Eastern Christians and the Arab Spring

Posted in Syria | 25-Oct-12 | Author: Alain Juppé| Source: La Croix

Eastern Christians are worried. Worried about their survival in a region they have lived in for 2,000 years. Worried about their rights being respected at a time of major upheaval. Worried about heightened religious tensions. I want to tell them that I understand them, that I understand their fears.

Eastern Christians and the Arab Spring

For centuries, France has had a special mission with respect to the Eastern Christians. She will not shy away from it. That is why in January 2011, President Sarkozy established the framework of our policy, emphasizing that "well beyond the East," the fate of the Eastern Christians symbolizes "the challenges of the globalized world we have irrevocably entered." Our vision is clear: there can be no true democratic revolution without the protection of minorities. The Eastern Christians are destined to remain in their region. They are destined to help build their future, as they have always done in the past.

This is not a new issue. It has existed for centuries. But it has become more and more pressing in recent years.

France has first of all demonstrated her vigilance by sending clear messages to the countries in question, which bear primary responsibility for the security of their citizens. France has also mobilized her efforts to secure the EU Foreign Affairs Council's condemnation on 21 February 2011 of the violence against Christians, and a UN Security Council presidential statement addressed to them on 10 November 2010, following the attack in Baghdad.

Indeed, the Christians of Iraq have paid a heavy toll in recent years. We have expressed our solidarity by welcoming more than 1,300 of them on our soil since 2008 and by evacuating the injured following the attack on Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad on 31 October.

In Egypt, the Copts occupy a special place, rooted in the long history of their country. They have suffered violence, abuse and discrimination in recent years, as exemplified by the horrific 2011 attack on the church in Alexandria. But the Copts are also engaged in the political life of their country like never before. Since the revolution, they have participated in elections; they want to be heard and to contribute, along with their fellow citizens, to the country's democratic transition. The newly elected Egyptian parliament has expressed its commitment to guaranteeing the rights of the Copts; we are counting on its decisive action.

In Lebanon, coexistence among several minorities is a reality. But this model must be guarded constantly against the various attempts to undermine it. All actors in Lebanese society and political life are responsible for this task.

As President Sarkozy told His Beatitude Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the Maronite Patriarch, during his official visit to Paris last September, the best protection for the Eastern Christians and the true guarantee of their survival in the region is the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in the Arab countries.

That is why we urge the Christians of the Middle East not to be taken in by the manipulative measures implemented by authoritarian regimes alienated from their own people. I remain very concerned about the tragic situation in Syria, about the fierce crackdown by a doomed regime that uses military force against its own people. I deeply hope that Christians, like all the other communities, will participate in creating a new, democratic Syria in which all citizens will have the same rights and the same duties.

We are not naive. We know that the road will be long and chaotic. But beyond the risks and dangers that nobody can deny, the Arab Spring offers an historic opportunity for the Eastern Christians. Does anyone really believe that minority rights are better protected by bloody dictatorships than by democratic regimes? Who can deny that Christians, Kurds, Druze, Alawites and Assyrians, too, are being murdered, tortured and imprisoned in Syria? But this Arab Spring offers signs of hope. I want to pay tribute to the initiative of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh el-Tayeb, who in January drafted and published a document on religious freedoms in Egypt. This text stresses the freedom of belief, the freedom of expression, the freedom of scientific research and the freedom of creation, including artistic creation. Such initiatives, which strengthen interfaith dialogue, show that it is possible to rally diverse societies around universal values, enabling all to coexist harmoniously.

While there are lingering questions about the future, I want to tell the Eastern Christians, who also live in many other countries than those I have mentioned (notably Israel and the Palestinian territories), that France will not abandon them. Our faith in the 2011 revolutions is accompanied by absolute vigilance about respect for human rights, particularly those of minorities. I myself strongly stressed this during my discussions with the Syrian National Council, which seeks to rally the Syrian opposition and has pledged to guarantee these rights.
In Syria as elsewhere, it is in the Eastern Christians' interest to embrace changes that are both inevitable and positive. It is by resolutely engaging in building a new region that they will protect their future, as President Sarkozy told religious leaders in his New Year's wishes on 25 January: "Christians are part of the history of the East; there can be no question of tearing them from this land. The Arab Spring will keep its promises if minorities are respected."

The message I want to send them is simple: France has been and will remain by your side.