At the Maison du Futur Conference: "Do Christians Have a Future in the Middle East"?
Bechealany answers back: “There is No Future in the Middle East without Christians!”
The Middle East Council of Churches participated in the meeting held by “La Maison du Futur”, in collaboration with “Wilfried Marten’s Centre for European Studies” and “Al Quds Centre” at Maison du Futur, Sérail Bikfaya. The conference entitled “Do Christians Have a Future in the Middle East?” aimed to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, bringing together an elite of political activists, intellectuals, and clerics from Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon.
Middle East Council of Churches Secretary General Dr. Souraya Bachealany took part in the opening remarks and noted that the title of the Conference hid a deep wound. She considered that this question is countered by an existential reality: “There is NO future for the Middle East without the Christians”! Bechealany insisted that “Christians reject violence and extremism, which are totally irrelevant to both Christianity and Islam. Same as the Muslims, the Christians lead the fight against these two plagues. They have chosen to live with their fellow citizens in the same legal democracy”.
She added: “The Palestinian Cause, justice to the Palestinian people, the return of the refugees, and the establishment of a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as a Capital are essential goals for us. We also seek a constructive model of cohabitation in Iraq, Syria, and the other Countries”.
And to conclude: “The Middle East Council of Churches believes that the Churches play in this region an essential role that clearly displays the dignity of the human being, for humans are created on God’s image and likeness”.
In turn, former President Amin Gemayel had opened the Conference by saying that what happened during the past nine years raises the issue of the Christians’ future. Besides, the Muslims suffered from the recent events just as the Christians did, maybe even more! However, the Christian citizen is affected more severely because in many places the results led to uproot them, putting their very presence at stake. This necessitates the need to raise the issue of Christian presence in the region: is this presence an existential and indispensable element and or is it transient and accidental? Just as the Conference title indicates a debate on the importance of this presence, Christians are invited to profoundly review their role in both substance and practice. ”
Gemayel added: “To both Christians and Muslims we say: “When will you become convinced of citizenship, when will mottos become a reality and religious identity will not prevail over the national identity, neither as a plus or as a minus? At that time the terms minority and majority, essentially on the basis of religious identities, will be nullified”.
He concluded: “I hope this Conference will allow us to better understand why the Christian presence is declining and try to limit this phenomenon. You might say that I brought up questions without trying to answer. No one has an absolute answer anyway. However, such meetings can bring together different experiences and stories, which could open the way for a profound authentic discussion”.
In his opening remark, Vít Novotný, from the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, said that the Centre always speaks aloud in the European Union and points out the difficult situation of the Christians in the Middle East. He said: “We currently face many challenges in Europe, especially the rise of populism for many reasons, the economy crisis, and uncontrolled immigration that devastated many countries for many reasons. We also face integration problems because of the huge number of refugees, which arouses many fears in Europe”.
Oraib al Rantawi, Director of al-Quds Center for Political Studies said: “No doubt, we all share the same convictions that the Christians in our countries have been discriminated and persecuted in various countries and in different times, on different levels, going from discrimination in constitutions to genocides and exile by violent extremist religious groups … No doubt, we are all convinced that things cannot continue this way, that this region will not be the same without its Christians. No reasonable person with a live conscience can envision this Levant without Christians.” Al Rentawi cited a series of conclusions drawn by the Center as a result of studies on the phenomenon of discrimination against religious, racial and ethnic groups and entities in the Arab world, especially the Christians. The most important conclusion is that the Arab national states failed to build an “equal citizenship state “, the lay pluralistic inclusive democracy. Another conclusion is the different degrees whereby constitutions and legislations in force in the Arab countries recognize the rights and freedoms of the Christians, as individuals, as Chruches and as communities. Some attempts to characterize the Christians of the region as a negative force and sometimes as a backdoor to the systems of corruption and tyranny. Other desperate attempts by extremist and fanatics consider the Christians of the region as “minorities”, “communities of exile”, pockets and remnants of colonialism and crusades, or “dhimmis“. These attempts go hand in hand with trying to promote the theory of the” alliance of minorities”, which emanates from the heart of tyranny with its culture and scarecrows.
Al Rentawi warned from tendencies of some western countries to displace Christians, calling to help them remain steadfast in their countries of origin.
Seesion 1 entitled “Religion, Tribes and the Challenges Ahead of Arab Identity” was opened by moderator Sameh Makram Ebeid, a Former Egyptian Deputy and Political Activist. Ebeid considered that Christians still play the same important role in the Middle East, as in the past. He emphasized the importance of citizenship, and the emergence of a modern state with updated constitutions, stating that it is wrong to say that “tyranny protects minorities”.
Researcher and Writer Dr. Lamia Rustom Shehade took the floor and said that the concepts of homeland and the national state are basic principles, where inclusive citizenship is of primary importance. Yet, in reality we see a re-emergence of religious identities at the expense of the national identity.
Father Bassem al Rai, University professor and researcher, stated that the world is entering a new phase with transformations concerning the state and its role, which also includes our Levant (Federations, constitution amendments while maintaining the borders of countries). The states are entering a process where they shift from one stage to another, even changing types and models. He declared that the Middle East needs to recognize multiplicity and the ability of identities to extract constitutions that really represent them.
Georges Sabra, President of the Near East School of Theology, and Professor of Systematic Theology, expressed his conviction that there is no future for Christians in the Middle East and no future for the entire Middle East without religion taking part in the transition process to build inclusive societies where equality is guaranteed. The biggest responsibility this transformation lies upon the religious majority.
Session 2 was entitled “Arab Christians and Regional Conflicts”. Moderator Father Rifaat Badr, Director of the Catholic Information Center in Jordan, said that, lately, the Arab societies have attempted to build a future with more chances of justice. Crowds went out to the streets and expressed themselves. Some peoples succeeded and some rulers went away, while other peoples spoke up only to end in prisons. Then ISIS and his affiliates sprouted. Nonetheless, it was Muslims and Christians, and the whole of mankind who suffered.
Tarek Mitri, Former Minister and Director of AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs also had a word to share: “It seems to me that we cannot discuss the prevailing conditions of Christianity without reiterating national speeches”, he said. “But today’s tragedies shed light on the ambiguous destinies. Of course, disappointments cannot have a single reason. The declining number of Christians, the deterioration of their social status, their lack of political participation, and the fear of extremist groups, all increase the influence of these factors. The worries of the minority and the concerns of the majority require truthfulness, which is a condition of the Christian presence. During his visit to Egypt last year, Pope Francis spoke to President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi about the legal state where justice prevail. To Al-Azhar, the Pope laid stress upon inclusive democracy, and in the Liturgy homily, he called on Christians to defend the rights of others as vigorously as they defend their own”.
Iraqi Expert in religious diversity Saad Salloum spoke about the internal division among Christians in Iraq and how it is exploited by the internal giants (Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites through a tripartite power which they share to determine the future of Iraq). He called to unify Christian authority in Iraq so that Christians can be actively present. He also pleaded for the unity of the Christian denominations into one Church where the Christian religious heritage is considered as a shared Iraqi heritage.
For his part, Otmar Oehring, Coordinator at the International Religious Dialogue of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Germany discussed the situation of Christians in Iraq and considered them victims of the regional crises, saying that “It is not enough to talk about discrimination in laws and constitutions. It is important to describe the reality on the ground, which makes it impossible for Christians to stay there”.
Session 3 was entitled “Protection of Minorities: Critical Approach” and participant speakers were Samir Morcos -Former Egyptian Minister-, Hanna Issa – Palestinian researcher and university professor-, and Ziad Al Sayegh -Lebanese Expert in public policies and refugees affairs-.
The main speaker of the conference, Nehmat Frem, MP, President of Maronite Foundation in the world, presented a detailed historical study on the role of Christians in the region throughout the ages. He asked: “Is the region going to further dismantling and disintegration? Will we be a new Versailles conference or a new Sevres treaty? Will we Christians have the word again in the process of forming the region, which protects our active, free and peaceful presence? Or are we going to turn into monuments and minorities at a time when the majority is migrating to the West? Will there be in parallel a tendency to reduce Muslims in the West, which would result in a frightening cultural discrimination?
Frem continued: “The difference between these paths lies in being aware of what is going on around us and being ready for this pivotal moment, when we will see the productive entities capable of assuming their responsibilities and perhaps the responsibilities of others. This cannot be acquired while the region is in dire straight on the national, constitutional, sovereign, economic, social, health, environmental and moral levels … If we want Lebanon to remain and the Christians to have an active role in the East, we must pass this test and turn a semi-failed country into a productive state capable of organizing the lives of its citizens. We are indigenous citizens to this land; this East is tasteless without us. Christians in this country and this East must regain their role and mission. They must serve as role models for knowledge and decency, as an example of creative management of pluralism, citizen and state affairs, or else we will fail to survive”.