From CNS

By Fr. Drew Christiansen

Washington, D.C., May 24, 1999. How can Christians participate more fully in the life of the dominantly Muslim societies in the Middle East? This question was a principal concern of the recently concluded First Congress of Patriarchs and Bishops of the Middle East which concluded May 20 in Harissa, Lebanon.

Throughout the region, Christians are a dwindling minority. Even as members of the Congress struggled to stem the tide of Christian emigration, they also searched for improvements in their own society. They expressed their concern for greater political freedom and democracy. They called for respect for human rights, and for equal rights for Christians to participate in the societies of the region.

Under the Ottoman Empire, which stretched over most of pre-World War I Middle East, Christians were a protected minority or 'dhimmi'. In recent years, the Church has rejected that status and demanded full rights of all believers. Vatican policy toward the Middle East has stressed the importance of human rights and religious liberty.

Speaking at Catholic University of America, this spring, Vatican foreign minister Jean-Louis Tauran, noted that "after the Islamic conquest, [Christians] were reduced to being (and with very few exceptions remain) second class citizens (dhimmis). He added, "the interpretation of the concept of 'human rights' within certain Muslim circles has prevented the Muslim world from protecting them in their fullness, despite, for example, a convergence of opinion with Christianity as regards the respect due to human life and family."

According to Jesuit Father Christian van Nispen, an expert at the Congress of Patriarchs and a Christians scholar with long experience in Egypt, not all Muslim scholars agree that the concept of 'dhimmi' is applicable under present circumstances. According to van Nispen, the concept of 'dhimmi' excluded Christians and Jews, who in a succession of Muslim empires reached the highest level of civil and military service, only from absolute power.

With the break-up of the Ottoman empire and the rise of at least nominal or formal democracies, van Nispen points out, no one has absolute power or 'wilaya'. In Egypt, says van Nispen, the distinguished Islamist, i.e., fundamentalist, Hamid Salim al Awad, Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, who is engaged in interreligious dialogue, holds that because no one can hold absolute power today in the Muslim world, Christians are entitled to the full rights of citizenship in Arab countries.

While church authorities insist on equal rights and full participation by Christians in the life of their countries, one finds a great diversity of views on how this is to be done.

According to White Father Franz Bouwen, editor of the journal Proche Orient and head of the Justice and Peace Commission for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Arab Christians in the Palestinian Self-Rule Areas have internalized the attitude of a religious minority. "Christians," he says, "tend to leave political life to others."

Christian participation in political life, Bouwen reports, will be a major concern in the second phase of the local church synod. "The (Latin) Patriarch," he says, "insists very much on this point."

Father Bouwen asserts that "Partnership in public life is a demand of faith." The problem he sees, in the patronal social systems of the Middle East, is how to encourage political participation on the part of laypeople without, on the one hand, raising expectations that as candidates or officeholders they are entitled to support of church authorities or, on the other, creating perceptions that they are the church's delegates.

At present, however, on the West Bank and in Gaza, Christians' role in politics is largely dependent on selection for appointive or consultative office. Aside from Hannan Ashrawi, says Bouwen, the only Christians elected to the Palestinian legislative assembly were chosen for seats guaranteed to Christians from Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah.

By contrast, Egypt's Copts have twice refused, most recently only four years ago, to accept proportional representation in the legislature. For the Copts, says Father van Nispen, "There is only one acceptable formula: co-equal citizenship."

The tone of directives likely to emerge from the Congress may be presaged by a 1955 pastoral letter of the Council of Patriarchs on the co-existence between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world. There they asked the region's Christians to liberate themselves from the complex of being a minority.

"Do not marginalize yourselves," the Patriarchs urged the faithful,"as if public affairs do not concern you or are not in your competence. Be at the heart of society, engaged in every service you can render. Do not say that it is impossible for you to harmonize your Christian faith with service of a society built on an Arab and Muslim culture. Your Christian faith is, in this society, an effective agent of service."

In addition to the lingering effects of the Muslim-Ottoman heritage, Christian participation in the Arab societies of the region is affected by the general lack of political participation in the Arab world. Nearly every country in the region places some limits on political expression, and several, such as Egypt and Syria, regulate religion with a view to preventing religious conflict.

Some secular, authoritarian governments lack any genuine political freedom. Others, like Egypt and Algeria, are formal democracies with strongly centralized governments, whose religious policies are heavily influenced by government responses to the pressures of Muslim fundamentalists. Iran, of course, is an Islamic republic where theocratic and democratic elements are struggling for ascendancy.

Even in the two countries with representative government, Lebanon and Israel, Christians still feel under pressure. With the connivance of the U.S. and Israeli governments, Syria still has the ultimate say in Lebanese politics and political expression, particularly criticism of Syrian suzerainty, is restricted.

In the south of Lebanon, the Islamic Party of God, Hezbollah, known for its rocket attacks on settlers in northern Galilee and assaults on Israeli soldiers, drives Christians from the region of Jezzine in the mountains east of Sidon. Where there were once fifty thousand Christians, only three thousand remain.

Lebanon, unlike Egypt, for example, is a country where Christians see their future tied to "a national pact" that gives official recognition to role of the country's Christian population and opposes any developments that would upset the country's (religious) demographic balance between Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims.

While following the 1995 Synod for Lebanon 'confessionalism' is no longer politically correct, Lebanese church leaders still insist on an established Christian role in Lebanon as a way of preserving not only the Lebanese Church but the Church in the region.

Some observers, like Father John Donohue of the Jesuit Universite Saint Joseph in Beirut, fear that Lebanon's pact is threatened by a lack of real engagement between Christians and Muslims. "Today they live apart," Donohue says. "Christians no longer know Muslims, Muslims no longer interact with Christians, and dialogue is an empty formality."

In Israel, Arabs make up about twenty per cent of the population. Christians make up only between fifteen and twenty per cent of the Israeli Arab population. Until recently, Christian and Muslim Arabs have lived in harmony. In Galilee, as contrasted with the West Bank, Christians have long played a leading role in local politics. A Christian from Haifa even ran for prime minister this spring.

This Easter, however, Muslim protestors attacked Christians leaving Easter Vigil services in the city of Nazareth, and tensions grew until Church authorities united in closing all the churches in Israel for two days in response to the violence.

The tensions came to a head after meddling by right-wing Israeli politicians looking for Muslim votes in this month's Israeli elections. More worrisome still, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, there seems to have been collusion between the Islamist activists and Israeli intelligence and security forces.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah professes his hope that following the Israeli elections Muslim-Christian tensions will abate. But, after the events at Easter, Christians in Israel who have long understood they are a double minority, Arabs in a Jewish State and Christians in a largely Muslim Arab population, have reason to worry about what the future may hold should, fundamentalist Muslims and right-wing Israelis choose, if only for temporary, opportunistic reasons, to join forces again.