Following a number of academic and ecclesiastical conferences in various Arab countries on the situation and fate of the Christians of the Near East, it was only normal for Beirut to sponsor political discussions on this issue. On Nov. 2-3, on the invitation of the Lebanese Christian Gathering, around 45 Christian political figures gathered from across the six countries of the Near East — Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — to discuss the plight of Christians in their countries, the imminent threats facing them, and the ways to jointly fend them off. Al-Monitor’s correspondent was in attendance. Although a large number of similar conferences have been held, the one in Beirut last week constituted a significant milestone on many levels.
First of all, participants were politicians who combine two characteristics: they represent Christian groups in their respective countries and they are involved in the political regimes of these countries. The participants included government ministers, former and current members of parliament, as well as human rights activists, politicians and members of civil society.
Second, the presence of a large number of ambassadors and representatives of diplomatic delegations — notably Western ones — in Beirut was remarkable. Over more than two hours, diplomats wrote down notes on the accounts of the Christian delegations regarding the struggle of their groups. None of the invited diplomats asked any questions or sought clarification. The organizers of the conference, however, believed that the aim of their invitation was achieved. “We wanted them to listen to accounts from representatives of Christians on the plight of these groups in the region, and this is what happened,” one of the conference organizers told Al-Monitor.
Third, an important characteristic of the event was the formation of an organizational framework joining the six countries, which was an unprecedented step. Under the name of “The Gathering of Christians of the Near East,” the participants agreed to form a permanent committee to join them together and coordinate their causes. The committee will periodically meet to follow up on their recommendations and work plans.
During the discussions, some participants dwelled on another issue they perceived as more pressing. The disparity in the opinions of the six delegations regarding the most important threats facing Christians was stark. In simpler words, there was disagreement over the first, immediate and spontaneous answer to the question: Who is currently your enemy?
The disparity in answers and priorities seemed to take on more than one dimension, background and connotation. This is why it has a significant importance on the intellectual and political level. Soon enough, discussions showed there were two divergent opinions.
The first opinion was strongly held by Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians, while the second was held by Egyptians, Jordanians and Iraqis. The former presented a traditional analysis that has been well known in the region for ages: Israel is still the first enemy to all of the region, including its countries and groups. According to them, Israel is the “origin of all woes in the region and is the reason behind the plight of Christians in the Near East in particular.” The advocates of this opinion do not fall short of arguments and justifications to consolidate their point of view, namely the relationship of the West with the Zionist entity, the wars that have taken in the region, and the Arab stances that have always used Israel as a pretext to establish totalitarian regimes undermining the freedoms of their people and human rights. This was in addition to extremist Islamist groups, which these advocates consider to be a reaction to the presence of Israel. And it is Christians of the region who have fallen victim to these groups.
The second opinion — strongly held by Egyptians, Jordanians and Iraqis — was inclined toward reducing the influence of the Israeli factor and presenting Islamist, takfiri and jihadist movements as being currently the first enemy to Christians and non-Christians — including moderate Muslims and enlightened individuals — of the region.
Deep, important discussions were held on this issue, especially in regard to what it indicated about people’s moods in each country and community. While those considering Israel the top enemy were calling to mind the practices of Israel throughout decades against Palestinians and neighboring countries, to the former’s surprise, one of the Islamist opinion advocates asked, “Can you provide me with the final number of the victims of the Arab-Israeli wars since the 1930s? I assure you, it does not exceed 10% of that of the victims [who died] during Islamist wars against Christians and Animists in South Sudan.”
On a deeper level, the discussion tackled the criteria used to categorize threats and the value of human beings, regardless of ideological analyses. When the focus was again channeled toward the Nakba and the Palestinian central cause, one of the Islamist opinion advocates daringly said: “Israel is indeed occupying Palestine. There are still, however, 40,000 Christians living under the Israeli occupation, even though this entity was formed 60 years ago. Islamists have been governing Gaza for seven years and there are only 1,516 Christians remaining in Gaza, and this number is probably decreasing as we speak due to the systematic Islamization policies in the Strip.” Another participant even went to great lengths, saying, “Israel may be an enemy, but takfiris and Wahhabis, however, are currently my sole biggest enemy.”
One participant said many factors could explain this disparity, such as the official policies espoused by the governments of the delegations, especially since participants are politicians involved in the regimes of their countries. Therefore, they cannot completely go against the inclinations of their governments. This seemed somehow true if taking into account the opinions of the delegations.
Another factor was related to a specific fact: addressing the West to call on it to support the cause of Christians in the Near East. One advocate of the Islamist opinion explained it clearly, “If we tell the West that the problem is Israel, it will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to our plight. Yet if we tell the West we have a common enemy — which is takfiri Islamic extremism — then the West will pay attention to us. Drawing on this, we can set forth another approach to solve our crisis.”
Away from the considerations of governmental stances and rational political calculations, some believe that a deep change is emerging among some parties in the Middle East. As a result of deep, bloody sectarian rifts, the Palestinian stance on reaching agreements, even with Islamists, the latest performance of Hamas, a movement affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to the persecutions witnessed in many countries, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq, it seems that some parties in the Near East are reconsidering the question: Who is currently my enemy?
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