Monsignor Robert Stern, a Church expert on the Middle East, is thoroughly “optimistic” about the possibility of a more democratic and pluralistic Middle East.
“I’m very optimistic that will emerge but, okay, God alone knows. I do feel that there’s great hope, though,” he tells CNA while on a visit to Rome.
For the past 22 years this Bronx-based priest has been head of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, making him one of the most well-informed people on the region.
In his view, the key to change in the Middle East is summed up in one word – Egypt.
“I think Egypt is critical because it’s the biggest country in the Middle East and has the biggest Christian presence. And I think the way Egypt goes will ultimately affect how everything goes in that region -- even the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
Egypt is in a state of flux, following the popular uprising earlier this year which ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Now it faces the novelty of democratic elections later this year, with the possibility of Islamist groups doing well at the polls.
Despite that, Msgr. Stern says Christians should learn to trust the common sense of the ordinary Egyptian citizen.
“I don’t think the average Egyptian has animosity towards Christians.”
To make his point, Msgr. Stern recalls his recent stay with a typical Egyptian family in the city of Alexandria. The head of the household was a very devout Muslim, he recalled. But at the same time, “he was studying the New Testament, the teaching of Jesus. He is also very active with the local Christian parish as part of inter-religious activities.”
“That’s a piece of Egyptian life which is real, but you don’t hear about it - this living together in a fraternal way,” Msgr. Stern remarks.
“There are a lot of Muslim voices like that. It’s not all terrorists and extremists and fanatics. Maybe because I’ve had the privilege of encountering so many of them over the years in so many places I just have a greater confidence that ultimately the vast majority of very good people will speak up and not let the crazies run the show.”
In fact, Msgr. Stern says that the digital age of communications is making it increasingly difficult for such Middle Eastern “crazies” to incite a fear of Christianity and the West.
“I think what is happening now is that modern communications are joining these worlds and they’re beginning to intermesh.”
That dynamic, says Msgr. Stern, means that even radical Muslim groupings in Egypt now have to tone down their rhetoric, including the traditionally Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
“People change and evolve and the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1940s or the 60s or the 80s is not the Muslim Brotherhood of today.”
Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly recognized political party—the Freedom and Justice Party—recently selected a Christian to fill their second most important leadership slot, in a bid to appear more inclusive to the Egyptian electorate.
Msgr. Stern sums up his observation on the current turmoil in the Middle East with a metaphor.
“To plant a new crop you’ve got to plow – and plowing is very disruptive. It’s tearing apart what is left of last year’s harvest and totally disrupting the soil - but that’s how you plant new seed.”
“That’s the optimistic view. So in that sense, yes, this is an Arab springtime for both Christians and Muslims.”