Uncertainty and fear are widely shared in the Arab world. They are dramatically shaping the lives of Christians. The centennial of the Armenian genocide reactivates wounded memories. Today, these memories are far from healed, in a context of modern crimes against humanity, committed by criminal non-state actors and dictator regimes alike. Armed conflicts, insecurity and the mounting influence of radicalized Islamist groups exacerbate social problems. Achieving the rule of law, respects for human rights, greater political participation remain an unfulfilled hope, a distant goal or a darkened horizon. Emigration from the region, that of Christians in particular, and retreat from public life reveal a sense of abandonment and disempowerment. Fear is aggravated by the propagation and sometimes the reinvention of hatred. It is generalized through ostentatious criminal acts, threats and grim predictions. (I am sure we will hear more about them during this conference).
Four years ago, radical and unanticipated transformations seemed to augur a transition to democracy. Failures and disappointments warn against an acceleration of history and obscure the future. Realists apprehend instability. Cynics predict a continuing descent into chaos. Be that as it may, today’s worries cut across ethnic groups and religious communities. However, they could be differentiated even if not separated. More specifically, Christians’ projection of their immediate future is clouded by their perception of Islamism, seen as irresistible. Some are tempted to view radical Islamism as an authentic expression, even if excessive, of Islam itself. Any resurgence of Islam, they say, is retrogression and will entail the subduing of Christians. They are not attentive enough to the diversity within the Muslim community nor do they recognize the depth of contradictions that divide it. They realize that radical movements are capable of great harm, though not strong enough to shape, radically and rapidly, social and political transformations. Yet, they question the silence of many moderate Muslims or their inability to confront those among coreligionist they condemn for their cruelty and anachronistic understanding of Islam.
In addition, a number of Christians listened to their rulers’ warning: the alternative to dictator regimes is Islamic radicalism. Receptive to this alarmist discourse or succumbing to pressures and seduced by limited and occasional favors, some of them supported, often passively, dictator regimes. For understandable reasons, they thought that stability ensured their survival as “minorities” while the popular uprising carried the risks of open-ended instability. Fearing the threat of their marginalization, some of them retreated into self-marginalization. Conversely, we find Christians whose own concerns and apprehensions did not overshadow their commitment to freedom from all, indivisible human rights and democratic political participation.
To some extent, both attitudes polarized Christians throughout recent history, since the demise of the ottoman political and juridical order. There were times where the minority-centered consciousness was confronted by those who tried to shake loose their minority status and advocate inclusive causes transcending communal barriers. But there were also times where these two views could be exchanged and even reconciled, and their proponents dialogued within individual churches or in ecumenical bodies.
Yet, many Christians, including those whose injured history exacerbated their communalism, claimed and acclaimed the great role of their forefathers in the Arab awakening of the early twentieth century and the uninterrupted search for inclusive identities. The Christian role in the making of a new social and political order outweighed by far what the numerical importance of Christians could normally allow. The disproportionately influential contribution of Christians in the al Nahda movement might explain, although partially, why its promises seemed, in retrospect, more far-reaching than what was possible in subsequent history. Furthermore, the often justified disappointment of many paved the way, for some, to a bitter withdrawal into preservationist conservatism.
At the end of the twentieth century, the disillusionment of Arab peoples, provoked by the failures of both national governments and movements, was quasi-general. For Christians in particular, such feeling was permeated with anxiety, arising from the effects of their dwindling numbers, accumulated economic difficulties, thinning political participation and anguish in the face of mounting Islamism. However, the community-specific anxiety of Christians is lived and expressed by a considerable number of Muslims who acknowledge that, while Christians have their own reasons to be disquiet, their difficulties reflect problems within the society as a whole. This attitude is certainly not the exclusive privilege of opponents of political Islam and the secularist detractors of bigotry but it is that of who, whilst accepting the particular character of Christian worries, recognize unease of their own. For most often, it is not the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority that is at stake but justice, political participation, human rights and public liberties.
But fearful Christians are not immune to amalgamation. Any resurgence of Islam is retrogression and will entail the subduing of Christians into a dhimmi status. They are aware, that the self-assertion movements in the name of Islam, before and after the Arab uprisings, nurtured anti-Christian feelings, not only motivated by their Manichean view of the belief and disbelief (kufr) or their understanding of an Islamic state, but also because they guilt them by association. No matter how questionable these perceptions are, there will always be people yesterday, who cannot, or dare not, oppose those who make them angry. They look for substitutes and often find them in their Christian neighbors.
It looks therefore more difficult than before to avoid the pitfall of perceiving, and apprehending, Islamism as an undifferentiated whole. Understandably, victims of fanaticism and those who defensively retreat into a minority-entered attitude have little appetite for differentiation, distinction or subtlety.
However, Christian leaders and learned personalities have a moral obligation and possess the intellectual tools to discern and acknowledge the resistance of many of their Muslims compatriots to the hegemonic tendency of what is often called “political Islam”. Christians have enough spiritual resources not to be carried by the alarmism of fear. This is not an invitation to shy away from a serious recognition of threats and risks, whether real or imagined. Nor is it an idealistic call to patience. It is rather an act of faithfulness to the values they have constantly upheld.
Church leaders tried to accompany their faithful along an arduous road. Throughout their recent history, they refrained from overplaying minority militancy and identity politics. The notion of Christian presence was their antidote to both aggressive communalism and withdrawal from public life. In the same vein, the role of Church institutions was defined not only in terms of their functions of preservation but by the gospel-rooted imperative of witness and service to the neighbor. Churches never perceived Christians and Muslims as two monolithic blocks facing each other, nor did they oppose rights of the minority to aspirations of the majority.
There is another way in contrast with the paths walked by those who opt for an exclusively minority-centered militancy or by those who chose the silence of fear or resignation. It is opened by the reinvention, through political participation, of the pact of citizenship that binds Christians and Muslims together. It is guided by the witness of a Church which shares fully the suffering of our peoples, in patience but also in courage, a Church that is not a self-contained community but dispersed like salt, seeking its identity in its vocation.
It is needless to say, however, that the future of Christians in the Arab world does not only depend on them but also on their fellow Muslims and the ability of all to rebuild states based on citizenship and the rule of law, while recognizing the wealth of religious and cultural plurality that could spare the Arab world the sad face of uniformity.
Today Christian leaders ought to remind themselves of their modern historical vocation, but also of their ancient calling. I have recently seen articles revisiting the end of the second century letter to Diognetus. They invite us, if we were to use a modern language, to resist imprisonment in the duality of majority and minority.
My concluding and brief statement is about being called and calling oneself minorities. The notion is loaded with historical overtones. For some it evokes conspiracies, manipulation by foreign powers and subversion of majority role. For others, it is associated with religious or cultural rights and protection. In modern times, Christians learned to affirm their self-understanding as citizens rather than minorities. Reversing the process, in words and deeds, is surrender to the forces of retrogression. To be sure, we live in times of suffering, fear and uncertainty. But they are also times of change. Christians are not only victims crying out their plight, they are still called to be actors.
Bari, April 2015