Thursday 28 January 2016

“Before the street feared the leader, now the leader fears the street”

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with archbishop* Maroun Lahham, patriarchal-vicar for Jordan, about the situation in the Middle East, five years after the Arab Spring. His grace also speaks about conversion of Jews and whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The news item, in Portuguese, can be found here.

You were archbishop of Tunis at the time of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, were you not? What were your feelings at the time?
It was a big surprise for everybody. The regime of Ben Ali was so strict, nobody even dared to pronounce his name. All of a sudden there was this popular explosion and we lived it with much enthusiasm. It took almost 18 days until Ben Ali left for Saudi Arabia, and he is still there. 

Now I cannot say that Tunisia became a paradise after this, but at least one positive point is that they discovered democracy, and they live a democracy and if you have followed events in Tunisia, they have a very good Constitution, moderate, democratic, the only one in the Arab world which guarantees liberties of creed, of conscience for everybody.

Egypt went through much turmoil, but seems to have stabilized. Is democracy possible in a country like Egypt?
It is possible but it takes time.

Democracy is not a gift, you have to acquire it. 

The Tunisian people are much better educated than the Egyptian and certainly than the Lybians. I think that democracy might work in Syria, if things settle down in Syria. In Egypt I think they still need a hard hand, but even in Egypt, some sense of democracy exists. For instance, Mubarak left, but when the Muslim Brothers took power they were expelled by the people, which is a sign of democracy. 

So something positive occurred, even in Egypt, even though they have not reached a Democracy like they have in Tunisia.

And then, of course, we have Syria… Can you foresee an end to the war there?
Yes. I am optimistic by nature and also by faith. So I think that an end will come, but that depends also, and especially, on the Super powers, because in politics there are no values or ethics, there is only interests, so the USA has interests in Syria, Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran. When these superpowers reach a solution, I hope...

Because the Syrian people are tired, Daesh is on the defensive, I think that a superpower would give a mortal coup to Daesh the moment they feel a threat in their own countries. You see the reaction of France after the bombings of the 13th of November, I hope not, but I think it could happen in Germany, England and France. I hope not in Portugal... But that will force them to act, because they fire will have come to their home.

The situation in Syria has made many more people aware of the split between Sunni and Shia. Is this the real conflict in the Middle East, more than a division between Islam and the West?
No. The real problem is not there. 

The real problem is that the superpowers do not want any Arab country to become strong and to have an effective role in the politics of the Middle East. 

In each Arab country there is a sensitive point you can't touch. In Syria its Sunni and Shiite. In other places its Christian against Muslim. In other places, palestinians and Jordanians. So this is the week point. The superpowers try to touch in order to create problems.

Sunnis and Shia lived together peacefully for centuries in Syria, in Iraq. They never reached the point of killing each other. It all depends on the big players. 

Jordan plays an important role in the refugee crisis, with close to 700 thousand refugees or asylum seekers. How difficult is the situation?
It is a real problem. The Jordanian population is up to 9 million people. Six million are Jordanians and three million are refugees. So imagine 30% of your population are refugees? 

First this is a human problem, second it is a social problem and third it is a moral problem.

A human problem because you are dealing with people who have lost everything, who suffered, who were persecuted for their political options or their creed, or their faith. So we have to work on that.

A social problem, because we have at least 1.5 million Syrians in Jordan. They are not allowed to work, but they work in the black market. And problem is that Syrians are much more practical at manual work than Jordanians, and though they are jobless, they accept to be paid much less than Jordanians. So they work better and they are paid less, this is very good for a business man. So that makes a social problem, with Jordanians who feel that their jobs are lost and stolen by Syrians.

Finally there is also a moral problem, because some of the Syrian families, pushed by poverty, accept to mary - I don't want to say sell - their young girls, 14 years old, to some millionaire of the Emirates for a hundred dollars for three months, so you imagine the trauma for the girl and the mother. This never occurred before in Jordan. And to talk about "closed houses" [brothels], these things never existed in Jordan, now with the arrival of Syrians we have many of these. We are not used to this but the human nature is what it is.

In Europe the influx of refugees has caused many debates and disagreements. What is your view, as a Christian from the Middle East? What message for the Europeans?
The message is the message proclaimed always by Pope Francis. We have to welcome people.

I understand, if I put myself on the side of the European countries, especially after what happened in Germany, in Cologne on new years, we have to be cautious. But if 95% are really poor people who need to work and to have a better future, it is enough to have 2% of infiltrators to cause problems, and that leaves you scandalized and shocked, and say who can oblige me to take people in where there is a percentage, even if a little one, of fanatics who come with ideological thoughts and choices. 

I understand both positions, but from a Human point of view I think we have to check who is coming in, but we can't close our borders.  

This crisis has earlier roots, but became much more serious after the so-called Arab Spring. Five years after the first signs of these revolutions, what do you make of them?
Initially the Arab Spring started very well. As you said, there is stability in Tunisia and Egypt. But when it arrived in Lybia, that was the end of the World, because Khadaffi never formed a state or a people, so there are tribes fighting each other and ruled them by force, while in Tunisia they were educated. 

I think one positive point of the Arab Spring, in all these countries, is that the street no longer fears the governments. Whereas before if the King or the President said 2+2 is 10, you say 10, if not 11. Now its the leaders who fear the street, and this is a positive point. 

Now democracy is also a process that may take one or two generations. But one thing is sure, Syria will not return to what it was before, nor will Iraq, or Egypt, nor Lybia, although Lybia may be the last to stabilise.

We know that conversion of Muslims to Christianity is a very difficult subject in the Middle East, and other Muslim countries. As Patriarchal-Vicar for Jordan, how do you deal with issues like this?
We are very cautious, first of all, to be sure of the good intentions of the people who come and say that they want to convert. Because sometimes they may be sent by security people to test our good will. That is why I told my priests, if any Muslim comes to you, saying that he wants to convert, you send him to the bishop and I will have the first conversation with him. Many of them, when they hear the name of the bishop, don't come anymore. 

Others come. So the first thing they do is ask some questions and I put before them the difficulties they will face if they become Christians, socially, as a family, in terms of religion, for the marriage, for the children who must be always Muslims. Some of them when they hear all of these dangers, they cease, and don't come anymore. 

Others continue, and when they continue and we are sure of their good intentions, I tell one priest or another to start with them a process of Cathechesis, which can take one or two years. Then I always tell them that if they want to be baptized and you want to stay in Jordan you have to live your faith as the early Christians, hidden. 

Others seek a visa for Germany or other European countries and go there, where they are free to practice. Others, if there are problems to be baptized in Jordan, we send them to Lebanon, where they are more free.

So it is not easy, but the principle is that you cannot say no to somebody who is sincere.

So there are people in Jordan at the moment living their faith in secret?

In Tunisia, on the other hand, there is complete freedom to convert. But Tunisia and Algeria are the only countries where there is no problem for a Muslim, except from his family, but according to the Constitution he is free to convert.

Recently two issues have been widely debated. First, the issue of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a Christian who has lived all his life in Muslim dominated lands, what is your opinion on this?
Yes, it is the same God. In our liturgy we use Allah as well. It is a another way of seeing God, we see him as a family, as a trinity, while they see him as one, but basically it is the same. I am with Pope Francis.

Syrian refugees in Jordan
Also, the Pope’s recent visit to the Synagogue in Rome raised once more the issue of whether Christians should try to convert Jews or whether they already have a salvific covenant with God, and therefore there should not be specific missions to the Jews. What is your opinion, and what is the standard practice of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem?
Firstly, we do not try to evangelize the Jews in Israel, it is very hard. Jesus himself tried, and he failed. Unless we evangelize by our witness, by our life.

Secondly, this famous document which was published on the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, yes, they repeat more than 100 times that the covenant of God is irrevocable. The mere fact that they repeat it over 100 times means that they don't believe it.

When you have to insist on something so many times, there is something wrong. I understand that the west wants to repair the bad history with the Jews, but you cannot use the Bible as an instrument for political or historical issues.

If you go to the Bible, sure there is this sentence, but there are others which say the opposite.

It is a kind of Western theology, based on historical events and political events and psychological complexes, while theology, to be a true theology must be free, like the Holy Spirit, from any pressure here and there. So for me this is not really theology.

*His grace was previously archbishop of Tunis, and retains the references of archbishop.  

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