Why do churches have mixed attitudes towards the Arab Spring?
Christian leaders in Egypt and Syria opposed the 2011 uprising but now their counterparts in Iraq and Lebanon back reform to protect their flocks
The attitudes of Christian religious leaders in the Middle East and North Africa towards the Arab Spring have differed since it erupted in 2011. While these religious leaders in Egypt and Syria opposed the 2011 uprisings, their counterparts in Iraq and Lebanon have been supportive of the second wave of protests that has been ongoing since 2019.
They can see that unless there are political reforms, Christianity has no future in the region. In 2011, Egypt’s Coptic Church asked its followers not to participate in the 25 January protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Bishop Markus, then head of the Information Committee of the Holy Synod, said: “These demonstrations do not know their purpose, nor do we know their details and who is behind them.” He said that the Orthodox Church called on its “children” not to be led by calls to join the demonstrations.
In Syria, the Council of Bishops in Damascus issued a statement in March 2011 insisting that “what is happening in our country is a foreign conspiracy in which, unfortunately, internal actors have been mixed up and the malicious media outlets have tried to distort the bright image that Syria enjoys at home and abroad”.
However, the second wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that started in 2019, notably in Lebanon and Iraq, have received more support from the Christian leadership in the two countries. In Iraq, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church, visited the main sit-in at Tahrir square in Baghdad and expressed his support for the protestors’ demands, saying that “a new Iraq is being born”.
Fear of chaos
Leaders of the Maronite, Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches in Lebanon issued a common statement in October 2019 expressing solidarity with the peaceful uprising. And the bishop of Beirut, Paul Abdel-Sater, spoke at a mass in February 2020, in the presence of the Lebanese President Michel Aoun and other senior officials, where he requested that they listen to the demands, adding that “otherwise, the most honourable thing to do is to resign”.
Despite their differing political attitudes, the Church leaders in these four countries share the same concerns when it comes to political change in the region. First is the fear of chaos, and its consequence on the security of minority groups, such as Christians. Following this logic, for the Church, an authoritarian state that puts restrictions on the Christian community is still better than no state at all, where minority groups would likely be the ones to pay the highest price. Secondly, there is the fear of Islamisation and the consequences if Islamic groups reach power.
These two concerns led the Church leadership in both Egypt and Syria to stand against the call for political change in 2011. On the one hand, they feared that these popular uprisings would lead to the same kind of state collapse that occurred in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was brought down in 2003.
On the other hand, they believed that the main alternative to both Bashar al-Assad’s and Mubarak’s regimes were likely to be Islamic hardliners because they were the most organised opposition group. They feared that once in power, Islamists would Islamise both the state and society. The increasing influence of Islamic groups in both countries only served to confirm these fears.
Iraq’s Christian population has shrank by two thirds since the US invasion 18 years ago
These concerns are similar for the religious leaders in Iraq and Lebanon. However, the dysfunctional aspects of both states, coupled with the increasing power of religious militias, has meant that the leaders have treated the second wave of uprisings as an opportunity to introduce political reforms. The Popular Mobilization Forces group has a hegemonic position in Iraq, similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In Lebanon, the current ruling regime brings Hezbollah together with the largest Christian party in parliament, the Free Patriotic Movement. However, the Maronite Church has expressed its concern over Hezbollah hegemony over the state and its regional alliances. According to Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai’s ‘Memorandum on Lebanon and active neutrality’, the nation’s very existence in this period of political and geographical changes is in danger. The patriarchal document explicitly cites the disproportionately large place taken by Hezbollah in the life of the nation as the raison d’être of the campaign in favour of “active neutrality”.
In Iraq, the lack of security and the increasing role of militias have led to many cases of Christians being killed and kidnapped. Since 2003, about 1,220 Christians have been killed in various violent incidents throughout Iraq, while 23,000 Christian properties have been seized and 58 churches have been blown up. These numbers do not include the atrocities committed by Isis during its three-year rule in some parts of the country.
The issue in Iraq goes beyond protecting the security and identity of Christians to protecting the very existence of the community itself. There were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the US invasion 18 years ago, accounting for about 6% of the population. Now the Christian population is estimated to be less than a third of that figure. This dramatic difference has led Christian religious leaders in these two countries to believe that the uprisings might offer an opportunity to introduce political changes in both countries.
Equal rights for all
Although Cardinal Sako has concluded that ending political sectarianism is the only way to save the Christian presence in Iraq, Cardinal Rai believes that seeking to change the sectarian political regime in Lebanon might lead to a political loss for Christians who still enjoy an advantage in the country’s division of power. The Maronite Church in Lebanon seeks a political change that would limit the power of certain sectarian groups within the state, without abolishing the sectarian regime itself.
Christian leaders in both countries have understood that to defend their communities, political change is needed. And in Iraq, the leaders openly support the establishment of a non-sectarian political regime that guarantees the same rights for all religious and ethnic communities.
The decade since the Arab Spring has shown that addressing the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East cannot be done independently from addressing the challenges facing the region as a whole. The future of Christians in the region is strongly connected to the future of the countries themselves and their ability to adopt structural reforms that make their institutions more efficient, as well as building democratic political regimes that guarantee the same rights for all religious and ethnic communities.
Among the leaders in the four countries, it appears that only Cardinal Sako in Iraq has reached this conclusion. With the Christian population in Iraq at the risk of extinction, Christian leaders can only hope that a different political regime might convince the youth to remain in the country.
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