A Lebanese-American professor described the deteriorating situation of Christians in the Middle East, now complicated by revolution and Islamism, in a speech Thursday for the Westminster Institute. For a community that has always walked a fine line between politics and persecution, revolution is tearing up the fragile balance worked out under secular dictators.
Professor Habib C. Malik of the Lebanese American University spoke on the topic of "Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East," showing how Christians have advanced Islamic tolerance in their home countries. But major upheavals have occurred, such as World War I, the Lebanese civil war, and current uprisings, undermining the fragile social fabric and leading to floods of refugees, particularly Christians.
Malik focused on trends that caused emigration and offered recommendations about how to aid Christians through the revolutions. The events of the "Arab Spring" were too early to predict, he said, particularly their effect on Syrian and Lebanese communities.
According to Professor Malik, Christians have had a moderating influence on their societies and have acted as a mediating tool for universal values of human rights, religious freedom, and secular government. Yet, Western countries have not utilized this "canary in the coal mine" to gauge the growth of Islamism. They have also not pressured Arab societies to treat Christians well, as a form of reciprocity for positive treatment of Muslims in the West.
Solutions to preserve Christian communities are imperfect, but some have been practiced successfully in areas of the Middle East. These include the millet system of the Ottomans or secular federalism with the devolution of certain powers to religious communities. In the millet system, Christians and Jews were given the power to rule broad legal areas in their communities, but lived under common criminal law with other members of the state. Federalism, like in Lebanon, can be polarizing but also protects the freedom of religion by giving Christians an official status in the government and constitution.
However, these communal relationships are complicated and uneven. Christians in Lebanon fought Muslims in the civil war, leading to a flood of refugees out of the Middle East. The late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad invaded Lebanon, persecuting Christians there while preserving rights for those in his country. When the Lebanese war ended and Christians lined up with either Sunni or Shiite factions, the conflict shifted off of them and onto the tension between Muslim groups. Undermining Syria, the conduit of weapons and money to Hizballah, could help Christians by empowering moderates or endanger them by upsetting the fragile balance.