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Lebanon News

Sleiman warns against ‘minority alliances’

President Michel Sleiman attends a ceremony in Bkirki, Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman said Friday that Christians in the Levant should not seek the protection of foreign powers or “minority alliances,” as observers warned that regional uncertainly was causing the community to close in on itself.

“We as Christians must implement the Apostolic Exhortation,” Sleiman said, referring to a list of recommendations made to the Christians of the region during the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which convened in the Vatican in October 2010.

The recommendations Sleiman cited included maintaining openness and dialogue, defending freedom, human rights and democratic practices, and combating fanaticism and terrorism. He also called on Lebanon’s Christians to preserve their “uniqueness” and refrain from seeking the protection of foreign powers, backing authoritarian regimes or engaging in minority alliances.

“Regimes that are being established in the Levant should know that they should allow all segments of society to participate in politics,” the president said. He made the comments during an event at Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Church, to mark the launch of “My peace, I give you,” a book on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon last year.

Sleiman’s words were seen by many as a direct response to calls by Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to form a “minority alliance” in an apparent reference to Christians, Alawites and Druze in Syria.

Christian political insiders have complained that the schism that splits the Christian community in Lebanon between March 8 and March 14 factions has also weakened its power as a voting bloc, causing many top-tier public positions reserved for Christians to remain empty.

According to Father George Massouh, the director of the Center for Christian-Muslim studies at the University of Balamand, uncertainty is pushing Christians in the Levant to look inward and seek alliances with other minorities.

“Fear over the future is making the Christians behave as a closed community and seek protection through minority alliances, but this is a historic mistake,” Massouh said. “Coexisting with the other and searching for common ground is the best choice.”

He said that Christians’ fears were fueled by the sharp decline in their presence in Palestine following the establishment of Israel in 1948, as well as the modern-day plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria, and the harm inflicted on the community in Lebanon during the country’s 1975-90 Civil War.

While acknowledging a rise in extreme Islamist movements in the region, Massouh said there was no justification for Christians to seek alliances based on fear, saying extremism posed a threat to Muslims and Christians alike.

“Why should only Christians be afraid and back totalitarian regimes or seek minority alliances? Why don’t they join hands with moderate Muslims to confront extremism and totalitarian regimes?” Massouh asked.

Massouh said Christians in Lebanon were becoming more insular, a phenomenon he called “deadly.”

Christians in the country felt in danger as a result of their declining numbers since the outbreak of the civil war, he said, coupled with rising land sales and immigration among their ranks.

“I believe that having a civil state in Lebanon is the solution. Looking for better representation for Christians in the public sector or adopting the Orthodox electoral proposal will not help,” he said. “How did the fact that Lebanon’s president is a Christian help the Christians?”

Touted in the run-up to elections that never materialized earlier this year, the Orthodox electoral proposal would allow every Lebanese sect to elect its own MPs.

It was championed by many Christians but drew criticism from others who saw it as a step away from the goal of forming a nonsectarian state.

Massouh said some Christians in the region had sought the protection of France and the U.S. in the past and were now looking to Russia, but that to such countries, Christians were “mere products that are bought and sold.”

Elia Elia, assistant political science professor at the University of Balamand, agreed: “Policies of Western powers have never taken their [Christians’] interests into consideration.”

“Western powers say they are interested in preserving the presence of Christians in the Levant. But what have they done to Iraq? The result of the [U.S. invasion] was displacing Christians.”

Elia partly blamed the increasing ghetto mentality of the Levant’s Christians on the attitudes of Arab regimes.

“Arab governments should protect the presence of Christians by giving them a more effective role in the political process and decision-making,” he said. “During Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure, Christian MPs were appointed rather than elected.”

Elia said that behaving like a closed community did not help Christians.

“They have to be open and engage in dialogue,” he said. “Their job is to convey the true image of Islam to the West. Muslims oppose the killing [committed by some extremist groups].”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 16, 2013, on page 2.

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