In a month when a forest fire of protest swept around the globe, the frailty of healthy political debate – especially in the Middle East’s emerging democracies – was plain to see. Christians who long avoided political engagement are finding their voice too. But what should distinguish it? Our contributor offers some answers.
June 2013 has been a month of protests – both in the Middle East and around the world. From Brazil to Bosnia, Bulgaria to Ethiopia, and Turkey to Egypt, large numbers of people took to the streets, demanding reform and accountability.
In Egypt, increasing frustration with the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood government that signally failed to take Egypt forward triggered a large wave of protests. Within an unexpectedly short period of time, the military stepped in, toppling an elected government and appointing an interim government, promising constitutional reform and elections soon.
Meanwhile, the military detained President Morsi and arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood figures. In response, the members of the Brotherhood hit the streets, vowing not to submit and pledging to give their lives if necessary. In one incident, more than 50 of them died, apparently at the hands of the army.
In Turkey, heavy-handed police intervention on a small protest against the redesigning of Istanbul’s Taksim square triggered a much larger, albeit chaotic, series of protests in the city and around the country. The government response was equally chaotic, fuelling further pro- and anti-government protests.
In the process, all of the cultural, social and political fault-lines of Turkey surfaced once again. At least five Turkish citizens and a police officer died during the month of protests, hundreds were injured and thousands suffered from exposure to tear gas.
As changes across the region have given citizens a new-found freedom of expression and the confidence to demand more without fear of their governments, Christians too find themselves politically empowered. Both in Egypt and Turkey, Christians took part in the protests, taking one side or another, voicing their own views or those of their communities.
Nothing can be more democratic and right than Christians partaking in the developments in their countries, just like in any other country. Yet, this new phase is also raising some serious challenges and questions for the church in the Middle East.
Given that the Church across the region survived the last 50 years through a policy of isolation and keeping her head low, now it is struggling to develop a Christ-centred and mature basis for political engagement, both with the larger society and with fellow Christians who might disagree with them.
All through the protests in Turkey, my Facebook wall saw Turkish Christians as divided over what was happening as the rest of the country. And sadly, that divide also meant Christians sometimes echoed the disrespectful and aggressive dismissals of other groups found in wider society. Harsh judgements were passed on fellow Christians who did not go with the spur of the moment. When the country needed a tone of peace-making, mature conversation and respectful engagement, sadly loud Christian voices only mirrored those of a divided society.
In Egypt, it was inevitable for Christians to support an anti-Muslim Brotherhood wave since the Brotherhood was never good news for the church. Yet, as military jets swooped over Tahrir Square in celebration of what was a military coup – albeit with large public support – many families still grieve for the 27 Copts murdered by the same military meters away in Maspero two years ago.
After the impeachment of Mohamed Morsi and arrests and brutal clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood, a series of attacks on churches and Christians rippled across Egypt. Christians have always been easy targets for Islamists as well as a vulnerable political tool for the previous dictatorship that never took any real steps to address discrimination against Copts nor attacks on churches. Sadly, a wide range of Islamist groups see Copts once again as a legitimate target, even though the mainstream Sunni population, secularists and liberals supported the coup.
In both Egypt and Turkey, developments showed how weak are both their democratic structures and democratic cultures. In both countries, healthy public debate, political disagreement and compromise and dialogue are often absent. Every small conversation gives way to hurtful statements, anger, frustration and deeply partisan polarisation.
In the middle of all of this, Christians not only have a right and duty to exercise their freedom to challenge authorities and demand reform, but also have a responsibility to do this with language and perspectives that look beyond the powers and politics of this age. In a region where grand politics often reduces human beings into disposable extras, Christians must demonstrate a Christ-like public and political civility that upholds, protects and respects the rights and values of all.
This includes Islamists too. The mandate of Christ to love our neighbours as ourselves extends to them too. Christians have no option but to be peacemakers and those who bring healing and light.
It is high time for Christians in the Middle East to gather and reflect on what the Gospel means in today’s context and how we as Christians and churches can live out its values as our countries undergo historic changes.
Views and opinions expressed by Wazala contributors are their own and do not always reflect those of SAT-7.