Lebanese church leaders The Maronite church in particular, which is the biggest denomination in Lebanon, has played an important role in recent years, providing leadership when political groups in the country were quite fragmented.
Now that various political leaderships are once again reasserting themselves, both in the government and in the opposition, the role of the church has gone a bit into the background, but it’s still a moral force. For instance, when the Maronite archbishop speaks, he carries a lot of weight, such as when he talks about the need to solve issues democratically and peacefully.
Christian-Muslim relations today are really no different than before. Lebanon is an Arab country with a very large Christian population, about 30 to 40 percent. Some villages are completely one religion. But other [villages] include different sects, such as Sunni Muslims and Christians. In the cities, years ago they used to be grouped by quarters, such as the Christian or the Armenian or the Druze or the Jewish quarter. Now it’s more mixed. Since the end of the civil war , it tends to be a bit more polarized in these mixed neighborhoods, but they talk to each other. They see themselves as citizens of the same country.
Christian-Muslim relations have been helped along for many decades by the political system, which is designed on the basis of 18 different religious confessional groups structurally factored into the system. Parliamentary seats, ministries, government jobs, and so on are apportioned according to these different confessional groups. The political process formally recognizes that each religious group should have a share in the pie. This has helped cooperation along, even though parties hold different beliefs.
The church responds to the struggle
The church has generally reacted at the broad level of principles, of wanting, for instance, to make sure that all the groups in the country are treated equally and fairly and get their basic rights guaranteed.
The church has also focused heavily on Christian values of peace, love, brotherhood, and forgiveness, and solving issues peacefully and democratically. This has been a very clear role of the churches.
What can American Christians learn?
It’s a different situation in the States. In the States, you have a much smaller Muslim community. In the Middle East, Christian, Muslims, and Jews have existed together for more than 1,000 years. Pluralism and understanding each other’s religion isn’t that big of a deal. Because these relationships are much newer in the U.S., there’s a lot of effort being made to understand each other’s religions better. The best antidote to misunderstandings, stereotypes, and racist misperceptions is for people to meet each other. There’s nothing that has as much impact as physically getting together, chatting, having a cup of coffee, or going to someone’s house. It doesn’t matter what the context is, whether it’s business or education or tourism or sports or political engagement.
American Christians could look at Christian Palestinians or Christian Arabs as a potential window into the minds of millions of Muslim Arabs. You would find that what Christian Arabs are feeling is very similar to what Muslim Arabs are feeling. So the real issues at play, in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, are not religious but political. People may call on their religious vocabulary and metaphors and iconography, but we should look beyond the surface manifestations of those religious symbols to the political realities.
How can American Christians help?
Speak out for the rights of all people on the basis of Christian values that we all agree on, such as equality, mercy, and forgiveness. In June, I attended a memorial Mass in Beirut for Samir Kassir, a prominent Lebanese journalist and writer who was killed in a car bomb explosion two years ago.
The Greek Orthodox priest who spoke gave a short homily in which he said that when we look back at this murder and other deaths, we have to remember two things: love and forgiveness. It’s the Christian message.
If you translate that into political terms, it means equality, making sure that all people are treated decently.
American Christians should affirm that foreign policies of the United States reflect Christian values, should treat people equally, not discriminate, not use expediency, but be constantly seeking reconciliation and peaceful resolution of disputes according to the rule of law. [They should] translate Christian moral values into operative political policies.
What is a Christian strategy that could move the ball forward for a region-wide solution?
It would be fascinating to bring Christian, Muslim, and Jewish senior religious leaders together to talk about explicitly political issues. Religious leaders don’t have enough impact on politics like what Martin Luther King Jr. did in the States or what Bishop Tutu and the church did in South Africa. I thought that was a good role for religious leaders to play.
Sometimes, it’s not just about getting the ear of politicians. Sometimes, the church needs to shame politicians. Go over their heads. The vast majority of people in the Middle East want the same thing. But the politicians are the problem in many ways. So it would be good if various religious leaderships together explored a way to make the moral values of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism more pertinent to the resolution of political conflict. Political leaders need to affirm the relevance of moral and faith values and somehow get them to underpin the political process and negotiations. One way to do that is to get these religious leaders together to explicitly talk about political issues.