A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

CHRISTIANS IN LEBANON FACE CHALLENGES OF ISLAMIZATION

Syrian Catholic Bishop Melki Speaks of Ecumenical and Interreligious Concerns and Successes

MUNICH, JAN 18 2000 (ZENIT).

Ever since Jesus wandered through the region of Tyre and Sidon, there have been Christians in Lebanon. The Acts of the Apostles mentions Christian communities in these coastal cities in the time of the Apostle Paul. Nonetheless, today those Christians suffer from an increasing effort at Islamization on the part of the Syrians who occupy the northern part of the country.

The Christians of Lebanon are a model of ecumenical cooperation without parallel in the world. Orthodox and Catholics (mostly Maronite, Syrian, and Byzantine rites) work and live together in harmony. Bishop Joseph Flavien Melki of the Syrian Catholic Church was interviewed on the situation in Lebanon by "Kirche in Not" during a recent visit to Munich.

  • Bishop Melki, how free are Christians in Lebanon?

BISHOP MELKI: The national agreement that Christians and Moslems signed shortly after the 1990 civil war guarantees an equal participation in governmental power. Both religious conviction and religious practice are free. This religious freedom distinguishes Lebanon from all other Arab countries. This is why, during his visit to Lebanon in September 1998, Pope John Paul II said, "Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message and an example both for the East and the West." Lebanon could be a model for the other countries of the region.

  • Does the constitution have an effect on day-to-day life?

BISHOP MELKI: Both religious groups concentrated themselves in their own regions. In the big cities, they mix, but live together as good neighbors. In work and business life, they usually get along well. At the important religious holidays we visit one another, wisely leaving religious questions to the side. However, the political relations between the religions are becoming more and more tense, since Muslims, when they work as a group, try in every way possible to make public life conform to Islam.

  • Are there current examples of this?

BISHOP MELKI: Five times a day, the loudspeakers call out the Islamic call to prayer, at louder and louder volumes, with the length being left up to the judgment of the Muezzin [prayer caller]. Even on the street, there is Islamization due to the captions and political signs, posters with slogans, Muslim symbols, oversized portraits of Muslim religious leaders, and Muslim propaganda. Mosques and Qu’ran schools are built at the important locations of the city. This is all financed by oil-producing Arab countries.

  • How does the Lebanese government react to all this?

BISHOP MELKI: The administration closes its eyes to this "de facto" Islamization, in order to protect against worse. But Muslims are penetrating into various sectors of the administration and pulling one area or another in their direction—to the disadvantage of Christians. I would especially like to point out the Islamization program in the schools, and also that of the public media. The Qu’ran is broadcast several times a day on public radio. The Shiites are allowed to have their own radio and television station. One could name even more serious examples of the creeping Islamization of Lebanon.

  • With these developments, how do Christians see their future in Lebanon?

BISHOP MELKI: Lebanese Christians are uneasy. Alongside the already-mentioned "de facto" Islamization, there is in fact a massive immigration of foreign Muslim population. In this way an enormous demographic inequality has been created in favor of the Muslims, who today represent 55% of the population. For this reason, many Christians have already left the country, and others fear that due to this emigration, they will soon have to live in a non-Christian environment and be forced to sell their real property to Muslims. Our Church would like to found a fund to buy these properties, but we don’t have enough money.

What threat does emigration pose for Christianity in Lebanon?

BISHOP MELKI: Emigration threatens to wipe out Christianity in the Near East. The number of Christians who left the country between 1975 and 1995 is estimated at 850,000; the number of Muslims who left, 500,000. This problem is caused by the insecurity in the country, the weakness of the central authority, and the fascination that many Christians have with America. The growth of an extremist and bellicose Islam is already pressing young Christians to leave the country. The Christians who leave easily insert themselves into the new environment that accepts them; they feel at home there and never return to their homeland to live out their old age. If you consider that the birthrate of Muslims is four times higher than that of Christians, then you will understand the serious wounds caused by emigration.

  • What would the consequences be?

BISHOP MELKI: If the balance of Christianity were to empty one day, the loss would be irreparable. The Near East would find itself less rich in Christian values: values of freedom, democracy, and religious pluralism. The Christian presence, especially in Lebanon, has contributed to making this country an example of cooperation, intellectual power, and human development.

  • Is there a Christian-Islamic dialogue?

BISHOP MELKI: A true dialogue, intended to destroy prejudices, set aside misunderstandings, and respect the faith of others, began some thirty years ago. Pope John Paul II has always supported Christian-Islamic dialogue. Corresponding to his wishes, Christians have formed workgroups including both Christians and Moslems. Nonetheless, one must admit that theological dialogue is limited to a certain elite, and that the mass of the Muslim people are often controlled by religious leaders who are more at home in politics than in theological thought.

  • What is discussed in these workgroups?

BISHOP MELKI: The point of departure of the conversation is the common faith in God and our common moral convictions. We are one with the Muslims in the faith in the immortality of the soul and in a certain understanding of God as Almighty and Merciful Creator, but not in the understanding of God as Father and as Love. We share certain fundamental values with them, such as respect for human life, respect for the family, and the sense of social justice. In any case, the differences in the teachings about the divinity of the person of Christ and his redemptive death are unbridgeable. Muslims deny the authenticity of the Gospels, the fact of the Christ’s crucifixion, and the mysteries of Christian dogmas.

The thing that makes Christian-Islamic dialogue so difficult, however, is not the differences of opinion on religious questions, but a few errors that are widespread among Muslims, such as the equivalence of political power and religion. Islamic religious leaders blame eastern Christians for political injustices that were committed by European countries that consider themselves Christian, even though they are really secularized.

  • In your opinion, where should Lebanon go from here?

BISHOP MELKI: Christians of the Near East have fixed their gaze on Lebanese Christians, who carry out a strong influence on Arabic society. They are counting on a democratic Lebanon, that is open for other cultures and religions in a true and respectful dialogue, which in the end will secure an existence in freedom and dignity. For the future of all eastern Christians depends primarily on what happens to Lebanon.

  • This certainty has already led to a coming together of your Syrian Catholic Church with the Syrian Orthodox Church, which goes way beyond what is normally the rule between Catholics and Orthodox...

BISHOP MELKI: We see the Syrian Catholic and Syrian Orthodox Church as one tree with two branches. The Syrian-Antiochene Church had already separated itself from Rome after the Council of Chalcedon (451), because it did not accept the teaching of the Council, that Jesus has two natures, one human and one divine. It only accepted the divine nature. In 1662 a part of that Church accepted the teaching of Rome and recognized the Pope; since then it is called "Syrian Catholic." The other part of the Syrian-Antiochene Church is now called "Syrian Orthodox."

  • Now both of the Churches have signed an agreement that serves as an example for Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism. How was that possible?

BISHOP MELKI: Before this agreement, which was made after a conference of all the Catholic and Orthodox Patriarchs, it was impossible to marry a person of the other Church, to receive Sacraments in the other Church, even to attend Mass there. Be clear about what that means! We live together, Catholics and Orthodox, in the same villages. If some Catholic girl couldn’t find a Catholic husband and found an Orthodox man, how could the parents prevent that? In the end the parents had to agree, because there is another, much greater danger: we also live together with Muslims. Muslim men come and take wives by force and carry them off. Thus today we accept mixed marriages, even when they are celebrated by the Orthodox. We apply no other conditions. Since religion can be taught even in the public schools, Catholic and Orthodox Patriarchs are also trying to publish a common catechism.

  • Do you want to go farther?

BISHOP MELKI: We would love to. After our last Synod in May, the Patriarch asked me to write a letter. In that letter we state that we follow the same traditions and the same forms of prayer. We should work together and consider together what we can do in the future for unity. I myself went to Damascus with the letter and met with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch. He said that he had already been with the Pope and that we are one in all theological questions. However, he only wants to agree to our request if the Coptic Patriarch also agrees. Up to now, that has not happened. ZE00011821

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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