I don’t believe that his Beatitude the Maronite Patriarch would be provoked if I address him as man of politics rather than a man of religion, or at least as a man who is involving himself in politics in his position as a cleric. Therefore, honesty requires that I level with him as follows. I will deal with him without prejudice, god forbids, to his divine status in the Maronite church, which is not under discussion.
However, I believe I shall treat him as an earthly man whom I shall not compliment and whose statements on earthy affairs are not often infallible and holy as his hierarchic religious position postulates.
Allow be to honest at the very outset and say that his Beatitude committed two mistakes:
First, the Maronite patriarch spoke in the name of the Christians of the Orient, although he represents a minority of them and although the rest of the Orient Christians never assigned him to be their spokesman.
In this precise context, the impact of Al Rai’s statements will have profound effects on the Christians of the Orient. Therefore, he should have taken this into consideration when he delivered his statement on Syria, the Eastern Christianity and its future, especially when many eastern churches may not agree with him on the statements he delivered on their behalf and in their absence.
Al Rai cast himself in a role that is not his and addressed a thorny subject using common arguments and prejudices that might seriously harm all Christians. A politician, let alone a cleric, should never jeopardize all Christians.
Second, he addressed a complicated issue in its intellectual, historical and pragmatic aspects from a tight tactic political point of view. In fact, Al Rai limited the latest developments in the Arab world to the conflict between Sunnis and Shias, though what is happening in Syria is the incarnation of a whole different kind of conflict.
His beatitude witnessed, as we all did, the beginnings of the new conflict in the region emerging in Tunisia and Egypt and spreading to Yemen and Libya, where there are no Sunnis and no Shias. This is not a Sunni-Shia conflict, but rather a conflict between societies and regimes. Societies that were so smothered by oppression and subjugation that they decided to shout their right to freedom, and authoritarians and totalitarian regimes who no longer can provide their people with anything other than pain and deprivation.
It is true that the Islamic/ Sunni political party in these societies was unprecedented in its presence and strength in the Syrian case, but this does not translate the only inevitable outcome of a popular movement where Muslims are participating, as long as Muslims are believers who worship God and follow his Prophet and as long as Islamists are politicians running after earthy interests no matter what religious banner they raise.
Furthermore, the believer is not necessarily a politician and the politician is certainly not a believer; thus the gap between those two may take the form of secularism, nationalism, liberalism, Marxism, etc.
On the other hand, is it true that his beatitude fears a possible alliance between Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis against the Shias that might eventually harm the Christians? The truth is that the political Christianity his beatitude represents has based its tactics during the last century on this same possibility: the likelihood of seeing a Sunni/Shia conflict emerge, relieving his Christian church and congregation. Otherwise, how can we explain the Christians’ alliance with the Sunnis of Lebanon today and their political participation with the 14th of March alliance that represents the Sunni, against a wide category of Lebanese Christians who support General Michel Aoun?
So, I ask his Beatitude to sing a different tune, unless he thinks he can mislead us or that we are unaware of what he is warning us from, since it is only a current situation that benefits him and not a future danger hindering his position.
Instead of warning us from this status quo, he should have broken himself of it after the Maronite church had adopted it, well before the Declaration of Greater Lebanon and its establishment upon an administrative distribution between the church and the Sunnis to the detriment of the Shias who were at that time poor, downtrodden people.
During the past 40 years the Shias began to ask for their rights, working on reinventing the national partnership in a bid to have a fair share of their own country. However, the Maronite/Sunni alliance was not that lenient, and the Shias were pushed to use coercive policies that led to a rearrangement of the Lebanese house where the Christians paid the higher price.
The Christians shall pay more if a Sunni/Shia understanding emerges. Therefore, Christians have weaved alliance with the Sunnis, not because Shias are their enemies, but because their alliance with the Sunnis gave them a bigger, undue share of the country and any new alliance requires a redistribution of the interior political, social and economic shares, which will therefore shrink and cancel the Christians’ privileges.
So in what bizarre logic can al-Rai express his fear of an alliance between the Sunnis of Lebanon and the Sunnis of Syria at the expense of the Christians if the Lebanese Sunnis are allying with him, protecting what is left from the role he is playing, knowing that he allied with them in the first place for this same reason?
Whom is he trying to fool by his prejudgments and concerns that contradict the core of his church’s historical stances and his daily personal positions? Besides, whom is he trying to convince when he says that Maronites might lose their position as a result of a Sunni/Shia conflict emerging in Lebanon and the region and not as a result of the natural social growth and the increase of Lebanon’s awareness of the importance of justice and equality?
There’s no need to affirm that al-Rai’s political stances are incorrect. He needs to be reminded of a statement by Hegel, who said that freedom emerged in the history of mankind with Christianity. I remind him of this quote because his position as the head of the Maronite church binds him to have faith in it and act according to its content. I remind him of this because his beatitude did not understand what was going on in his entourage, i.e. on the doorsteps of his own church and because the Syrians, Sunnis or not, are not currently in conflict with the Shias.
In fact, some in Syria are upset about the stances of Hezbollah and Iran because they believe that Hezbollah did not show the same compassion towards their demands as he did with other Arabs who led similar uprisings and because they are aware that the support of Hezbollah is important and vital.
Syrians are not criticizing the Party of God because they consider it as a Shia enemy on the other side of the barricade, but because in this stage, reproach is a declaration of love, as they say.
Moreover, no one, including al-Rai, can prove that the Syrians who are demonstrating in the streets are demanding an Islamic/Sunni regime while raising slogans of peace, civil state, social justice, human rights and citizenship and while, deep down, in their cursed souls, all they want is an Islamic/Sunni regime that allies with the Sunnis in Lebanon against the Christians in the Orient, who will eventually face the same fate as their brothers in Iraq!
I wonder if our ancestors, the Christians of the Orient, were this naïve during the Crusades and believed they were battling against the Sunni Muslims under an alliance with those who had been governing the Muslims against their will? If they had been, would a single Christian in the whole Orient have survived. Isn’t it necessary that Al-Rai and other clerics in the Christian church look at reality with the eyes of love that they never stop talking about, except when it comes to Muslims, and with the eyes of reality and justice? Shouldn’t they understand what is really happening and refuse to be part of an unnecessary battle against the oppressed? If Jesus was to return on earth today he would bluntly support those oppressed and say: on the rock of these poor oppressed, no matter to what religion they belong, I will build my Church, for it shall be the church of the son of Man.
Dear patriarch, your predecessor, Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, used to repeat the second half of an old Arabic verse and say, “war begins with words”. Well, you, my lord, are waging a war!
Michel Kilo is a Syrian opposition figure and a hunan-rights activist. This article first appeared in al-Safir and was translated from Arabic by Stanela Khalil.