FaithWorld

Mideast Christians struggle to hope in Arab Spring, some see no spring at all

(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the period of interfaith unity on February 6, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks. Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.

Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists — a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region’s now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes — have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.

(Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib in Venice, 21 June 2011/Tom Heneghan)

“If things don’t change for the better, we’ll return to what was before, maybe even worse,” Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib said at a conference this week in Venice on the Arab Spring and Christian-Muslim relations. “But we hope that will not come about,” he told Reuters.

Bahrain crisis could worsen Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions in the region

beirut bahrain

(Rally organized by Lebanon's Hezbollah in front of the U.N. headquarters in Beirut March 16, 2011, in support of Bahraini protesters. Around 2,000 mostly Shi'ite Lebanese demonstrators rallied in central Beirut on Wednesday in support of an uprising by Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim majority/Cynthia Karam)

A Bahraini police crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, two days after Saudi Arabia sent in 1,000 troops to bolster its longtime Gulf Arab ally, will heighten Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Bahrain and beyond. At least five people were killed and hundreds wounded when police cleared demonstrators from Manama’s Pearl Square on Wednesday in an attempt to halt weeks of popular unrest.

The violence, so soon after the Saudi-led intervention, will further embarrass Washington, which had urged dialogue to tackle Bahrain’s problems and says Riyadh did not consult it before moving troops to the island where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based. That may be the case, but U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain at the weekend. To many Arabs the timing smacks of U.S. complicity in King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s decision to invite the Saudis in and declare martial law.

Christian exodus hurts Middle East: Muslim official

muslims at synodChristian emigration from the Middle East is impoverishing Arab culture and Muslims have a duty to encourage the presence of Christian minorities, a Lebanese government adviser has told a Vatican summit. (Photo: Muhammad Al-Sammak (R) at the synod for the Middle East bishops, October 14, 2010/Osservatore Romano)

Mohammad Sammak, a Sunni Muslim who is secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, told a synod of bishops on Thursday the declining number of Christians in the region was a concern for all Muslims.

“The emigration of Christians is an impoverishment of the Arabic identity, of its culture and authenticity,” said Sammak, who is an adviser to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He added that maintaining the Christian presence in the Middle East was a “common Islamic duty.”

Christians in Lebanon fret despite privileged role

lebanon christiansAfter a panicky mass flight from his Christian village, Sami Abi Daher watched from across the valley as Syrian-backed Druze fighters burned and looted it. That was back in 1983 when battles forced tens of thousands of Christians from their homes in the Aley and Shouf hills near Beirut in a bloody postscript to Israel’s 1982 invasion. (Photo: Supporters of Christian Lebanese Forces commemorate the Lebanese Resistance Martyrs in Jouniyeh, north of Beirut, September 25, 2010./ Mohamed Azakir)

Abi Daher, a former Christian militiaman, has never returned to live in his village, Rishmaya, instead working and bringing up his three children in a Christian district of Beirut.

Twenty years after the 1975-90 civil war, Christians formally enjoy a reduced but still disproportionate weight in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system. While under no specific threat, as a community they are weak and divided.

Christian-themed TV shows spark complaints in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon

saudi tv 1Television shows with Christian themes have sparked complaints in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon in recent days, but from different groups and for different reasons.

In Saudi Arabia, a popular sitcom has drawn the ire of conservative clerics over an episode portraying Arab Christians in a positive light after the kingdom sought to sell itself as a leader of dialogue between faiths. (Photo: Saudis watch a religious programme during Ramadan, 15 Sept 2008/Fahad Shadeed)

A two-part episode of the sitcom “Tash Ma Tash,” which has aired during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan for 17 years, showed the two main Saudi characters, both Muslims, being advised by their dying father to visit the brother of their deceased Lebanese mother.

Britain removes Fadlallah eulogy from blog of its envoy to Lebanon

fadlallahBritain has removed a blog from the website of its ambassador to Beirut in which she praised Lebanon’s late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. In her blog, titled ‘The passing of decent men’, Frances Guy wrote that she was saddened by Fadlallah’s death and that the world “needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths.”

Fadlallah was revered by many Shi’ite Muslims across the Middle East and Central Asia, and was known for his moderate social views and for trying to minimise Muslim sectarian differences.  But he was designated a terrorist by the United States and Israel because of his links to Hezbollah and his support for suicide attacks against the Jewish state. (Photo: Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim women supporters of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah wave to his coffin during his funeral in Beirut, July 6, 2010/ Sharif Karim)

A British Foreign Office spokesman said Guy’s blog had been removed “after mature consideration.” The criticism of her blog followed the firing of a senior CNN editor for Middle East news who published a Twitter message that said she respected Fadlallah.

CNN fires veteran Mideast editor over tweet on respect for Fadlallah

fadlallah picCNN has fired a senior editor for Middle East news after she published a Twitter message that said she respected a Lebanese Shi’ite cleric branded a terrorist by the United States, U.S. and British media said on Thursday. The Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of Shi’ite Islam’s highest religious authorities and an early mentor of the militant group Hezbollah, died in Beirut on Sunday. (Photo: Supporters of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah hold posters after his death in Beirut, July 4, 2010/Khalil Hassan)

Octavia Nasr, a 20-year CNN veteran based in Atlanta, wrote on Twitter: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” Some supporters of Israel saw the Twitter posting almost immediately and took issue with it, the New York Times said.

The Times cited Parisa Khosravi, the senior vice president for CNN International Newsgathering, as saying in an internal memorandum that she “had a conversation” with Nasr and that “we have decided that she will be leaving the company.”

Hundreds of thousands mourn Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah

fadlallah burial (Photo:  Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims carry coffin Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut, July 6, 2010/Sharif Karim)

Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was buried on Tuesday, mourned by hundreds of thousands who paid homage to an early mentor of Hezbollah who became one of Shi’ite Islam’s highest authorities.

Fadlallah, who died on Sunday aged 74, was a revered marja’a, or source of emulation, for many Shi’ites across the Middle East and Central Asia. He was seen as the spiritual leader of the militant movement Hezbollah when it was formed after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. When the group was blamed for abduction of Westerners in the 1980s and attacks on U.S. and French targets in Lebanon, Fadlallah repeatedly called for the hostages to be released, saying he opposed kidnappings, and he later distanced himself from Hezbollah’s close ties to Iran.

Fadlallah was known in Shi’ite circles for his moderate social views, especially on women. He issued several notable fatwas, or religious opinions, including banning the Shi’ite practice of shedding blood during the mourning ritual of Ashura.

Europe, face veils and a Catholic view of a Muslim issue

burqa 1The French National Assembly begins debating a complete ban on Muslim full face veils in public next week and could outlaw them by the autumn. Belgium’s lower house of parliament has passed a draft ban and could banish them from its streets in the coming months if its Senate agrees. The Spanish Senate has passed a motion to ban them after a few towns introduced their own prohibitions. (Photo: A veiled French woman outside the Belgian Parliament in Brussels/Yves Herman)

Calls to ban “burqas” — the word most widely in Europe used for full veils, even if most full veils seen are niqabs — have also been heard in the Netherlands and Denmark. According to a  Financial Times poll,  the ban proposal also “wins enthusiastic backing in the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany”.

Only a tiny minority of Muslim women in these countries actually cover their faces, but that doesn’t seem to matter. That Switzerland has only four minarets didn’t stop Swiss voters from banning them in a referendum last November (and maybe banning veils next). There seems to be a movement to ban religious symbols that Europeans either reject or fear.

Witness – Writing on the walls in the Holy Land

bethlehem wall 1 (Photo: A Palestinian near the Israeli barrier in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem November 9, 2009/Darren Whiteside)

Alastair Macdonald has been Reuters Bureau Chief in Israel and the Palestinian territories for the past three years. As a foreign correspondent over the past 20, he has previously been based in London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Baghdad.  As he ends his assignment in Jerusalem, he reflects in the following story on how he has watched people in the region build an array of barriers, both physical and emotional, to cut themselves off from each other.

With one last exit stamp in my passport, I end a three-year reporting assignment in the Holy Land that has been marked by images of frontiers, by a sense of walls going up and fewer and fewer people finding a way through.

From the minefields of Israel’s frontlines with Syria and Lebanon to the fortified fences around the West Bank and Gaza Strip — much in this month’s headlines — to the walls, old and new, of Jerusalem, physical barriers shape the lives of the 12 million people cut off here in what was once called Palestine.