* 500 years on pope gives special place to Lebanon's
* Christians fear Islamist rise in Arab Spring
* Without its Christians, Lebanon will lose unique identity
* Mix of Islamist threat, economic pressures could drive
By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT, Sept 14 In 1510, Pope Leo X thanked
Divine Providence for having preserved the Maronite Christians
through the hardest of times, "planted among infidels,
schismatics and heretics as in a field of error".
He described them as a "rose among thorns, an impregnable
rock in the sea, unshaken by the waves and fury of the
Today, more than five centuries later, Pope Benedict will
reassert this message of survival in a hostile environment in a
three-day visit to Lebanon.
His visit comes at a time when Christians in the region feel
their existence threatened by the rise of political Islam. It
also coincides with violent protests in Libya and Egypt against
film, made in the United States, that is insulting to Islam.
In this small country where, uniquely in the Arab world,
Christians have held the political reins since independence in
1943, the Christian communities feel menaced.
Across the Arab world, Christians feel like a species facing
extinction, threatened by Islamist fanatics, driven by a lack of
opportunity at home to seek better lives abroad, and now fearful
of the post-revolution order which in some countries has brought
Islamists to power.
Christians now make up about 5 percent of the Middle Eastern
population, down from 20 percent a century ago. If current
pressures and their low birth rates continue, some estimates say
their 12 million total could be halved by 2020.
FEELING OUT OF PLACE
While some Christians in Lebanon felt exhilarated by the
uprisings that swept the Middle East over the past two years,
ending decades of dictatorships, they look with foreboding at
Islamist movements, based on hardline ideology and with little
tolerance towards minorities. The Islamists have been the only
forces organised enough to fill the power vacuum.
"We are in a new critical situation," said Monsignor Paul
Matar, Archbishop of Beirut for the Maronites. "The Christians
of course are alarmed. They ask will the Arab world regress?"
"The Islamists should know, that even if they have gained
power, that there are others who exist in this region and that
they are equal citizens."
For many Christians the rise of political Islam is changing
the nature of the uprisings that toppled four autocrats in
Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya and has placed one under siege
in Syria. They had hoped for a broad movement that would lead
these countries to democracy but got instead Islamists, who they
believe will eventually impose stricter social codes.
For many Christians, memories of Iraq are fresh. The
sectarian killings that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in
2003, and the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians, created a trauma.
Of all the revolutions that have dismantled the old order,
none terrifies leaders of the religious minorities in the Middle
East more than Syria's, the bloodiest chapter in the Arab
Their fear is that the ousting of one minority - the
Alawites through whom the Assad family has ruled Syria for four
decades - will uncage sectarian forces that threaten minorities.
Many close observers of Syria do see the possibility of the
Iraqi scenario being repeated.
Were that to happen, they see a strong likelihood that the
Christians of Syria, caught in the cross-fire of the power
struggle between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, would feel compelled
SIDING WITH DICTATORS?
What leaves the Christians of Syria particularly exposed is
the position of most of their top clerical leadership, which
chose to ally itself with the Assad dynasty.
The crisis in Syria has also polarised Christians in
neighbouring Lebanon, long dominated by Damascus. Some
Christians are excited about the prospects of toppling Assad but
others are haunted by what may come after his demise.
In Lebanon itself, Beshara Rai, the Maronite Patriarch, in a
statement ahead of the Pope's visit appeared to be warning
Christians of the consequences of actions that open the way to
Islamist forces. "We need to be aware of what is going on and
read events carefully so that we do not become tools to achieve
foreign schemes", the Patriarch said.
Rai, who in an interview with Reuters this year described
Assad's Syria as "the closest thing to democracy in the Arab
world", drew attention to plots being hatched across the region.
Ignatius Hazim, Patriarch of Antioch and the Greek Orthodox
Christians in Syria, praised Assad for "reforms undertaken".
While he and his clerical peers may be accurately conveying the
unease among Arab Christians about the future, they are also
placing their congregations in the camp of the dictatorship.
Leading intellectuals from the region fear the consequences.
The regional struggle within Islam between the region's
Sunnis and Shi'ites - exacerbated after the invasion of Iraq
replaced the Sunni rule of Saddam Hussein with majority Shi'ites
- terrifies not just the Christians but other minorities such as
the Alawites, Druze, or ethnically distinct Kurds.
The Maronites survived 15 centuries of largely Islamic rule
thanks to a mixture of obstinacy, ferocity and Western
patronage. When France created greater Lebanon in 1920 after the
collapse of the Ottoman empire, it awarded them the leading role
in the state.
Ruling Lebanon through the Maronite sect, the Christians not
only fought their Muslim rivals but each other during the
1975-90 civil war. They emerged defeated and divided between
factions now allied with the Shi'ites, led by Hezbollah, and
remnants from the Phalange Party in league with the Sunnis.
The 1989 Taif peace pact which ended the war stripped them
of their monopoly by dividing power equally between Christians
and Muslims, while war and emigration have reduced their numbers
to about one-third of the four million population.
The pressure to emigrate is intense, and better education
and Western contacts enables it.
"We are in a delicate time. We should be patient because we
were here long before Islam," said Archbishop Matar. "We won't
leave. We can have a role in stabilising the Middle East."
Many Arab Muslims, who see Christians offering a culturally
enriching window on the world, are also committed to this view.
"The justification of Lebanon's existence is that it has
Christians and Muslims and various other sects. If these sects
don't exist, of course, the foundation of the country will cease
to exist," argues Amin Maalouf, the prize-winning Lebanese-born
French novelist and essayist.
"Throughout history when a country expels its minorities it
creates a disaster for itself," Maalouf said. "Each time the
minorities leave a country, even if their number is very small,
the country gets impoverished. The minorities in any country in
the world are an important yeast".
"To put myself in the shoes of Arab Christians all I can say
is I watch their predicament with horror," says Tarif Khalidi, a
scholar of Islam and author of "The Muslim Jesus".
The Christians, Khalidi argues, "in many ways, were the
agents of Westernisation and the contacts between the (west) and
Muslims in the awakening in the 19th century. It was a classic
instance of Muslim-Christian renaissance. This symbiosis, if it
is in any sense endangered, will be catastrophic," extinguishing
a vibrant history of tolerant coexistence.
"Had there been a Nobel peace prize for the middle ages it
would be given to Arabic civilisation. I cannot see a more
impressive record of inter-sectarian coexistence and pluralism."
Excitement and pride over the Pope's visit have replaced
fear and anxiety among Christians at least for now.
Churches across Lebanon will toll their bells on his
arrival. White and yellow candles will be lit at night on every
His pictures are hanging on churches and street lights.
Churches across the country will bus their own adherents to
attend the open-air mass on Sunday in the seafront of Beirut,
rebuilt from the ashes of the civil war.
"Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message to the East
and to the West," reads a banner with a picture of Benedict.
Many Lebanese Christians believe Pope Benedict is coming
with a strong message for them not to abandon their land.
Attending mass at the Saint Elias church, Ruba Tawk, 39,
said: "The pope's visit will shine the light on Lebanese
Christian identity and its survival at a time when they are
facing a grave danger from Islamists pressuring them to leave".
Like many Christians and even some Muslims she summed up the
value of being a Christian in a sea of Islam.
"Lebanon without its Christians will be a country without a
soul. The Christians gave Lebanon its identity, its spirit of
freedom and coexistence. Without its Christians Lebanon will no
longer be Lebanon, it will be like any other Muslim country."