Lebanon Christians feel under siege; find hope in pope
He described them as a “rose among thorns, an impregnable rock in the sea, unshaken by the waves and fury of the thundering tempest”.
Today, more than five centuries later, Pope Benedict will reassert this message in a three-day visit to Lebanon.
His visit comes at a time when Christians in the region feel their existence threatened by the rise of political Islam. It also coincides with violent protests in Libya and Egypt against film, made in the United States, that is insulting to Islam.
In this small country where, uniquely in the Arab world, Christians have held the political reins since independence in 1943, the Christian communities feel menaced.
Across the Arab world, Christians feel like a species facing extinction, threatened by Islamist fanatics, driven by a lack of opportunity at home to seek better lives abroad, and now fearful of the post-revolution order which in some countries has brought Islamists to power.
Christians now make up about 5 percent of the Middle Eastern population, down from 20 percent a century ago. If current pressures and their low birth rates continue, some estimates say their 12 million total could be halved by 2020.
While some Christians in Lebanon felt exhilarated by the uprisings that swept the Middle East over the past two years, ending decades of dictatorships, they look with foreboding at Islamist movements, based on hardline ideology and with little tolerance towards minorities. The Islamists have been the only forces organized enough to fill the power vacuum.
“We are in a new critical situation,” said Monsignor Paul Matar, Archbishop of Beirut for the Maronites. “The Christians of course are alarmed. They ask will the Arab world regress?”
“The Islamists should know, that even if they have gained power, that there are others who exist in this region and that they are equal citizens.”
For many Christians the rise of political Islam is changing the nature of the uprisings that toppled four autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya and has placed one under siege in Syria. They had hoped for a broad movement that would lead these countries to democracy but got instead Islamists, who they believe will eventually impose stricter social codes.
For many Christians, memories of Iraq are fresh. The sectarian killings that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians, created a trauma.
Of all the revolutions that have dismantled the old order, none terrifies leaders of the religious minorities in the Middle East more than Syria’s, the bloodiest chapter in the Arab upheaval.
Their fear is that the ousting of one minority – the Alawites through whom the Assad family has ruled Syria for four decades – will uncage sectarian forces that threaten minorities.
Many close observers of Syria do see the possibility of the Iraqi scenario being repeated.
Were that to happen, they see a strong likelihood that the Christians of Syria, caught in the cross-fire of the power struggle between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, would feel compelled to leave. [More]