On 8 January, the ‘Rassemblement des chrétiens indépendants’ (Independent Christian Rally or ICR) was founded in Harissa. Its creation is something of a paradox. The term ‘independent’ fits it well because it has few major figures. However, most of its other members were in fact at one time or another connected politically to Syria’s embattled regime.
At face value, this group, seemingly staking out a neutral spot on a political spectrum otherwise dominated by pro- and anti-Syrian camps embodied by the March 8 and March 14 movements, appears to be an attempt by some old politicians to find a place in the sun at a time of political turmoil.
Does this group have no future, as some analysts suggest? If its challenges were exclusively domestic, the answer would be clear, immediate and unequivocal. As a grouping of individuals with little in common, held together by a desire for political relevancy, the ICR is not likely to make any major impact as a ‘third way’ on Lebanon’s political landscape.
However, its aims are loftier. It wants to become the political embodiment of a vision of Lebanon inspired by the views of the Maronite patriarch about the role Christians must play in Lebanon and the region. For the Maronite patriarch, the opposition between the March 8 and March 14 movements reflects a split between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shias, which in turn reflects a wider division across the Middle East. Conversely, for the head of the Maronite Church, Christians must be engaged as peacemakers, even though the Sunni-Shia divide is one of the causes of mass Christian exodus from Iraq and a major factor in instability in the region as well as an element of emigration for Eastern Christians.
The ICR, which plans to open its first offices, will present its action programme to the patriarch this Friday, including an ambitious initiative directed at other major spiritual centres, Sunni al-Azhar (Egypt) and Shia Qom (Iran) and Najaf (Iraq)in order to defuse conflicts inside Islam. For his part, the patriarch is working on ways to direct the future course of Arab revolutions and set them on a pluralist path. Of course, there are no guarantees that such initiatives will ever succeed. In fact, their underlying political bases will remain precarious if there are no counterparts among political forces in Arab-Islamic countries.
More importantly, such local initiative, inspired by Bkerke, is part of a broader effort to build up, in some cases establish, democracy and respect for pluralism in Lebanon and the region. Recent visits to Lebanon by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu show that what happens in Lebanon cannot be divorced from developments in Syria.
In Beirut during his three-day visit to Lebanon, Ban Ki-moon told President Assad, “Stop killing your people.” At the same time, he expressed concern for the fate of Syrians asylum seekers in Lebanon, 5,000 of whom are stranded in a number of Sunni villages along the country’s northern border. By contrast, Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian Lebanese groups slammed the secretary general for using Lebanon as a platform to speak to Syria.
However sincere Ban Ki-moon’s remarks may be, his statement and those against him indicate that Lebanon’s fate is all the more tied to that of Syria’s revolution. Yet Lebanon’s political parties reiterated reservations expressed by the Lebanese president, namely that Lebanon will not be a tool against Syria, especially in setting up a buffer zone on the northern border.
During his visit to Lebanon, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tried to win over Christian public opinion by saying that Christians should not pay the price for the Arab spring, noting that the “region belonged to all its confessions”.
Such reassuring words were not said only for the benefit of Lebanon’s Christians, as one might expect, but also for Syrian Christians as a way to drive a wedge between them and the regime of President Assad so that they would talk with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Here too, Lebanon is being used as platform against the Baa‘thist regime
Yet, despite its domestic divisions, Lebanon will not fall into the trap. Its official neutrality vis-à-vis developments in Syria will not be shaken. Unlike the West’s simpleminded approach to the issue, Lebanon can see further down the road.
In fact, a European diplomat in post in Damascus said that whilst the Arab spring might herald the dawn of democracy, it also carries the seeds for a harsh condemnation of Western policies in the region, especially the blind support the United States and some western democracies provide Israel.
In order to understand the significance of the awakening of Arab peoples, a long view is needed. Despite the support of Western democracies, Arabs will not shy away from passing harsh judgement on them.