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Middle East and Africa

A Structural Change for the Countries of North Africa and the Middle East

2011 has been a year of change. A structural change for the countries of North Africa and the Middle East hit by the so-called ‘Arab spring’, but also for the entire West and the North of the planet. These were the first facts emerging from the three days of work during the annual meeting of the Oasis scientific committee, which met in Venice (San Servolo) from Monday 20 to Wednesday 22 June 2011. About eighty well-known figures coming from all over the world, bishops from the countries involved in the revolts, from Egypt to Tunisia, from Syria to the Gulf countries and experts at an international level, Christians and Muslims, together began to decipher the recent popular movements, the causes of the unrest, the means of communication utilised, the next possible scenarios, the analogies with a number of European experiences, starting from the question posed by this year’s theme: ‘The Middle East: where is it heading? The new laicity and the unexpected events in North Africa’.



The putting together of the two expressions, new laicity and the unexpected events in North Africa, which could have seemed hazardous at first, turned out to be a useful key during the discussions with which to interpret the present day situation also in its most difficult aspects. As stressed by card. Scola, patriarch of Venice and founder of Oasis, the recent season has highlighted the fact – apart from the immediate optimistic or pessimistic reactions – that the civil societies of many countries with a Muslim majority feel the need for a new criterion for the regulation of an even more plural public space, however such principle may be called (new secularity, fellow citizenship, civic state).



‘The North African uprisings were born as revolts arising from economic needs – went on card. Scola – but then they also began to put forward a certain idea of man and society. If they now intend to become ‘revolutions’, it is this very idea that they must develop’. As many of the participants at the meeting recalled, in the Middle East at the basis of the demands for jobs, dignity, democracy and participation, the radical question resounds concerning what type of man the man of the third millennium wants to be: ‘The very question – and these are again the words of the patriarch Scola – that, even in different forms, is shaking Western societies more and more powerfully at the beginning of this third millennium too’.



For Olivier Roy, one of the greatest experts in contemporary Islamic societies who spoke at the Venice committee, the ‘Arab spring’ has now come to an end and has left various questions to be answered: the absence of institutionalised realities (like parties) which now seem necessary if the passage of these countries towards true democracies is to be encouraged; the fragility of political Islam which according to Roy can no longer aspire to becoming a global political project; the involvement of people of totally different origin, young people of the digital generation but not only, who generally moved individually and in a rather disorderly way, sometimes against the indications of their traditional points of reference. And lastly, the urgent need to recognise religious freedom as a fundamental value of a democracy.



The lively positive debate among those present was based on the method that makes Oasis’s approach original: on the one hand the listening to the accounts of those personally experiencing complex situations, like the representatives of the churches of North Africa, hit in their very fabric by the recent uprisings, and on the other hand analysis and critical speculative reflection.



With this rhythm the three-day Oasis meeting made it possible to examine the Tunisian situation in detail, thanks to the contributions of Archbishop Maroun Lahham, and the contemporary Islam expert Malika Zegahl, a Muslim of Tunisian origin and professor at Harvard; the reality of Egypt thanks to the paper given by the Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, Card. Antonius Naguib, and experts like Amr Elshobaki and Tewfik Aclimandos; life in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the countries of the Arab peninsula, thanks to the presence of Msgr. Ghaleb Moussa Bader, Archbishop of Algiers, Msgr. Henri Teissier, Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers, Msgr. Antoine Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Msgr. Camillo Ballin, Vicar Apostolic of Northern Arabia, Msgr. Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, and experts like Madawi Al-Rasheed, Saudi by birth and professor at King’s College London, Hoda Nehme and Selim Daccache (Lebanon), Nikolaus Lobkowicz and Vittorio Emanuele Parsi.



At the end of the work in his concluding remarks Card. Scola broadened the provocation chosen as the title of the meeting: ‘In the light of what has been discussed – said Scola – the point is not only ‘where’ is the Middle East heading, but ‘by means of whom?’. Who will the subjects of change be? How will the Christians and Muslims cope with the provocations of this change? In this now pluralized society, before the problem of laicity, treated with great care and in an endless reciprocal comparison, the subjects in the field must find a consistency that allows personal and civil freedom, and therefore religious freedom, to grow in all its parts. The theme of religious freedom appears like the test to verify the evolution of these movements: wherever religious freedom is guaranteed, all the other rights are too. Otherwise personal dignity is nothing but a flatus vocis. With respect to other phenomena taking place we are called upon to bow increasingly to the responsibility of each one of us. For Christians the commitment remains, which was stressed once again by Benedict XVI during his last visit to Venice: to live Christianity as a horizon that embraces the whole life, that is, a Christianity in which the experience of faith in Jesus crucified and resurrected lights up the path of daily existence’.



Last of all, the committee decided on the venue of next year’s meeting: Oasis will meet again in Tunis from 16 to 20 June 2012.



*Excerpt from L'Osservatore Romano, June 24th 2011