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A vivid picture of a Christian’s life in the Middle East is painted by Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a respected Egyptian scholar who teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.
BY Edward PentinRome Correspondent
As Christians continue to emigrate from the Holy Land in large numbers as a result of conflict and hardships, it is difficult to determine what is at stake in the forthcoming Synod of Bishops for the Middle East to take place in Rome Oct. 10-24.
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a respected Egyptian scholar of Islam, who will be a general rapporteur at the year’s special meeting convened by Pope Benedict XVI, discussed some major issues of concern likely to be addressed.
Father Samir, who teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, spoke to the Register in Rome Sept. 11.
What is the plight facing Christians at the moment in the Middle East?
Put simply, we are all in the same boat and the boat is going down. This is sure, that everybody in the Middle East knows that we are going down, that fanaticism and violence are growing. We don’t see any solution for peace, and each time people or presidents are working for peace, there are other forces who fight against the peace. We want to say, Okay, we want to rebuild our Arab world, and I think this is the leitmotif of the synod.
In a practical sense, do you believe the synod will help strengthen the identity of Christians in the Middle East?
Many Christians in the region understand the situation very well. They say, “It’s a pity, but it’s no more my country; I can no longer live here.” That’s one solution, but it’s not the right one.
Another is to say “We will live here, but only us among ourselves as Christians.” This is also not a solution. For a while it might help, but you cannot live like that. In the end it will create conflict.
The bishops are trying to say the only solution is to have a common objective. This common objective is very difficult to realize because the tendency is to confront every group that is seen as the enemy. It could be the Zionists, the West, Christians, Muslims — everyone is seeing an enemy and fighting it.
This is because we don’t see clearly where we are going, because we feel we’re in a bad situation, we are weak, but we will react. It’s a kind of desperate response to a bad situation. The synod is trying to say this is not a solution and not to become desperate, as there is no quick solution.
They speak of education. Education means generations. Suppose there isn’t peace between Palestine and Israel. I hope there will be, but I’m not sure we can do it: have secure borders, a state of Palestine and so on. How many decades will it take to make these two peoples into a normal people who are not afraid of the other side? I don’t say they can’t work together, but this is the situation. It takes time to educate people to accept another position; it takes generations.
The synod naturally focuses on the Church and Christians, but how much will it also deal with the crisis within Islam and the need to reform it? How much will that be addressed?
The synod speaks to a great number of Muslims as well as Christians, but not to those who are fanatics or fanaticized. They will see that as a new approach to proselytism because it’s in their mind when someone is fanatical. I’m not speaking of Muslims as a special group; you’ll find this among anyone, Jews, Hindus and so on. When you are ideologized, ideology is stronger than anything else and it’s not easy to insert a new ideology or new vision to replace the old one. But there is no other solution.
My personal conviction is that for 10 years we’ve been trying to fight terrorism with military means, and this is not the solution. If the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, and they are doing it, also more and more from Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s also because they see we are not able to offer a solution. Certainly Iraq is not able to solve the problem of terrorism until they reform the society, introduce more justice and so on. Meanwhile, thousands of people will die.
We’ve seen that in Algeria, and it’s not yet a solution. If it is the same people [radicals], there will be no Christians left there. The problem is between Muslims and Muslims, and it is a political question. They introduced the radical Islamists into the government, and this is the only solution the Arab world is using. It means the radical Muslim tendency is entering more and more into governments, and they see that as the minor evil in governments everywhere — in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco. When the king of Morocco expelled more than 100 Christians in recent months in the name of anti-proselytism, everyone knew it wasn’t true.
So, you think a lot of appeasement of fundamentalists in Arab governments is going on?
Yes, they are making compromises, and there’s no other solution. Take Palestine: What can [Mahmoud] Abbas [the president of the Palestinian Authority] do? Finally he will have to talk with Hamas. You can’t say they are not fanatics; they are fanatics. But they represent a part of the population. So we have to discuss with Satan if Satan is there. I say the same to Palestinians: We Arabs have to talk with Israel. “But they have taken our land,” they say. Right, I’m not saying they are wonderful. Let us say they are the aggressors. Well, I have to speak with the aggressors to get our land back.
It’s the same with all our [Christian] problems. This will take generations. Now, if we say this takes too long, we can’t wait, I answer: Well, we’re not waiting; we’re working.
Take the Palestinian and Israeli question: This has been going on for 60 years. We have lost 60 years. But if they had said clearly from the very beginning, “Okay, it’s an unjust situation; we weren’t guilty, it was not our problem, but this is the situation now, they are here, so let us try a compromise,” we would have got a much better situation for both sides and certainly a much greater land for Palestine. It has taken more than 60 years to start thinking, Maybe it was wrong to act like that.
And I’m saying the same to Christians. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. The question is: We are in this situation facing a strong Islamic radical tendency. And with a Christian group who is afraid, who is trying to defend itself, it believes the solution is to form a ghetto. Will that bring a solution or will it be a provisional solution? But every year we will be slightly fewer, and every year the Muslim radicals will be more radical. And, in the end, we will be the smaller group without any advantage.
The solution is really to dialogue?
Yes, and dialogue on building something — not on words, but works. What do we want for Egypt, for instance? Or for Lebanon? It’s a fact in Lebanon that the Shia are growing demographically. They are getting more arms and are stronger than the Sunna. It’s a new situation, so let us dialogue altogether.
Do we still want to have a state with two big religions, Christians and Muslims, of equal proportion? If we say No, according to demography, it will be the end of Lebanon. If we say Christians are no more 50% of population, they’re not even 40% perhaps, but we still want a 50-50 country, this is an approach to a solution to the problems; we can build something with them. But if we say No, we are weak. But we will be stronger; this is the dream of the Palestinians. For the others who are stronger, they will impose their system. You will then have war until the end of the world.
You said in a recent interview that in some Arab states it may be necessary to prepare people for martyrdom.
Yes, on the same lines, we have to say that we have to stay there. Let’s take the situation in Iraq, or the case of Palestine. Christians in Iraq — and, in a way, also in Palestine — are in a dangerous situation. Regularly they [Islamists] kill some people, so that others are afraid and leave their houses and their land, and it is taken.
This is everywhere. It is the politics of the young Turks of 1915, 1916, 1917, who, with the Assyrians and much more with the Armenians, provoked them so they became afraid and left. It was the politics in Palestine, the politics of some Muslim radicals in Iraq against Christians or against each other, the Sunna and the Shia. The consequence is that people are leaving and they then take their place. It’s a classic process, and it’s well known.
Keeping that in mind, do you think it will be a better society if you eliminate all the Shia and have only Sunna, or vice versa, or all Christians (which is much easier)? Will that be better for Iraq or Egypt?
Through the reflection and discussion we come to the conclusion that it will not be better. Now, if the Christian is saying that they are trying to drive us out, I as a Christian answer: “This is my country, and I have a task in this country.” It means I am ready to die also; I don’t hope I do, but it could happen. In that sense I am saying, We have to know that this could happen.
I cannot tell people: “You have to remain, and our vocation is to be martyrs.” No, this is not our vocation; our vocation is to try to make peace, like Martin Luther King, who was a martyr of peace, and many, many unknown others. To make a choice you have to be conscious, and the meaning of the synod on that point is: Be conscious that this could lead to death. If you convert from Islam to Christianity, I have to tell the person I baptize: “Be aware this is a possibility.” Are you ready for martyrdom? I don’t want to baptize people and make them martyrs. If someone is insisting, I have the duty to tell him or her that you have to know that it could lead to martyrdom.
We Christians are in a difficult situation; we are a minority, criticized by all sides. We are Arabs but not Muslims. We are Christians but not Westerners. We are believers but not fanatics. We know God spoke to us through Jesus his beloved son, who is the fulfillment of love, but we are not excluding anybody from the Kingdom of God. We are for peace and fighting for justice, but we are against violence. We consider Jews as our elder brothers, but we are condemning them or the Israelis when they do injustice. This Middle East is our land, long before Muslims came into it, but we welcome everybody in it. Finally, we want to build this country together, not only with Muslims, but also with Jews and Druzes and Baha’is, agnostics and unbelievers.
Has the likelihood of martyrdom become much more likely?
Yes, it’s increasing, also because injustice is increasing. Poverty is increasing; the world system is not in favor of the poor because our [Arab] governments are more unjust than the West. If the West is unjust to the poor countries, the worst are usually our own [Arab] governments, each one trying to make profit of his power.
And this explains why we have this Islamic reaction. Why do Muslims gain ground every year? Because it’s true: These people are ready to die to restore justice. Many people see that and say these Muslims are not living in palaces; they are ready to die as Muslims for a Muslim vision of society.
Overall, are you hopeful there’s a way forward for the synod?
I’m sure that the synod will help people realize better the situation and to know that the solutions are not easy.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.