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Christians in the Middle East - Archbishop on World at One

Tuesday 14th June 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has expressed his deep anxiety for Christians in the Middle East, but also cautious optimism about possible outcomes of the Arab Spring.

Speaking during an interview with Martha Kearney on BBC Radio 4's "World at One" programme, the Archbishop expressed his continuing concerns about the fragile situation of Christian minority populations across the Middle East  where in places life for Christians was "becoming unsustainable".  The situation had been, and remained, most serious in Iraq.  He also spoke of "the haemorrhaging of Christians" from parts of the Holy Land.

He also said he was "cautiously hopeful" about the possibility of an emerging "pluralist democratic future" in the wake of the Arab Spring.  "Hopes were too vivid" for repressive regimes to revert to type: "change will have to come". 

Click the download on the right to listen to the interview, as broadcast on BBC Radio 4 [9Mb]

Read the transcript of the full interview, as originally recorded, below. 



Martha Kearney:  Going back six months in time to the very beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, and how quickly this protest spread, what were your own views?

Archbishop:  I think I was rather surprised at the speed with which things spread; although as a visitor to the region over quite a few years I have seen where some of the tensions are, so I suppose it would have been predictable that something would happen. But the rapidity with which things unfolded, especially in Egypt and then more recently in Syria, that has been a surprise.

Martha Kearney:  Do you think history will judge this to have been a force for good?

Archbishop:  I think what has happened is that a whole culture you might say - in a number of regional states - of impunity, non-accountability and so forth, has been challenged at its root. That has to be a good thing as we look back. And of course the urgent question then is what goes into the vacuum that that leaves?

Martha Kearney:  What concerns do you have – given the vacuum that you’ve been describing, what concerns do you have about Christians living in the region now?

Archbishop:  One of the paradoxes is that actually Christians have done moderately well under some of the more autocratic regimes in the region. Partly because these have been regimes that have kept Islamic extremism in check and therefore they’ve been qualified good news for Christians and indeed for other minorities. And it’s important to remember that Christians are not the only minorities here. There are Muslim minorities; other kinds of Muslims. There are Baha’is and other groups like that.   

So I think the anxiety for Christians is very much in the absence of that strong hand keeping things in check. Would this mean an immediate surge in freedom of movement for Muslim extremists?   

What I think qualifies that and what is really quite good news is what we've seen a great deal of in Egypt. And that’s of course the fact that Muslims have rallied around Christians in a time of pressure. That Christians and Muslims were standing shoulder to shoulder in the early days of the demonstrations in Egypt.   

And that also the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo has initiated the setting up of what they’re calling a “Beit el Aila”, a house of the family literally. That is a forum for religious leadership, Muslim and Christian, to talk about public issues, political issues and to argue very strongly for democratic rights for everybody. 

 So there are signs of very positive things happening. And those signs are rooted in the fact that the impulse for change does come increasingly from a fairly well educated, fairly self-aware and politically aware stratum of society which doesn’t think primarily in confessional terms.

Martha Kearney:  But this must be an anxious time for Christian communities?

Archbishop:  There’s no doubt at all that it’s a very anxious time for Christian communities. There have been extremist atrocities already, especially in Egypt; and perhaps rather more than we've been aware of in this country. The news we have here is not encouraging on that front I have to say.

Martha Kearney:  What kind of things have you been hearing?

Archbishop:  Oh more about killings, burnings of churches and so forth. It’s a fairly consistent pattern over a number of months. And although at leadership level in the Muslim community in Egypt there’s clear condemnation of this, absolutely crystal clear condemnation, it’s evident that there are other forces at work which may of course not be native Egyptian.

Martha Kearney:  Really? Who are they?

Archbishop:  Well, we don’t really know. But there are certainly some signs that there may be people coming in from the more traditional sites of extremism, whether Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. I would venture a guess there’s some interest in Northern Sudan in the future of Egypt as well.

Martha Kearney:  Really? So these are the kind of areas you're describing from which Al Qaeda comes.

Archbishop:  Quite.

Martha Kearney:  And do you think – you can see their hand at work?

Archbishop:  I wouldn’t like to speculate. But there are forces at work.

Martha Kearney:  You've talked about problems for the Christians in the area being a form of ethnic cleansing. What did you mean by that?

Archbishop:  I meant the effect of violent extremism in Iraq and in one or two other areas – which I’ll come to in a moment – has been to make life simply unsustainable for Christians in many of these areas.   

Take Northern Iraq, where Christian populations have lived for most of the last 2,000 years and lived alongside Muslims. The level of pressure there now is extreme and death threats to individuals, to Christian leaders, continue.   

More and more there’s talk of an enclave solution to the problem in Iraq. That is a sort of safe territory for Christians. Which Christians and their leaders don’t particularly want and who would? But many think it’s almost the only practical outcome now. So that’s a very considerable pressure.   

People see that from elsewhere. They think, “Who’s next? Will it be like that here if there isn’t a strong democratic governmental hand in place?”   

And I think put that side by side with the dramatic drainage of the Christian population from Palestine in the last couple of decades, under a much more un-dramatic but equally steady and strong pressure, you can see why people feel that the Christian future of the region is uncertain.

Martha Kearney:  But that’s a strong term to use isn’t it, ethnic cleansing?

Archbishop:  It is a strong term but I think not disproportionate where Iraq is concerned. The level of violence has been extreme.   

I had the rather harrowing experience of meeting a large number of Iraqi refugees in Syria a couple of years ago and listening to a lot of individual stories about the kind of pressure to which people were subjected, the kind of threats against people’s families, against their children, which drove them out of their homes and eventually out of the country.   

So while we have yet – thank God – not seen actual massacres, as we saw of Muslims in the Balkans for example, we are seeing a pressure which is unremitting and which is quite prepared to turn to violence.

Martha Kearney:  Now Syria is a country where a very autocratic regime has meant relative tolerance for Christians. The Assad government is now under pressure. Is that creating anxiety in the Christian community there?

Archbishop:  I think again we have a situation where other minorities are involved too. But of course I hear those anxieties. And I think although the surface has looked quite peaceful for a few years, Christians I know in Syria have been aware that things are building up to breaking point. And I think that all the minorities are anxious at the moment in Syria.   

Christians feel that Syria is perhaps the last bit of the region which maintains the old style Ottoman pluralism; a sort of coexistence that under the Ottoman Empire generally prevailed without too much upset and too much violence. Syria is the last survival of that kind of philosophy and that kind of assumption of coexistence.

Martha Kearney:  You've visited the country so you’ve seen this at first-hand?

Archbishop:  I've seen this at first-hand more than once, yes. And clearly relations between Christian and Muslim leadership there are warm and strong on the surface. And therefore there’s a lot to lose. Not just for Syria but for the region.   

And as I said in another context, it is quite important, globally and locally, that the identities of being Arab and being Muslim don’t completely coincide. There are non-Arab Muslims, there are non-Muslim Arabs.   

And at a recent conference in Qatar, in Doha, at the end of that conference we were able to mount a press conference in which the two Muslim speakers were non-Arabs and the two Christian speakers were Arabs; simply to make a point that there is a pluralism in this history which is under threat at the moment.

Martha Kearney:  There is an irony though, isn’t there, that while presumably you support the rise of democracy in lots of these countries, at the same time you're anxious about what that democracy might throw up in the form of Islamist parties which would be intolerant of Christianity?

Archbishop:  This is where I think the actual roots of the protests earlier this year do matter. The impulse for this did not come from Muslim extremism. It came from a broadly liberal, democratically serious segment of the population, who are not I think going to give up easily their own hopes of an inclusive, participatory democracy.   

So I think in the long term of course a real participatory democracy in the region is bound to be in the interests of minorities because good democracies look after minorities. And that I think is what we all want to work for.   

And I think that’s been also what the foreign secretary has been underlining; especially in his Mansion House speech on this subject which I thought put the whole situation very eloquently and very helpfully.

Martha Kearney:  But these opposition groups of which you talk are quite disorganised, they’re disparate. The organised forces – I mean in Egypt for example it’s the Muslim Brotherhood which is the more coherent opposition party.

Archbishop:  The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps a little less coherent than some people think. They're shifting their ground on a number of issues. They're not emerging immediately as the sort of all powerful kingmakers people expected.   

But it is going to take time. You're quite right. It’s going to take time for pro-democracy forces really to rally, really to organise. Which is why one of the hopes that many people I know have in Egypt is that there won’t be a rush towards elections before democratic parties can organise themselves properly.

Martha Kearney:  Do you think that the British government, other governments, should be more vocal in their support for Christians who you are seeing at the moment under great difficulty in a number of these countries?

Archbishop:  Well to be honest I think at the moment there is quite a lot of support. And I can’t fault what’s been said by our government on this issue because I think the issue of religious freedom in general has very high priority in the Foreign Office at the moment. So I hope that continues. 

Also I think people in the West know perfectly well that if foreign powers take up the cause of a minority in another country it can be utterly counterproductive.

Martha Kearney:  Yes, that’s certainly happened in the past arguably, hasn’t it? You’re organising a conference about Christians in the Holy Land. What are the issues there and what do you hope to come out of that conference?

Archbishop:  I think there are still perhaps too few people in this country who are aware of the haemorrhaging of Christian populations from the Holy Land.   

The fact that Bethlehem, a majority Christian city just a couple of decades ago, is now very definitely a place where Christians are a marginalised minority. We want that to be a little bit higher on people’s radar.   

We want the public profile of the situation of Christians there to be better known. And we see that as of course part of a general hope to raise the profile of Christians in the region.

Martha Kearney:  Would you see what’s happening in Bethlehem as another example of what you’ve described as ethnic cleansing?

Archbishop:  It’s not ethnic cleansing exactly because it’s been far less deliberate than that I think. What we've seen though is a kind of Newtonian passing on of energy or force from one body to another so that some Muslim populations in the West Bank, under pressure, move away from certain areas like Hebron, move into other areas like Bethlehem. And there’s nowhere much else for Christian populations to go except away from Palestine.

Martha Kearney:  There’s a lot of talk about ways of supporting what’s been happening in the Arab Spring; that the international community should donate towards a Marshall Fund to offer financial support. Do you think there should be conditions tied to that; for example the protection of minorities like Christians?

Archbishop:  It seems to be quite sensible that if we are going to let’s say invest in the future of a democratic politics in the region we should assume that that carries with it obligations to minorities; all minorities.

Martha Kearney:  And finally, are you overall – when you look at the events of the Arab Spring - are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Archbishop:  Guardedly optimistic. The problems are enormous and the level of violence and intimidation that some security forces in Syria are now taking forward is really appalling.   

That being said, to use an obvious crude metaphor, the milk is out of the bottle. I don’t think there’s any way in which the repressive regimes of the region can just reassert the old order now.   

And we've seen that in Libya very dramatically. It just can’t be done. The hopes are too vivid, too strong. The pressure is – I won’t say irresistible but it can’t be ignored. And that means that change will have to come. And there is enough of that commitment to a pluralist, democratic future there I think for us to be cautiously hopeful about it.

Martha Kearney:  Thank you very much indeed.

Archbishop:  Thank you.

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