Bishop Maroun Lahham talks to us about the struggle of being a Christian in Arab countries.
What are the main difficulties that the Christian community has to deal with in Arab countries?
Arab Christians have been a minority for years and they are aware of this. The feeling of being a minority has developed among the community some psychological reactions and attitudes, such as: isolationism, overrating often unimportant details, the need for foreign protection, or being afraid to go to public places. The ‘majority’ in turn, feels entitled to interfere with minority rights, according to the law of the strongest. Christians in these regions, however, define themselves as a ‘small number’ instead of a ‘minority’. Their presence in Arab countries should not be evaluated according to population percentages, but with regard to being their best as human beings, since rights and duties are based on human dignity and not on numerical strength.
The second aspect is about mixed marriages. As we know, marriages between Christians and Muslims are uncommon, because of the patriarchal structure of the Arab society, either Christian or Muslim. Individuals of the two religions share all aspects of society in everyday life. They work, they study together, but when it comes to marriage, things completely change. Conversions of Muslims to Christianity are strictly forbidden. While Muslim men can marry Christian women, Christian men are banned from marrying Muslim women, unless they convert to Islam. The solution to this problem is not easy. The recent ‘Arab Spring’ represented a glimmer of hope, but it’s still a long way to go before separation between religion and state becomes reality in Arab society.
A third element could be freedom of thought. In fact, the concept of freedom of religion refers mainly to freedom of worship in most Arab countries except Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria. Freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, in the proper sense, that is to say, freely choosing one’s own faith is not allowed, and proselytism even less. In some countries, such as Marocco and Iraq, conversion to Christianity is punishable by death. In others, conversions of Muslims to Christianity is clearly forbidden by law. But social pressure is even stronger than law in keeping individuals in their religious community of origin. However it is less risky for a Christian to convert to Islam, than the other way around.
Another aspect is that, since the 70s, and more specifically, since the Iranian revolution, Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise in Arab countries. Islamization is affecting every single sector of life, from political addresses, to education, and TV programs. The number of mosques has rapidly increased, and Ramadan fast must be publicly observed as a religious obligation. Spreading Islamisation has altered the previous balance and has deepened the Arab Christians’ feeling of being a demographic and social minority: a minority that feels threatened and overwhelmed by the Islamist wave, especially in those Arab states where newly-elected radical Islamic leaders rose to power.
Do you see any positive aspect in this difficult situation?
The first thing I would like to underline is, the Arab Christians’ full integration into society. They recognize Arabism as an essential factor of their identity. Some Christians relate themselves to remote historical origins, (Phoenicians of Lebanon, Pharaonics of Egypt, or Chaldeans of Iraq). Greater Syria (Syria, Jordan and Palestine) is the most Arabized region.
Arab Christians have often enjoyed favorable opportunities and have been an essential element in Arab society. Some Western journalists and essayists argue that Arab Christians have frequently been protected by the authoritarian regimes, to which they vow unswerving loyalty, as it could be observed during the Arab uprisings in some countries ( Egypt and Syria in particular). This is partly true, however, Arab Christian communities must not be considered flocks, loyal to regimes in order to protect themselves from the Muslim majority. Political divisions occurring in Arab societies, can affect Christians as well, in particular those that hold high offices in the state, or those that are in opposition.
Historically Christians have had relevant positions in Arab countries’ institutions, economy and social life. This is evident in the Jordan Kingdom’s Senate, whose 55 members are appointed by the monarch and where 6 seats (10%) are reserved for Christian candidates. While in the 150-seat Parliament, 10 are reserved for Christians. With regard to the public sector, 35% of the country’s economy is managed by Christians, many of whom also work in the fields of diplomacy and finance. Some others hold command positions in the army, though they are excluded from high-ranking administrative and military offices. Arab Christians have full freedom of worship, except in Egypt. They are allowed to build churches and other religious structures. The ecclesiastical courts have exclusive jurisdiction over matters concerning marriage and inheritance. In Jordan, the Council of Church Leaders, in the case of Christian groups, is the institution the prime minister officially confers with, on matters related to Christian issues and communities. The Council, for instance, is in charge of deciding whether to submit an application to the prime minister for the official recognition of a new Church to be established in the kingdom. Arab Churches, especially the Catholic Churches, are not just institutions of worship, Churches are also involved with the educational and health fields. Educational and health organizations boost churches’ social visibility and create internal cohesion and a specific identity within these communities. Schools can be places where Christian values can be transmitted to the thousands of Muslims attending the courses.
What do you forecast for the future of Christians in Arab countries?
We are living in a period of rapid change. Arab Christians have led a quiet life for years before the Arab Spring. They enjoyed a favorable and relatively stable situation. Being a demographic minority, they felt protected by moderate governments that allowed them to gain social recognition. Stability enhanced religious, social and economic development. For three years now, Arab societies have been experiencing a tremendous upheaval that no one expected. Society has irreversibly changed. Everyone has been affected by drastic transformations, including Christians. We must wait to see the new Middle East ‘s reality after changes. It will be up to Christians, in any case, facing the challenge, not counting exclusively on the political situation, whether favorable or not, but relying on their identity as Arab Christians to keep on promoting religious dialogue, openness to individual differences and unwavering commitment to others in the Arab land.