In everything that has gone in over the past 18 months across the Middle East, the role of Christians has seemed either as absent or as victims of sectarian violence. To this UK-based armchair reader, the pressures for democratic change have seemed largely to not involve the Christian minorities, who have come to be associated more with the Arab spring turning into a ‘Christian winter’ of persecution: “What is striking about the tensions of recent months, however, is how old sectarian notes are sounding amidst the new symphony of freedom”, writes one commentator.
Against the instances of local churches being at the forefront of democratic change – most notably in the 1980s in Poland and the Philippines – what explains their relative inaction and silence? As minority groups in Muslim-majority countries, the positions staked out by the Christian churches in the Middle East seemed to have been a tradeoff of support and acquiescence with the regime in exchange for noninterference in church affairs, and an assurance of survival. A particularly timely recent paper by Fiona McCullum, published in Third World Quarterly (academic paywall), offers a broader way to understand these dynamics between the Christian churches, secular authoritarianism, and an Islamist opposition, as a form of ‘security guarantee’. Her conclusion, comparatively drawn from Egypt, Jordan and Syria:
“As long as the state is perceived as promoting tolerant policies towards the Christian communities, recognising their contribution to society and not condoning rhetorical or physical attacks against their presence, the churches are willing to accept limitations on societal freedom. The belief that Christians would be vulnerable to any regime change in the region, whether achieved through violent revolution or peaceful democratisation, has been an underlying factor in institutional backing of the status quo…In light of the challenge to the authoritarian model which has erupted throughout the region in 2011, church hierarchy support for the regimes reﬂects this assumption that the authoritarian status quo as preferable to democratic uncertainties.”
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t? Is it – or will it continue to be – indeed a dilemma between organisational survival and an assertive proclamation of Christianity’s prophetic mission? A common theme in the obituaries of Coptic Pope Shenouda III when he died in March lay in how he had positioned the Coptic Church vis-a-vis the Mubarak regime, as the New York Times reflected:
“For most of his four decades as patriarch, Pope Shenouda managed a delicate balancing act, strongly supporting Mr. Mubarak in exchange for recognition of his role as the government’s primary interlocutor with the Copts. His close relationship with Mr. Mubarak followed a confrontation with his predecessor, President Anwar el-Sadat, who put Shenouda under house arrest to curb his vigorous advocacy for Coptic rights.
In choosing to support Mr. Mubarak, the pope was given a freer hand to strengthen the church without the state’s interference…The deep change that Pope Shenouda imposed on the post [of Pope] was how wise he was in dealing with explosive cases concerning Christian-Muslim sectarian fights — how wise he was in dealing with the state and the administration.”
As a result, have and are the Christian minorities in the Middle East finding themselves on the wrong side of history? And what if that history is pointing towards the Muslim Brotherhood? The tricky and uncertain challenge for Christians, as the NCR’s excellent John Allen puts it, lies in helping a transition from secular autocracy to secular democracy, that “democracy, the rule of law, and distinguishing religion from politics amount to a survival strategy. As one Arab Catholic recently put it, “In the Middle East, we don’t need liberation theology. We need liberation from theology.”