Friday, January 7, 2011

Christians and survival of the smartest

Suddenly, it seems, everyone is interested in the Christians of the Middle East. That’s worthy, even if it has taken much time for people in the Arab world and the West to notice the hemorrhaging of the Arab Christian presence in recent decades.

For all this, it would be a mistake to lend artificial uniformity to such a trend. Only in a general sense does the fate of the Christians in Iraq affect that of Egypt’s Copts or Lebanon’s, Syria’s, Jordan’s or Palestine’s Christians. To assume that all suffer from the same challenges, above all growing intolerance in mainly Muslim societies, is to make the problem so large that solutions become impossible.

In Egypt, the Copts suffer from discrimination, and this can be linked to the movement of Egyptian society toward more overtly “Islamic” behavior in recent years. But that only tells half the story. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Egypt was still under a secular nationalist regime, there was a discernible religious coloring to the government’s hostility to the mainly Christian Levantines who had long been living in Egypt – Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks – many of whom left as a consequence.

And surely the growing Islamization in Egypt must, to a great extent, be linked to an autocratic leadership that has allowed society to more forcefully express its religious identity, this in order to legitimize the regime and permit it to suppress Islamic political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever the truth, the difficulties confronting the Copts are resolvable in an Egyptian context.

Which leads us to Lebanon, where despite Christian decline, the broader community, whether of the Eastern or Western churches, remains more influential and potent than elsewhere. In fact, as Iraqi Christians were being assassinated in their homes and Copts outside their Alexandria church lately, the most damaging blows to Lebanon’s Christians, and specifically to the Maronites, were self-inflicted.

Let’s take two examples. It has escaped nobody’s notice that the parliamentarians attached to Michel Aoun are at their most energetic when criticizing fellow Christians, such as President Michel Suleiman, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. That is their right. The Maronite community is a pluralistic one, and its end will truly come on the day when a single leader tries to impose harmony and homogeny on all.

However, the problem with the current criticisms is that they are entirely destructive, designed to discredit alternatives to Aoun. In attacking Suleiman, the Aounists are only saying that Michel Aoun would have made a better president. In abusing Sfeir, the Aounists are only saying that the patriarch will not get off lightly for having condemned Aoun in the past. In vociferating against Geagea, Aoun’s followers are only saying that there is no salvation outside Aoun.

What has emerged from this is utter divisiveness and an inability of the Maronites to find common ground over the basic interests of their community. Pluralism is one thing, but irreconcilable factionalism is something entirely different, affecting the long-term survival of the Maronites, and with them of other Lebanese Christian communities.

Take another case. The parliamentarian Boutros Harb has proposed a draft law that would prevent the sale of land between Christians and Muslims for a period of 15 years. Harb is worried by the fact that Christians in the south, but also in other predominantly Christian areas of Lebanon, are selling land to Shiites suspected of being linked to Hezbollah. If land is being bought up for political reasons, Christian or Muslim land, then this should be a matter of concern. However, Harb’s proposal is not the way to go, and will only bring about greater isolation of Christians from their Muslim countrymen.

What Harb is missing is that no one can legislate the future of Lebanon’s Christian communities. If Christians are selling land, that’s because selling land, regardless of the buyer, is an ordinary aspect of market behavior. But if Christians are selling land to depart from specific locations, then this is tied in to social and political realities that few legislative innovations will reverse. In those cases, it is the community’s representatives who need to find ways of encouraging their coreligionists to remain in their towns and villages of origin.

Harb’s proposal has been zealously denounced, but deeper thought should be put into the matter. A friend once recalled that during the war years, Shiite religious figures in the Christian-Shiite village of Kfour, near Nabatieh, issued a fatwa preventing Christians from selling their land. They did this to preserve Kfour’s multi-confessional character. At first the Christians complained, but once the war ended they were delighted to have a village to return to, with their property intact. Imposing a ban on land sales is not necessarily bad.

But what happened in Kfour was designed to uphold communal coexistence, whereas Harb’s project can only exacerbate communal relations and separate Christians from Muslims. Ultimately, what will determine the destiny of Arab Christians is whether individual communities can reach a consensus over how to maintain their presence in their countries and how best to integrate with their surroundings. Providing their surroundings will integrate with them.

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