On Arab Christianity

Interview With Lebanese Presidential Hopeful

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ROME, JUNE 11, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A candidate for the Lebanese presidency says that the country needs a balanced government, which includes the participation of Christians.



General Michel Aoun, 72, a Lebanese military and political leader, came to Rome last week to visit Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Vatican secretary for relations with states.

Aoun returned to his country just two years ago, after spending 15 years exiled in Paris. He has become one of the leading figures in the complex Lebanese political scene.

As the leader of the opposition-aligned Free Patriotic Movement, he is a presidential hopeful.

In this interview with ZENIT, Aoun reflects on the role of Christianity in the Middle East.

Q: General, you are the leader of one of the biggest parliamentary factions with an Arab Christian majority. What does this visit to the Vatican mean to you?

Auon: To me, the Vatican is the supreme spiritual reference point in the heart of the Catholic Church. We can also say that it is an important moral authority in the Christian world in general, Catholic or not. The Vatican's positions are influential at an ethical and moral level. And we, as Maronites, are part of the Catholic world.

When Lebanon goes through crises or challenges, we find it important to keep the appropriate Vatican authorities informed of the situation, especially since the media coverage sometimes reflects the interests of those covering the news and not the reality lived by the Lebanese people.

From this arises the importance of my coming here in person, to have a dialogue and discuss with [Vatican] authorities and get this image clear. We certainly met with people equipped with a critical sense, and therefore able to discern what is true and what is false. This means that the Church's position, be it a moral question, or advice or something else, is more useful and objective.

Q: Given your faith experience, is it possible to speak of Arab Christianity? Could we say that such a thing exists?

Aoun: Arab Christianity was one of the first forms of Christianity that expanded throughout the Arab peninsula, Mesopotamia and even to India.

There are multiple traces of a Christian culture that can be seen in northern Syria even today; and recorded Arab history tells us that Christians were widely spread. There are remains of only a small number of Christian Arabs but, historically speaking, they were present throughout the Arab peninsula.

Q: What is the present role of Christian Arabs in modern-day Lebanon?

Aoun: The Christians of Lebanon comprise Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics and other confessions. Setting aside the fact that there are five patriarchs that bear the name of "Patriarch of Antioch," we know that the first Christians and the Good News came out of Antioch.

In my book, I recall the Christian presence in the East, our historic roots, and the fact that we are not immigrants but authentic inhabitants established in the East 662 years before the birth of Islam. There is some confusion between Westerners regarding what is considered Arab. Everything that is Arab is not necessarily Muslim.

The Arab race includes all regions. Regarding the Arab civilization, it is the Christians that have worked to keep it alive, and the ones that have preserved the Arab language. They were among the most illustrious scribes, and in the time of the Caliphate, the court poets were Christians -- for example, the poet Al-Akhtal.

Arabs form part of the Eastern world, thus the importance of the postsynodal apostolic exhortation written by Pope John Paul II, and published in May 1997, in which he speaks of the Christians of Lebanon and the East.

On the other hand, the Christians of Lebanon these days serve as a reference point for the Middle East; and the model of their relationships serve as an assurance and guarantee of the Christian presence in the rest of the Arab countries of the region.

Q: In Islam there is an intimate link between the political and the social. Do you expect Lebanon to someday separate politics from religion?

Auon: As a political movement, we seek to separate the political sphere from the religious one. Lebanon has known periods -- like the Ottoman War, which was one of the most cruel and unjust -- during which people were forced to "affiliate" with a particular religion, under a policy of marginalization and persecution.

The situation started to improve after World War I, when Lebanon became a French protectorate and later gained its independence thanks to the national pact. At that time the Christian influence in the social life was notable and Christian elements were active in the political life until the events of the '70s -- the civil confrontation between Christians and Muslims -- 1975-1980 -- when the political equilibrium was shaken and Christians were marginalized.

Lebanon can't survive without a balanced government and the participation of everyone, which includes Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. Michel Chiha -- may he rest in peace -- one of the most prominent figures who understood well the Lebanese reality, said, "Whoever tries to eliminate religion in Lebanon is trying in reality to eliminate Lebanon."