Arab Spring Conference in Rome

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Muslims and Christians throughout North Africa and the Middle East recognize that “building a democracy is more difficult than destroying a dictatorship,” but they are committed to realizing their dream, said one of the leaders of change in Tunisia.

Rashid Ghannushi, known as the intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, now the key party in the coalition governing Tunisia, was one of the speakers at a conference in Rome Feb. 29 on the Arab Spring movement.

The conference, sponsored by the Sant’Egidio Community, a Rome-based lay movement, brought together Christian and Muslim religious and political leaders from around the Mediterranean to discuss the pro- democracy movement and, especially, its impact on Christian-Muslim relations.

Conference participants were welcomed by Sant’Egidio’s founder, Andrea Riccardi, who now serves as Italy’s minister for international cooperation.

Ghannushi said many Westerners have had prejudices about the way Muslims see their faith and politics going together, as if Islam and democracy are diametrically opposed. He said Muslims want to be able to do what Riccardi has done: be a religious believer who lets his faith inform his political activity.

“The most important thing the Arab Spring has brought is a recovery of religious values and their correct place in political life,” Ghannushi said.

At the same time, “valuing differences is something new for us,” he said. Under the dictatorships, “order was maintained through repression,” so the new democracies must make concerted efforts to build social cohesion and involve all citizens in the life of the country.

Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Bustros of Beirut told the conference, “Christians don’t want to be seen as a minority to be protected, but as full and equal citizens. Unfortunately, we are still far from this. Christians and Muslims consider each other to be ’other.’

“We need to build a society in which members of different religions see each other as citizens and partners in building the country,” the archbishop said.

Many speakers also mentioned the ongoing bloodshed in Syria where uprisings began in March 2011 against the Bashar al-Assad. As the Sant’Egidio meeting was going on, news reports from Syria said the government was mounting a ground attack in Homs, a center of resistance.

A U.N. report Feb. 28 spoke of more than 7,500 dead in clashes during 11 months of protest against the Syrian president.

Najib Awad, a Syrian Christian theologian, said his fellow Christians in the country are divided over the attempted revolution. Al-Assad’s repressive regime offered the Christian communities protection and some are still supporting him, Awad said, but most have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

“They believe there is no authentic interreligious dialogue in the Arab world,” because equality is needed for true dialogue and being “protected” by a regime or simply tolerated by one’s neighbors does not bring equality, he said.

Awad said many of his peers also fear more radical or exclusivist Muslim ideologues from outside Syria would rush in to fill a power vacuum if al-Assad were deposed.

Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan custos of the Holy Land, told the conference that while religious differences may initially appear to be a problem in the Middle East, religious identity and practice is such a big part of the region’s cultures that no political project can succeed without taking religion into account.

“Religious belonging in the Holy Land isn’t just about religious experience, it’s about belonging. It defines you in society — even if you are an atheist — whether you want it to or not,” he said.

“You cannot talk about nation-building in the Middle East and discuss only political, social and economic issues without talking about religion,“ Father Pizzaballa said.

At the same time, he said, “religions need to recover their prophetic and educational role” in the Middle East; it is not enough to emphasize their role as providing social identity to their members, they must call their members to grow in responsibility, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.

“The Arab Spring poses a fundamental challenge to Christians. Everything is changing, including the q ttitude of Christians,” who increasingly — no longer seek protection or guarantees, but full participation, he said.

“It’s important to seek full participation in public life without fear,*mom recognizing that Christians are “an integral part of the fabric, history and culture of the countries where they live,” the Franciscan said.

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