Middle East Christians are told to embrace secularist drive

austen22.jpgCatholic bishops in the Middle East have called for Christians in the region to be advocates of separating faith and politics
Austen Ivereigh
Seldom has such dazzling headgear gathered in one place. A meeting of Catholic bishops from the Middle East has just ended in Rome. For two weeks, some 180 patriarchs, metropolitans, archbishops and bishops of six different churches – Chaldean, Coptic, Syrian, Greek-Melkite, Maronite and Armenian – discussed the challenges facing Christianity with their Latin-rite brothers, with Pope Benedict listening in.

An expanding Israel and the rise of political Islam figured heavily. So too did the emigration of Christians in the region, which has accelerated in the last 15 years to the point where there is a real prospect of Christians disappearing from some parts of the cradle of Christianity. The area known as Dora in Baghdad used to be nicknamed “the Vatican of Iraq”. But the seven churches, seminary and bible college have all closed since 2003. In Iraq, almost every Catholic family knows someone who has been kidnapped or killed. Churches have been car-bombed. No wonder close to half of the 800,000 Iraqi Christians before the US occupation have fled abroad.

But Iraq is exceptional. So, too, is the West Bank, where land belonging to Christian Arabs – like other Palestinians – is seized by Israel in the name of security, then handed over to settlers; or Jerusalem, where Palestinians are being forced from their homes. Mostly, in places such as Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, or Jordan, Christians live peacefully with Muslims. Yet they keep their heads down, aware that, even though their forebears were citizens of the region long before the Muslims, the latter increasingly – at least in some parts – equate rights with religious allegiance.

That’s why the Synod’s call for Catholics and other Christians to be advocates in the region of a “positive secularism” – the term the bishops used was “positive laïcité”, after a 2007 speech by Nicholas Sarkozy – is, at least, bold. It may also surprise Catholics in Europe and the US who criticise the secularist drive to separate faith and politics to find the church in the Middle East at the forefront of arguing that faith and politics should be, ahem, separate.

Sceptics will be quick to point out one of the basic rules of religious co-existence throughout history: secularism always looks better to religious minorities who have the most to lose from theocracies. And there’s truth in that in the Middle East. Caught between Israeli expansionism and Islamic radicalism, the future of the tiny Christian minority depends, in large part, on basic rights of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience – on building, as the Synod put it, “an all-inclusive, shared civic order”, in the words of its working document, that protects “human rights, human dignity and religious freedom”.

But this isn’t only about survival. Christianity is the religion that gave rise to secularism. Laïcité is a Christian by-product; secularism a Christian heresy. The church has always promoted a distinction between the two spheres – temporal and spiritual, civic and religious – without ever, of course, agreeing where the border between them lies. When Pope Benedict bowed to his audience of politicians at the conclusion of his Westminster Hall speech, he was deferring to the legitimate sovereignty and proper autonomy of the political sphere – while at the same time asserting the church’s right to hold that sphere to a transcendent ethical horizon.

Separation, in other words, but not divorce. The principle has been clear ever since St Thomas Aquinas said that sins and crimes are different things; and at least since the second Vatican council, the Catholic church has argued that religions should not be privileged by the state, that the state cannot coerce in matters of faith, and that citizenship is not contingent on beliefs or membership of institutions. All residents of a country, whatever their faith or lack of it, are social actors with a stake in society and the legitimate right to seek to shape it.

Yet separation does not imply exclusion; it does not mean making of the state and the public square a faith-free zone, as secularists and humanists seek to. The so-called “neutral” state is, in reality, the attempt to impose an ideology – an individualist, humanist form of thinking. A secular theocracy is just as much a theocracy as an Islamic one. “Positive” secularism – as opposed to the “aggressive secularism” deplored by Pope Benedict in the UK in September – means a separation of religion from the state, but at the same time allowing faith the freedom to run schools, offer services, and build the common good, according to the principles and values that nourish it. Such a “positive secularity” allows for faiths (alongside non-religious beliefs) to seek to shape society on equal terms, benefitting from the freedom accorded to them by the state, but not depending on state sponsorship or legal privilege.

Arguing for a “positive secularity” is not easy in the Middle East, where regimes are pressurised by millenarian and fundamentalist movements – whether Zionism or radical Islam – which seek to link rights to religious allegiance. Yet the three religions of the Middle East have a long history of peaceful, respectful coexistence – the many exceptions to this story do not negate the truth of it – and a theology to underpin it. Universal human rights are not concessions of the state but intrinsic to every human being, whose dignity lies in his creation by God. That is the root of our citizenship – not our nation, tribe or religion.

They be few – and shrinking. But Christians in the Middle East, the region’s “indigenous citizens”, are well-placed to invite Judaism and Islam to embrace a healthy secularism.