COMECE Bishops see in the Arab Spring a clear sign of hope
The COMECE Bishops dedicated their Spring Plenary Session to “Christian Churches in Maghreb and Mashriq”.
Although there has been ferment for quite some time in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, few people could have anticipated the revolutions and regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In his opening address at the Plenary Session, Mgr Adrianus van Luyn, President of COMECE, admitted, “When we decided at the beginning of January that the next Plenary Assembly should focus on the Middle East, we were still recovering from the shock of the bloody attacks against Christian churches in Egypt and Iraq. The pressing plight of Christians in these countries seemed to us sufficiently important for us to occupy ourselves with this more thoroughly at our meeting. Despite the developments in recent weeks, the position of religious minorities – not only Christians – remains precarious.” However, following the different popular uprisings occurring in the past few months, great expectations as well as many questions were raised that became more pressing than the question of Christians in the Middle East: What developments should we expect following the retreat, even the expulsion, of the former dictators? Is there any real chance that western-style democracy could gain foothold in these countries when, in contrast with the political changes in 1989, there is no earlier tradition of democracy to provide firm ground? What can the new European External Action Service actually do in this area?
Looking for answers to all these questions, the COMECE Bishops had the opportunity to listen to reports from experts from several European institutions, especially the EU’s new European External Action Service. Furthermore, in order to better understand the new situation in the Arab world, COMECE invited Professor Khalife, a specialist in geopolitics, Mgr Soueif, the Maronite Archbishop of Cyprus (and also the special Secretary of the recent Synod on the Middle East), and Cardinal Antonius Naguib, Catholic Patriarch of the Copts in Alexandria. All three had already met together in Strasbourg during the European Parliament’s Plenary Session in April, to report to the MEPs and the media on the situation of Christians in the Arab world.
Worries and hopes arising from the Arab Spring
Cardinal Naguib’s report to the COMECE Bishops dwelled in particular on a number of concrete issues that were causing problems with respect to the Egyptian Constitution. In its Articles 40 and 46 the Constitution states that citizens are equal under the law, whatever their race, language or creed, and that the State guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of practice of religious rites. In parallel, Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that Islam is the State religion, Arabic its official language and that Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) is the principal source of legislation. This article, the second of the 211 articles making up the Egyptian Constitution, has a dominant position and all articles that follow are subordinate to it. Practice bears this out : the law courts of the country clearly make the principles of freedom subordinate to the Islamic Sharia law. Similarly, observance of Sharia law influences how Egypt ratifies international Treaties, sometimes to the point of cancelling out their effectiveness. This is the case with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Egypt in 1982.
Despite these reservations, Cardinal Naguib added “The 25th of January revolution generated hope that the constitution would be changed. In consideration and anticipation of the criticality of the early post-revolution phase, the Churches decided not to raise the issue of Article 2. The objective is clearly to enhance the national cohesion that emerged during the revolutionary movement... It is, however, the intention to re-address this crucial topic in a later phase, in which a change of constitution will take place.”
Cardinal Naguib sees two advantages in this Arab Spring – it is multiconvictional and led by the younger generation. “That’s why we were so happy to see the harmonious and total unity between Moslems and Christians at the beginning of the revolution. We have seen the Egyptians come together, drawn by a common cause and a common objective: Copts and Muslims joined hands against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak .The mixed crowd chanted, ‘We are one’, holding up Qurans and Crosses.”
He further believes that the youth of this movement is also a harbinger of hope. In fact, the promoters of “Change in 2011” are mainly young people (60% of the population of the Middle East and of North Africa are aged under 30) who have had the advantage of a mostly good education and are perfectly able to use the internet and its possibilities. But their prospects for the future are bleak indeed.
He therefore called upon the COMECE Bishops to support this movement of hope, particularly by helping young people to acquire some knowledge of politics and democracy and to train themselves in leadership.
Echoing the conclusions of the Synod on the Middle East, the COMECE Bishops, at the end of their Plenary Assembly, declared their strong belief that Christians in these countries share the same citizenship with their fellow citizens of other religions and that every one of them belongs fully to their societies. The Bishops called upon them to play their part, on the basis of their faith, in the change towards democracy in their countries, side by side with their fellow citizens.
These are the recommendations that the COMECE Bishops wish to present to the European Union:
- Greater and more concrete solidarity among the Member States of the EU is urgently needed to help in facing the inflow of migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East (as provisioned in Directive 2001/55/EC on temporary protection)
- the EU should help in improving the deplorable situation in these countries by developing new tools to efficiently foster modernisation and democratisation in their societies
-in the context of changes in the Arab world, the EU should stress the importance of granting equal rights to all citizens of those countries, irrespective their ethnic or religious origin; including Christians.
For their part, the Bishops discussed the following possible actions:
- to organise regular exchanges with the Bishops’ Conferences of North Africa and the Middle East in order to assess better the expectations of their local population towards the EU;
- to encourage reflexion on “Democracy and Religion” together with Christians and Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East;
- to promote the social and political education of young people from North Africa and the Middle East
They also addressed a letter to their fellow Bishops in the Middle East and North Africa in which they expressed their solidarity and shared communion in prayers.
The insecurity and threats that Christian minorities are facing increasingly often in the Arab World are clearly intolerable. The COMECE Bishops expressed similar concern about the way religious minorities are sometimes treated in Europe. They therefore called upon all citizens, especially Christians, as well as the political leaders in Europe to assume their responsibilities for promoting dialogue between cultures and civilisations in Europe as well as in the rest of the world.
As Mgr van Luyn acknowledged, the Catholic Church has no coherent strategy, nor plans of action or ready-made responses to face this challenge. On the other hand, she is able to offer her help in discussing and drawing up solutions. Hence the COMECE Bishops have taken concrete actions in support of this movement of hope in the Arab world, and from analysing the situation they have drawn several lessons for application to we Europeans: the duty of majorities towards the minorities in Europe and the need for dialogue between religious communities.
translated from the original French