The Church and the "Arab Awakening"
This page provides some background to the "Arab Awakening" (also known as the "Arab Spring") and particularly how Middle Eastern Churches are responding to these major changes affecting the region.*
Background and News
The beginning of the "Arab Spring" is said to be December 17, 2010, when a young, unemployed Tunisian man by the name Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself after officials had blocked his attempts to make a living selling vegetables without a permit.
Bouazizi’s action reflected not only his hopelessness and desperation, but the anger of the majority of Tunisians. Hundreds of thousands filled the streets of the capital of Tunisia in protest against a corrupt regime. A few weeks later, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali resigned and flew to exile in Saudi Arabia after he had ruled Tunisia for nearly a quarter of a century. The downfall of Ben Ali inspired pro-democracy activists across the Arab world and beyond. Within weeks, similar protests erupted in almost all Middle Eastern countries.
While the entire Arab World has been undergoing major changes, it would be a mistake to assume that all countries in the region are going through the same experience. Each country has been, and continues to be, a unique situation with unique problems and circumstances. The grievances of the people differ from one country to another and rulers have responded in different ways as well.
The events of the "Arab Awakening" are likely to continue for a few more years. Analysts suggest that 2011 may have been only the beginning of a long period of transition in the history of the Middle East. What is certain, however, is the peoples’ desire for greater freedoms and an end to corruption; and their increasing awareness of their rights and their willingness to struggle to attain these rights.
The rapid changes in the Middle East present many challenges to all minorities in the region, including Christians. Yet, Christians in each country have responded to the "Arab Awakening" in different ways. In Egypt, thousands of Christians participated in the revolutionary events in their country; while for others, the uncertainty of a new government and a new constitution provoke anxiety and fear. In Syria, violence between the regime and opposition groups has caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries. Christians throughout the Middle East, once again, find themselves faced with uncertainty and new realities.
General information about the "Arab Awakening"
PC(USA) 220th General Assembly: For Human Rights and Civic Freedom: Movements for Democratic Change in the Arab World
As early as three years before the 18-day revolution that started on January 25, 2011 and ended with the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a few small groups of secular pro-democracy Egyptians were already training in nonviolent resistance strategies. Egyptians had been increasingly frustrated at dictatorial rule, and wanted to restore a sense of national pride. Younger generations were angry at high levels of unemployment and poverty, blatant corruption, and increasing opulence among the political elite. The success of the Tunisian revolution provided a spark for an uprising in Egypt where conditions had been ripe for a massive uprising.
Many doubted the protestors’ ability to loosen the regime’s strong grip on the country, but as hundreds of thousands of people joined the demonstrations throughout the country (possibly more than a million), it became clear that Mubarak could not hold onto power for much longer. That’s when the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood seized the opportunity and joined the secular pro-democracy protestors. The army sided with the people and betrayed Mubarak, and he had no choice but to step down. Political observers now think that the army’s betrayal of Mubarak revealed a crack in the relationship between the former president and the army’s chiefs of staff.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) assumed control of Egypt, promising to effect a quick transition to democracy. However, it wasn’t long before the people realized that they could not entrust their freedom and aspiration for democracy to the army, as Scaf continued to brutally suppress dissent. Political analysts suspect a backdoor deal between Scaf and the Brotherhood to coexist and share leadership of the country.
In March 2011, constitutional changes were approved to pave the way for early elections. By February 2012, parliamentary elections were completed and Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood and the more hardliner Salafists) won a majority of both houses by a wide margin. Presidential elections are planned for June 2012.
Throughout these revolutionary events, thousands of Egyptian Christians participated alongside Egyptian Muslims in protests, and later in efforts to rebuild their civil society. Although there has been periodic violence against Christians, such as the burning of a few church buildings, that did not deter them from claiming their rightful place in society. Undoubtedly, the uncertainty of what a new government and a new constitution might mean for them has provoked anxiety and even fear for many Christians. Yet, it seems that a large number of Christians have chosen to be proactive and play a role in shaping their new society. In general, the institutional church has been slower to embrace the revolution than on the congregational, grassroots level.
Following the fall of the Mubarak regime, several local congregations hosted public forums and workshops to discuss the role of religion in civil society. These occasions featured both Christian and Muslim speakers. Several congregations also organized volunteers to help rebuild damaged public buildings and institutions that were damaged or looted during the revolution.
The Bible Society of Egypt conducted a campaign called “Rebuild Egypt.” Through this campaign, the Bible Society placed ads on the front page of Egypt’s four major daily newspaper listing biblical values as the building blocks needed for the country, and prepared banners to be placed on the outside of more than 100 churches in Egypt and a few highway billboards. The Society also distributed 300,000 Nehemiah Scripture selections which challenge Christians to participate in the rebuilding of the nation, as well as a leaflet of “Comfort and Hope” encouraging people to believe that this revolution, though a real surprise to many, was not a surprise to God and that God is still in control. The Bible Society had similar ads for the electronic social media (facebook, YouTube, twitter, etc.).
Syria’s “Arab Awakening” events started in March 2011 in the city of Deraa and spread rapidly throughout the country. People took to the streets spontaneously, and were quickly joined by dissidents – at first mostly secular, intellectual liberals – who had been planning a revolt for a few years. Peaceful demonstrations were calling for political freedom, an end to corruption, action on poverty and the lifting of an emergency law. The Assad regime’s response included promises of reforms (which were perceived by some as empty slogans, while others welcomed the promises) on the one hand, and brutal suppression of protests on the other hand.
The atmosphere of protests and brutal government response provided an opportunity for several opposition groups to not only join in the protests, but to hijack what started as peaceful calls for reforms. These opposition groups (some heavily armed) include Islamists as well as secular groups and Army defectors. Different opposition groups are supported by different Middle Eastern countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and other forces such as Al Qaeda. Some reports have documented the smuggling of arms via Lebanon to insurgents and militia in Syria. Two opposition groups – the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Free Army – have been given refuge in Turkey. The Assad regime is supported by many in Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Assad is from the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shia Islam) and still has many supporters, especially among minorities. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas. Clashes between opposition groups and the regime in some cities in Syria continue to intensify to dangerous levels, particularly in the city of Homs. More recently, a few small towns have come under the control of armed groups. Some analysts are warning of an all out civil war in Syria. Innocent civilians, including Christians, are in fear and suffering. A few thousand have fled to neighboring countries, and more have become internally displaced. The United Nations reported that as many as 7000 Syrians have been killed, including security forces and Army personnel.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on the Assad regime, but Russia and China have blocked a Western-sponsored draft resolution at the UN. Instead, Russia and China support a mediated domestic political process and cessation of violence by all perpetrators in Syria, and back Assad’s call for reforms. The international community’s efforts to secure a peaceful resolution to the crisis have failed thus far. Interferences by other Middle Eastern and Western countries have exacerbated the situation.
Syrians are bewildered as to why they are made to pay for an international desire to isolate Iran. They fear outside interference would fuel a civil war that could turn into a sectarian war. The Lebanese civil war just a generation ago is still vivid in their memory. They also dread the possibility of a similar outcome to that of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. In a meeting of the heads of churches of Syria on 15 December, the patriarchs "rejected all sorts of foreign intervention from any foreign party" and "called for the lifting of the sanctions."
On February 23, the Secretary-Generals of the UN and the League of Arab States appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a Joint Special Envoy on the Syrian crisis. Mr. Annan’s task is to consult broadly and engage with all relevant interlocutors within and outside Syria in order to end the violence and the humanitarian crisis, and facilitate a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.
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Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli military occupation have been taking place for decades. However, inspired by the revolutions taking place throughout the Middle East, Palestinians used Facebook to call for mass protests along Israeli boarders to highlight one particular issue – refugee rights. Demonstrations began on May 15, 2011 to commemorate The Nakba (the destruction of many Palestinian villages and dispersion of hundreds of thousands of civilians in 1948). Various groups of people attempted to approach or breach Israel's borders from the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan to enact their return to historic Palestine. At least a dozen of the peaceful demonstrators were killed. Demonstrations continued on subsequent days.
Even prior to the events of 2011, a few other Palestinian initiatives indicated a “spring” in the way people, rather than political leaders, have been seeking to achieve independence. One such example is Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth. The document says:
“...we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity …true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples. This document … seeks to be prophetic in addressing things as they are without equivocation and with boldness, in addition it puts forward ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and all forms of discrimination as the solution that will lead to a just and lasting peace. The document also demands that all peoples, political leaders and decision-makers put pressure on Israel and take legal measures in order to oblige its government to put an end to its oppression and disregard for the international law.”
Another indication of a new “spring” in the Palestinian quest for independence is an increase in nonviolent civil disobedience activities. See for example the writings of Mazin Qumsiyeh at his Popular Resistance blog, or his book Popular Resistance in Palestine: A history of Hope and Empowerment.
The CBS News television program 60 Minutes aired a report on Christians living in the Middle East on Sunday, 22 April 2012. Included in the report are comments by Mitri Raheb, Palestinian pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and a key partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a mention of the Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth document.
Some observers say that the Arab Spring earnestly began in June 2009 when hundreds of thousands of Iranians spontaneously poured into the streets of Iranian cities disputing the results of the presidential election. (Though Iran is Persian – not Arab – in people and culture, it is an “Islamic Republic” as its official name declares, and a major player in the Middle East.)
Most Iranians believe that their 1979 revolution that deposed the Western-backed Shah was in fact successful in installing a self-rule government, though with persistent repression. The 2009 protests in Iran were more about a contested election, not regime change, per se. The protests broke out spontaneously and gained momentum through planning on phone texts, Twitter and Facebook, but these avenues were intercepted again and again, making communication difficult.
From the first night, however, a device from the 1979 revolution was re-deployed. All over the capital and eventually in other cities, as night set in, people went up to their flat roofs and connected to each other by calling out the phrase “God is Great!” (Allah-o-Akbar). This no-tech communication method connected the “Green Movement” of the protestors in 2009 to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and kept religion in the equation, meaning regime change was not the issue.
The nightly rooftop ritual of the Green Movement kept the protests alive even as government forces began the crackdown on freedom of speech and protest. If there were enough people on the rooftops at night, it usually meant another day of protests to follow. Since Twitter was new, the government was not able to keep up with it. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, joined the rooftop chants as powerful new tools in the struggle for freedom of expression, fair elections and representative democracy. Nevertheless, the brutal practices of the government were successful in stamping out the movement and the call for a new election.
Rallies broke out again on February 14, 2011 when thousands of people heeded calls by opposition leaders and gathered in the streets of Tehran in solidarity with pro-democracy protests across the Middle East. And, once again, security forces cracked down on the protest. Smaller rallies were held in subsequent days. However, the authorities have succeeded in preventing any more large demonstrations from taking place, and placed two opposition leaders under house arrest.
The small and beleaguered Christian communities in Iran did not take part in the protests and generally does not participate in political activities.
Long before the recent revolutions in the Arab World, the impact of religion on statecraft has been a critical matter. Now it has gained greater urgency. Most crucial among the emerging issues is the area of legislation, and how it must be transformed in the face of current realities, particularly as it impacts minority rights. The place, status and role of the Christian communities in the Arab world deserve particular attention. Some Middle Eastern churches are taking a more proactive role in creating a vision for the fulfillment of the aspirations of the people of God and the benefit of all citizens in society:
* A well-known Lebanese professor and journalist by the name of Samir Kassir wrote several articles and books in which he predicted a “Spring” in different Middle Eastern countries. Kassir thought that people throughout the region would soon rise up against dictatorial rulers and corrupt regimes. He documented a number of events throughout the Middle East that pointed to a ground swell that was about to erupt in protests. Kassir was assassinated in 2005, but he had coined the phrase “Arab Spring,” and a few years later, his prediction became reality.