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Pope’s visit to Lebanon puts spotlight on Christians in the Middle East

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As sectarian tensions grow throughout the Middle East the fate of the region’s Christians is a growing cause for concern. However Lebanon, despite its long history of inter-communal violence, seems to be relatively well placed to address this particular issue.

Christopher Sisserian
23 September 2012

The recent visit by the Pope to Lebanon brought much international attention to the situation of Christians in the Middle East. The Pope who was received by representatives from Lebanon’s diverse range of religious communities stressed the need for interfaith unity in order to end violence throughout the region.  

Though his calls for unity were well received, following his departure the harmonious atmosphere present during his weekend visit was brought to an abrupt end and Lebanon went “back to reality,” with one prominent political leader going so far as to say that Lebanon was once again ‘on the brink.’ The causes for such renewed concern were the bombing of Lebanese territory by Syrian jets, another kidnapping and mass protests in Beirut’s southern suburbs against the ‘anti-Islam’ film that has provoked similar protests across the world.

However despite the relatively high degree of political tension endemic amongst Lebanon’s numerous sectarian communities, it seems to have inadvertently become an example in the region for inter-faith cohabitation, particularly with regard to Muslim-Christian relations. Having emerged from a 15-year civil war that was largely fought along sectarian lines, Lebanon’s unique post-conflict confessional system has proven stable (despite being highly inefficient). Ironically Lebanon is now finding itself in the position of being one of the few places in the Middle East where Christians live without feeling threatened.

The primary reasons for this are threefold and unique to the country, so cannot be easily replicated in other countries facing sectarian tensions. Lebanon is made up of minorities with no single group comprising a majority. Within this set-up different Christian communities account for around 40% of the population, although no exact figures exist. As there is no majority – minority dynamic it would be difficult for one group to repress another. Secondly the Lebanese have already had their civil war, the memories of which are still fresh, which has produced a society determined to avoid a return to conflict that would benefit no one. Thirdly Lebanon’s Christians are politically divided fairly evenly between the two main blocks in Lebanese politics, broadly defined as either pro or anti Syria, which provides them with a certain degree of security against the current turmoil in the region as a religious community cannot be held to overlap with a political position.

This is not the case elsewhere and as the situation in Syria escalates much of its Christian minority is perceived to be sympathetic to the Assad regime that allowed them the space to flourish economically. As the conflict escalates, it is becoming increasingly clear that certain outside elements are radicalising the Syrian opposition, with disastrous consequences for non-Muslims, many of whom are fearing for their future if they haven’t already begun to leave the country.

The civil war in Syria is only the latest in a series of events in the Middle East that have resulted in a dwindling Christian presence in the region including the 1915 Armenian genocide; the 1923 Greek population exchange; the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948; the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the attacks against Christian communities in Iraq amongst the post-2003 sectarian violence. These events have contributed to Christians in the Middle East now accounting for only 5% of the regions’ population, compared with 20% a century ago.

Alongside the war in Syria there are fears that this decline will continue as a result of the Arab Spring transforming itself into an Islamist winter. Egypt’s Coptic community felt itself threatened immediately after the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential elections. Although this initial fear has largely subsided, the country’s Christian minority remains concerned about their future, especially following the protests following the provocative and now infamous film produced by a US-based Copt.

As a result of this religious-based tension it is widely accepted that the situation is deteriorating for Christians in the region, as recently stated by Lebanon’s own Maronite Bishop ahead of the visit by the Pope. However Lebanon, where political and religious tension has become the norm, is ironically not suffering a deterioration of Christian-Muslim relations. Rather existing alliances between Muslims and their Christian allies within both political blocks have hardened, just as sectarian positions have elsewhere, meaning the security of Lebanese Christians seems to be ensured for the foreseeable future.

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