The Lebanese model: a multi-religious solution for Syria and Iraq?

The Lebanese model: a multi-religious solution for Syria and Iraq?

Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Credit: marviikad via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Credit: marviikad via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

.- The apostolic nuncio to Lebanon has said the country is a model of multi-religious coexistence that could help resolve violent sectarian conflicts in the Middle East.

“There are no majorities or minorities here, but each one is part of the whole,” Archbishop Gabriele Caccia told several Catholic reporters in a recent meeting at the nunciature in Jounieh, Lebanon.

“Even at this moment, if we look at a solution for Iraq and Syria, one group is dominating all the others,” he said. “Their inspiration could be Lebanon, where there is space for all communities.”

The archbishop said that Lebanon is “very open to the West.” On the other hand, it is also “very traditional in values.” He described this as a “sign of balance” amid its many contradictions.

The country’s population is divided unevenly between Maronite and other Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and Druze.

Archbishop Caccia said the country’s constitution rejects both laicism and theocracy. The state allows each community to behave according to its laws.

“This is a way to stay together,” he said. He described the country not as a “democracy of numbers” but a “democracy of common decisions” that reflects both Christian and non-Christian visions.

“There are no majorities or minorities here, but each one is part of the whole.”

Lebanon’s neighbor Syria has been engulfed in a civil war since early 2011, when demonstrations critical of president Bashar al-Assad were attacked by government forces that triggered further violence. More than 200,000 people have been killed, and 11 million displaced from their homes.

Assad, an Alawite Muslim, has drawn support from Shia Muslims and religious minorities including Christians, while his opposition has drawn support from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community. Hundreds of smaller militias with shifting loyalties also control small regions of Syria.

Iraq, for its part, has devolved into sectarian conflict and persecution following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The regional situation is further complicated by the rise of the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, both of which have support from some Sunni Muslims and are active in Iraq and Syria as well as small areas of Lebanon. The groups seek the restoration of a caliphate and the imposition of a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Archbishop Caccia said that the Islamic State, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, has tried to sow “discord” in the Lebanese army and claims that the army is supporting the Shia political party and militant group Hezbollah.

“They have tried to divide the army, because the army is the institution which keeps everyone together and is able to control the territory,” Archbishop Caccia said.

“Until now, it hasn’t worked because all political leaders were united to condemn this effort.”

The Lebanese army last week reestablished control of the northern city of Tripoli after clashes with militant supporters of the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. These supporters object to Hezbollah’s support for Assad in Syria.

Archbishop Caccia, who has served as nuncio to Lebanon since 2009, said the preservation of political stability in Lebanon is “vital” to providing an example to the region.

The nuncio cited St. John Paul II’s 1997 speech in Beirut, in which the Pope said Lebanon is “more than a country, it is a message,” a message of freedom and of coexistence.

The country’s constitutional power-sharing agreement requires the country’s prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim, the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, and the Speaker of the Parliament  a Shiite Muslim. Half of parliamentary deputies and ministerial positions are allocated to Christians.

Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, religious conversions are legal in Lebanon. The nuncio praised this respect for conscience that coexists in a system he said allows 18 different religious communities “to have a say in the country.”

Lebanon is “very complex, but beautiful,” the nuncio said. He said that it is very difficult to move in elite society without meeting people from different religious communities, especially in the capital of Beirut.

“There are family ties, because sometimes you have one family that has one branch Christian and one branch Muslim, but in the end there is the same family.”

Archbishop Caccia also noted the absence of a sitting president in Lebanon. The Christian community continues to be divided between two coalitions: the pro-Syrian government faction known as the March 8 Alliance and the anti-Syrian government faction known as the March 14 Alliance. They take their names from the dates of massive protests in March 2005.

The nuncio tied the lack of a president to the instability in the region.

He emphasized that most Lebanese, as well as major world powers, are intent on avoiding another civil war.

From 1975 to 1990, the country’s deadly civil war killed over 150,000 people. Scars of the war are still evident in Beirut, where bullet-marked buildings and burned out movie theaters still stand, locals say, as a reminder to avoid the destruction of war.

Archbishop Caccia said the country is “relatively peaceful and calm,” but that Pope Francis is nevertheless “very much worried” by the situation there.

Papal concerns include humanitarian issues related to helping the victims of conflict, and the arms trade supplying the fighting.

Archbishop Caccia stressed that atrocities are being committed against both Christians and Muslims.

He said the damage to Christians is “collateral damage” of the major policies of the great powers in the region.

The fate of Christians “is not something which really interests the big political agendas of the great nations.”

“Of course they have to do something, just in case, but it is not a priority.”

However, the nuncio stressed that Lebanese Christians have played the role of a bridge between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

He said that Lebanon has many single-religion villages of Shia, Sunni, Christians, and Druze.

“But in mixed villages, you will never find a village where there are Shia and Sunni. But you can find Sunni and Christian, Druze and Christian, Shia and Christian.”

“Christians have the possibility to talk, and to be a bridge, for everyone,” the nuncio said, noting Christians’ role in education and in providing a “vision of society.”

The presence of Christians in the Middle East is also vital for those who see freedom and democratic values as global solutions to political problems.

Archbishop Caccia said “it is more clever to help communities who are living in this part of the world and share this mentality, than to destroy and take out these people, (than) to try to convince the others from outside that they have to change (their) minds.”

Tags: Religious toleration, Pluralism