric, neither Nouri Al Maliki in Iraq nor Bashar Al Assad in Syria will desist from sacrificing their Christian minority populations, should circumstances warrant it. Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Tantawi in Egypt can safely be added to this list though disposing of 10 million Copts may be far more difficult than pushing a million Iraqis or half a million Syrians to leave.

Resettling Lebanese Christians on the other hand, would be far more difficult, although economics forced many to uproot themselves and seek more peaceful shores. Why are Christian minorities so threatened and what can be done to stop the emigration trend?

In the aftermath of the war for Iraq, Christian communities came under attack, few stood up to voice their opposition to such despicable acts. For years, Egyptian Copts suffered because ignorant extremists organised violent assaults. Even in Lebanon, a democratising country that granted Christians political parity after the 1989 Taif Accords, subtle discrimination persisted.

Still, there are those who fail to appreciate how valuable Christian contributions to Arab civilisation are. Regrettably, the novice patriarch of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, Bechara Boutros Al Rahi, recently chimed in with skewed interpretations.

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Sadly for the cleric, repeated political comments provided unnecessary cover to regimes that divide to rule, pretending to protect minorities. In one of his more obtuse elucidations on the Syrian Baath party, Al Rahi conceded that Damascus was ruled by “an extreme and dictatorial regime”, though he quickly and mistakenly compared it with “many others like it in the Arab world”.

Obtuse arguments

Even worse, the cleric opined that Al Assad did not rule over a “Muslim” country in the strict sense of the word, which presumably meant that Syria was “the closest thing to democracy” in the region.

Beyond the absurd comparison, Al Rahi was careless in his analogy, given that most Arab governments fell under three categories: monarchies, dictatorships, and truncated republics. Four dictatorships — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — are now embarked on long-term healing processes that will, hopefully, usher in genuine democratising features that will empower citizens to live in dignity.

Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Palestine confronted serious challenges and may literally experience dramatic changes before long. Mauritania, Djibouti and the Comoros, along with Lebanon, were assured of relatively peaceful transitions, while the eight Arab states — Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — fared much better precisely because they did not pretend to be what they were not.

In time, several Arab kings were likely to transform their countries into constitutional monarchies but to impugn that they are dictatorships is a poor reading of reality. Ironically, it fell on paternalistic monarchs to oppose strongmen who, more often than not, shrouded their brutality under the false ‘protecting minorities’ cloak.

When Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz called Al Assad — three time no less — to advise him to halt the current streak of violence before it was too late, he honoured his own faith and, equally important, illustrated the futility of the endgame — to remain in power at all costs.

Strong response

Still, it fell on Shaikh Ahmad Assir, a fiery Lebanese Sunni cleric from Sidon who opposed the Baath regime in Damascus, to respond to Al Rahi.

Speaking at Liberty Square in Beirut during an anti-Al Assad rally, Assir addressed Lebanese Christians pointedly: “You can protect Muslims in the regions by remaining in the Middle East because Israel is seeking to kick you out of the area”. He continued: “We not only seek to liberate Al Aqsa mosque [in occupied Jerusalem], but the Church of Nativity as well,” which was telling to say the least.

This was a clarion call though the physician who became a politician, Ahmad Fatfat, one of Lebanon’s most astute parliamentarians, provided a far more eloquent plea. Representing parts of Akkar near Tripoli, which was and remains a seat of serious sectarian clashes, Fatfat sensibly declared in 2010 that Lebanon gave an “individual Muslim the freedom to enhance his acceptance of Christian parity”.

The future of Christian minorities in the Arab and Muslim worlds will only be threatened if and when Christians flee their native lands. Short of that, all they need to do is to insist on laws that protect them as equal citizens, muzzle clerics who thrive on fear and, elect representatives who reject pretentious ideas under the cover of legitimacy.

In short, their need is to have faith in themselves as well as all fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion, creed or even colour.