Middle Eastern Christians are paying the price of the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ites. Lebanon need to be saved so that it can fulfill its historic mission

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According to the patriarch of the Maronites, Middle Eastern Christians are paying the price of the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ites. Lebanon has not yet descended into open warfare, but Christian politicians have allowed themselves to be drawn into the sectarian rivalry that threatens the very existence of the country and its formula. The situation is worsened by the devastating effects of the war in Syria and the unmanageable influx of refugees. Lebanon need to be saved so that it can fulfill its historic mission.

 Interview with His Beatitude Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï by Maria Laura Conte and Martino Diez


Middle Eastern Christians’ requests for aid from the West are becoming increasingly urgent and dramatic. But what do they need most according to your experience?

Wherever situation is tense here in the Middle East, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Syria, people are pleading not to be left alone, not to be forgotten. For this reason, what they appreciate most is when someone, a bishop or a cardinal, takes the trouble to visit us and offer encouragement: this helps to dispel the feeling of being abandoned in the sea of ​​Muslims among whom they live and where they are most vulnerable. This is most evident among the displaced and refugees, together with the request for concrete help to enable them to return to their country, and to regain their future and dignity. It must be said that, thanks to international solidarity on so many levels, it has been possible to make significant progress over the last year: in Iraqi Kurdistan some one hundred and fifty thousand refugees and displaced people lived for months in tents or unfinished buildings without doors or windows, sometimes even without walls. But now the situation is much improved and many have been supplied with caravans or housed in more dignified structures. But we cannot stop there. The situation on the ground remains difficult: the Holy See and the Church in Europe must pay more attention to Christians in the Middle East.


Far too often they are spoken of as an endangered minority, almost as if the West has given up on them.

We refuse to accept being labelled as a “Christian minority.” We are not a minority: this is our home, we have been here for 2,000 years, well before the arrival of Islam, and we have lived side by side with Muslims for 1,400 years. From the beginning we have helped to create a culture that is now the basis of the Arab world; our presence has generated a civilisation. Therefore, we cannot be relegated to the status of a minority, either historically or theologically speaking. The European episcopate, and the West in general, must understand this: we are the Church of Christ, who is present here as she is present in Milan, Hong Kong or America. We are a part of the mystical body of Christ, and hence the Church as a whole is involved with ourselves. It’s not a matter of “poor Christians in the Middle East.” No! It’s a question of the Church of Christ, who is present here.

Naturally, we continue to ask the international community to end the war, and to enable the refugees to return to their lands. But I want to make it clear that we are not asking for protection, simply that our right to citizenship be recognised.


You often mention the need for a more principled political leadership for Lebanon, rather than the “small business” attitude that typifies the approach of so many politicians. What is the way out?

Lebanon has been paralysed for months and is unable to elect a president. And this paralysis is related to the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is playing out in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The two political blocks in Lebanon, the 14 March group headed by Sunnis and the 8 March group led by Hezbollah and the Shi‘a, have tied the presidential election to the outcome of this conflict, and today also the nuclear deal between Iran and the United States.


And how do the Maronites react to this state of affairs?

The Maronites allow themselves to be used by both political blocks as allies in the interests of both Sunnis and Shi‘ites. And this is a problem: the Sunnis are hiding behind the name of a candidate in order to maintain their unity, but actually have other intentions. The same goes for Hezbollah, who support a candidate who they know can never win. And so the situation is paralysed. Everyone is waiting for one or other of the candidates to make a move, but neither can, as they are both too closely bound to their allies. They resemble two doors, with Shi‘ites and Sunnis lurking behind them.

As a Church, we attempt to maintain a dialogue with everyone, both insiders and outsiders: Saudi Arabia, Iran, America, European countries, Russia. Meanwhile, Lebanon, without a President, is disintegrating; the parliament is paralysed and unable to legislate, and the government is no longer able to exercise its executive power. According to the Constitution, in the absence of a President, power is devolved to the government, which means all 24 ministers, who may only pass resolution with unanimity. Which is, of course, impossible. In the end, the interests of one faction always prevail over the national interest. We have denounced the historical responsibility borne by the two political parliamentary blocks, and condemned this situation. But so far with no results. We are at a very critical juncture.


So what is the relationship between Christians in politics and Christians in everyday life?

Some time ago, a European ambassador pointed out to me that two contrasting societies exist in Lebanon: a civil society that is friendly, generous and welcoming, regardless of religion, and a radically different, political society, formed by ministers and MPs, in a permanent state of conflict where antagonists regularly insult one another in public. There is a deep divide between the civil and political societies. A handful of power hungry individuals take all the decisions, oblivious to the wishes and needs of the people, despite the alleged democratic nature of the state. The voice of the people is completely ignored.


How can this divide be bridged?

As I mentioned before, the divide is the result of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that is to say, between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, with its repercussions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. We can only hope that the war does not expand further. Initially, the splitting up of Christians between the two blocks was not an option, but it has come about as a result of the current electoral law, which requires the formation of alliances from mixed electoral lists according to the different districts of the country. A series of circumstances arising over recent years then led to the splitting of the political groupings along the Sunni-Shi‘ite divide.

Faced with intra-Muslim conflicts, and rather than choosing to act as conciliators, in a certain sense, the Christian politicians chose to act as instigators by siding with one party or the other. A Muslim minister once told me: “Tell the Maronites that we Muslims have been in conflict for more than 1,300 years, we do not need the Maronites to stir things up between us. Let them find another role.” Muslims expect Christians to act as conciliators. As soon as I was elected Patriarch, I met with the Maronite leaders to discuss this, and I intend to continue doing so.


Are there still any visible signs of the civil war that split your country?

The war between the Palestinians and the Lebanese army began in 1975-76. The Christians sided with the army, while the Lebanese Muslims sided with the Palestinians and the war became a civil war between Christians and Muslims. The political plan was to divide Lebanon into two states, one Christian and one Muslim, but this failed. The country was reassembled and the Lebanese, despite knowing who killed whom, went back to living together again. So the Lebanese culture of conviviality between Christians and Muslims has prevailed over antagonism, as Saint John Paul II said at the time.


The debate on Christians in the Middle East is often divided into two opposing categories: that of full citizenship and that of religious beliefs that should be “protected” and guaranteed. So what is the current state of affairs?

 On face value, it is claimed that the unity of the country is based on the right to citizenship of the individual and not on their religious affiliation. However, even if we all claim that we are citizens of Lebanon, and that our priority should be to the nation and not to one religion or another, because of the Sunni-Shi‘ite conflict denominational affiliation remains the most important factor. This is a reality that has been exacerbated lately. For many Muslims, belonging to Islam is more important than citizenship. The Sunnis owe their loyalty to Saudi Arabia, and the Shi‘ites to Iran, with Lebanon taking second place in their affections. For this reason, their political decisions are informed by the need to follow the lead of these two countries.


And is the famous Lebanese secularism standing the test of time?

 In 1943, the Lebanese National Pact stated: “No to the East (no to Islam as a political absolute) and no to the West (no to Western secularism).” This position is ratified by Article 9 of the Constitution which enshrines the separation of religion and state, the respect for all religions and the protection of personal laws, Christian and Muslim. The Lebanese parliament does not legislate on religious matters such as marriage and its civil effects, abortion and euthanasia.

One question remains open: what needs to be done in order to co-exist peacefully? What guarantees can we, as Christians, offer the Muslims that we have no intention of leading the country down the path towards secularism? And, vice versa, how can the Christians be certain that there is no intention of Islamicizing the country? The Lebanese formula responds to this question by ensuring that political power is shared equally between Christians and Muslims. The most important political offices are divided as follows: the President of the Republic is a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of Parliament is a Shi‘ite Muslim, and the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim. Unfortunately, the Middle East conflict is now affecting this balance. Muslims feel stronger, especially because there is no Christian President, and are attempting to exploit the situation in order to gain extra power and influence.


As Eastern Christians, what is your position on issues currently being debated by the Church in the West, such as the family?

Our problems are totally different from those in the West regarding the family. At the Synod in 2014 we perceived the language used for matters such as homosexuality and civil unions as alien. We are having to deal with emergencies of a different kind: families driven from their homes, separated by economic migration, and affected by the economic crisis and poverty. Sometimes the father lives and works far away, while his wife and children remain at home, and this tends to divide and weaken the family.

The Church is mother and teacher and must address every issue, remaining close to the people and their problems, but without getting carried away. While we were at the Synod, a newspaper in Moscow said polemically that, at this rate, the Catholic Church may end up deciding that Jesus Christ never existed. We need to recognise and address problems, in the same way that a doctor diagnoses the disease and identifies the most appropriate cure, but without misrepresenting reality, as mass media often leads us to do.


There are always crowds of faithful at Lebanese shrines. How do you interpret this devotion? Tradition, convention or conviction?

We have observed that people have been returning to the Church in large numbers over recent years: far greater numbers of young people under the age of thirty are attending mass and various meetings, than in the past. There are many youth movements and the Lebanese family, despite everything, remains united and continues to function. To get a better picture, simply visit the shrines: even at night you will find people praying at the shrines of Our Lady of Lebanon and St. Charbel. There is also a flowering of vocations: doctors, engineers, businessmen, young sons of rich families answering the call to religious or priestly vocation. There is a deep religious sense and this gives us hope.


What impact has the suffering of the refugees, especially the Syrians, had on the life of your communities? Is their presence felt?

Lebanon hosts one and a half million Syrian refugees and five hundred thousand Palestinians, half of the Lebanese population. Poverty is increasing. Unfortunately, the need of the refugees to eat and work impacts negatively on the Lebanese: foreigners accept lower wages, and open small shops offering lower prices, this fuels competition that causes additional difficulties for Lebanese businesses, who are already a having hard time getting through the economic crisis. According to UN statistics, one third of the population lives below the poverty line. The vast majority of the middle class, which is made up 85% of the population before the war, has emigrated, and no longer exists.

Another difficulty is the need to provide education for the refugees, to say nothing of the high birth rate of Muslim families: one and a half million refugees increase to two million by next year. The majority of the refugees are Sunni, open to manipulation by the Lebanese Sunnis in their battle against the Shi‘ites. The refugees in Lebanon represent a time bomb.


Is this an inescapable destiny? Are there viable solutions to this situation?

The only solution is to end the war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, so that the refugees can return to their countries and start to rebuild them. The international community can not remain indifferent. Why do we have to pay the price of these wars? Lebanon must be saved, so that it can fulfill its role as an example of Christian-Muslim co-existence and pluralism in the Middle East. All this conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ites is inextricably linked to the unresolved conflict that pits Israelis against Palestinians, and Israelis against Arabs. We are in favour of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. The Arab world must not be destroyed or weakened because this would be to the detriment of Israel and her allies. Until the conflict with Israel is resolved, the Middle East will remain a powder keg. Unfortunately, the Middle Eastern Arab world is being torn apart in the name of democracy, and the Christians, despite not being involved in the conflict, are paying the price.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
S.B. Mar Mar Béchara Boutros Raï, “Christians Victims of Sectarian Conflict. And of Themselves”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 53-59.

Online version:
S.B. Mar Mar Béchara Boutros Raï, “Christians Victims of Sectarian Conflict. And of Themselves”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/christians-victims-sectarian-conflict-and-themselves.