Christians of the Middle East face an uncertain fate

Sunday 24/04/2016
Syrian Christian Roman Catholics take part in the Palm Sunday festivities in Damascus, last March.

Beirut - The fate of the Christians in the Middle East has be­come a pressing issue in light of wars in Iraq, where almost no Christians are left, and Syria, where a large number of them fled.

In Lebanon, it is obvious that Christians, who faced the same is­sues during the 1975-90 civil war, are growingly concerned with what is happening to their co-religionists in the war-ravaged Arab countries.

They are aware that their future, existence and role in Lebanon, as well as in the region, are largely linked to whatever settlement might be reached to end the war in Syria.

The rise of Islamic extremist movements, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), is a major concern for Christians in the region. Such move­ments possess advanced weaponry, enjoy substantial financial resources and run their own media and propa­ganda campaigns. More frightening is the spread of extremist ideology in Arab societies — often because of the absence of good governance — and its social, economic and cultural effects.

As a result, many questions are being raised about the future of Lebanese Christians, who have seen their political, economic and so­cial role diminishing since the civil war ended. Such a decline has been not only a source of concern to the Christians but also to a large number of Muslims who believe that Leba­non will not exist and will lose its identity without an essential role for Christians in political, economic and social life.

To address such an existentialist problem, three trends have devel­oped within the Christian commu­nity.

The first and most popular one favours an alliance of minorities in Lebanon, meaning with Shias and specifically with its greatest power: Hezbollah. Those who believe in such an alliance consider that the Christians in the country are facing a real threat and are thus forced to do all what they can to avoid the fate of the other Christians in the region.

Such an option carries numerous risks: If the Syrian regime, with the backing of Iran and Russia, was able to control a specific region in Syria that would include Alawites as well as Sunni and Christian sympathisers — allowing the Lebanese who favour such an option to control power in Lebanon — the Christians would then be allied to that region at the expense of Sunni forces in Syria and the region.

That would only lead to a 100- year war inside Lebanon, with those Christians battling most of the Sun­nis and their co-religionists who do not share their political choices. In the short term, Lebanon would be­come a primary target for extrem­ist and violent Sunni movements. Therefore, the end of the war in Syria would be the beginning of the war in Lebanon.

The second trend focuses on secularism, with citizenship under a secular regime the solution for all minorities in the region. Lebanese Christians would have to relinquish their religion as an identity for the sake of engaging into a global notion of citizenship in which all citizens have the same rights and obliga­tions.

Some doubt that Muslims — and not only the hardliners among them — would abandon their Islamic iden­tity so as to engage politically and socially in the proposed “citizen­ship” contract.

The third trend also favours a secular state but considers it a long-term objective requiring sustained struggle for its realisation; thus the call for maintaining the political confessional system in Lebanon so the Christians can preserve their ex­istence and privileges.

However, Christians must avoid slipping again into “isolation” as it happened in the 1958 strife and again in the civil war in 1975. They must also overcome the many ob­stacles currently facing them, main­ly their divisions, with one group siding with the Sunnis and the other with the Shias — which cost them their role in Lebanon’s politics.

The outlook is gloomy. The region has been hit by a political earthquake far worse than all natural ones, with aftershocks to be felt for decades. But questions remain: What’s the benefit of having Christians in the region if they ally themselves with the killers and despots? And what future the region will have if the Muslims do not realise the need for starting drastic and large reforms to their societies?