The attitudes of Christian religious leaders in the Middle East and North Africa towards the Arab Spring have differed since its eruption in 2011. While these religious leaders in Egypt and Syria opposed the uprisings of 2011, their counterparts in Iraq and Lebanon have supported the second wave of protests underway since 2019.
They can see that if there are no political reforms, Christianity has no future in the region. In 2011, the Egyptian Coptic Church asked its followers not to participate in the January 25 protests against the Hosni Mubarak regime. Bishop Markus, then head of the Holy Synod’s information committee, said: “These protests do not know their purpose, nor do we know their details and who is behind them. He said the Orthodox Church called on its “children” not to be guided by calls to join the protests.
In Syria, the Council of Bishops of Damascus issued a statement in March 2011 insisting that “what is happening in our country is a foreign plot in which, unfortunately, internal actors have been embroiled and malicious media have attempted to distort the shining image enjoyed by Syria at home and abroad ”.
However, the second wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2019, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, has received more support from Christian leaders in both countries. In Iraq, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, visited the main sit-in in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and expressed his support for the demands of the demonstrators, saying that “a new Iraq is emerging. to be born ”.
Fear of chaos
Leaders of Lebanon’s Maronite, Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches issued a joint statement in October 2019 expressing solidarity with the peaceful uprising. And the Bishop of Beirut, Paul Abdel-Sater, spoke at a mass in February 2020, in the presence of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and other senior officials, where he asked that they listen to the demands, adding that “otherwise, the most honorable thing to do is to resign”.
Despite their different political attitudes, Church leaders in these four countries share similar concerns about political change in the region. First, the fear of chaos and its consequences for the security of minority groups, such as Christians. Following this logic, for the Church, an authoritarian state that imposes restrictions on the Christian community is always better than no state at all, where minority groups would likely be the ones paying the highest price. Second, there is the fear of Islamization and the consequences if Islamic groups come to power.
These two concerns led Church leaders in Egypt and Syria to oppose the call for political change in 2011. On the one hand, they feared that these popular uprisings would lead to the same type of collapse of the Church. the state than in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. was shot in 2003.
On the other hand, they believed that the main alternative to the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and Mubarak was probably the Islamic extremists, as they were the most organized opposition group. They feared that once in power, the Islamists would Islamize both state and society. The growing influence of Islamic groups in both countries has only confirmed these fears.