WASHINGTON (CNS) — What turned out to be a yearlong Arab Spring of grass-roots uprisings in 2011 left several countries with new leadership and a death toll in the tens of thousands, most from a full-scale civil war in Libya.
Meanwhile, protests in Israel and efforts by Palestinians to obtain full recognition in the United Nations ramped up pressure for achieving a two-state solution to peace.
The wave of protests began Dec. 18, 2010, in Tunisia after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police corruption and to publicize his problems with trying to run a small business. By the time Bouazizi died of his injuries in early January, public protests had taken root in Tunis and other cities. Longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali stepped down under pressure Jan. 14 and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Since then, Tunisia has dissolved its political police force and other institutions associated with the Ben Ali regime and moved toward creating a new government.
The spirit that overtook Tunisia in January spread, leading to the resignation of Yemen’s prime minister and to the overthrow of the governments of Egypt and Libya, following protests that turned violent, and then to outright war in Libya.
In a dozen other countries, unprecedented protests ranged from peaceful and fairly restrained — as in Jordan and Lebanon — to brutally violent in Syria. By May, border clashes in Israel were connected to the uprising spirit.
Across North Africa and the Middle East, grass- roots protests continued and escalated through the fall. In August, after a sustained battle over the Libyan capital of Tripoli, rebels overwhelmed President Moammar Gadhafi’s compound and began taking over national government functions.
Libya’s bloody civil war ended with the Oct. 20 capture of Gadhafi in a drainage pipe near Sirte. He died later that same day, reportedly after being brutalized and shot by his captors. An estimated 30,000 people were killed in Libya’s civil war.
Though the region is mostly Muslim, the protests had repercussions for people of all religions.
For instance, in Libya, most Catholics were foreign workers. Several missionaries told Catholic News Service they remained in the country to help those people, although they serve Muslims, too. Although some migrants were evacuated, many who stayed behind lost their jobs and had nowhere else to go, leaving them searching for food, medicine, clothing and most of all, rent money.
In Egypt, the unity between Christians and Muslims forged after the revolution seemed to deteriorate as Islamic fundamentalists began attacks on Christians, Cardinal Antonios Naguib, Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, said in early November.
Christian leaders, including Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, said the army and police were confronting the Copts. He said that “people — not just Christians but many Muslims, too — are frightened for the future of our country.”
Coptic Christians make up about a 10th of the 81 million people of Egypt.
As the year drew to a close, the only ongoing grass-roots revolution was in Syria. In early December, the United Nations estimated more than 4,000 people had been killed in an uprising against President Bashar Assad since March.
World leaders had since fall increasingly called on Assad to step aside to avoid a full-scale civil war.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan told CNS in October that attempts from outside Syria to collapse the government, “will very probably lead to chaos.”
“This chaos, surely — with no means to implement security — will lead to civil war,” said the patriarch, who stressed that a civil war in Syria would not merely be a struggle among political parties to control the power. “It will be confessional (religious), and war in the name of God is far worse than a political struggle. And this is what we fear.”
Religious leaders of many denominations weighed in on the Israel-Palestine conflict during the year, encouraging Israeli and Palestinian politicians to work together toward a peace agreement that would allow both countries to exist, generally called a two-state solution.
Those efforts included an interfaith plea from dozens of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to U.S. President Barack Obama to provide strong leadership in Mideast peace talks “before it is too late.”
“We believe that, in exercising strong U.S. leadership for peace, you can count on substantial support from members of churches, synagogues and mosques across the country,” said the May 20 letter to Obama.
Pressure on world leaders to support Palestinian statehood ramped up late in the summer as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, submitted a formal request for U.N. membership and statehood Sept. 23.
The effort has gone nowhere, however, as it is opposed by several members of the U.N. Security Council — including the United States — which must approve the change. If the move fails, the Palestinians may apply for an upgrade of their U.N. status from observer to “nonmember state observer,” the same status held by the Holy See.
The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem said he hoped that an effort to grant full U.N. membership to Palestinians would be a step toward eventual peace in the region.
During a September visit to the United States, Jerusalem Patriarch Fouad Twal told CNS that “the question of full membership for Palestine does not mean the end of negotiations. On the contrary, they must continue negotiating and speaking to find a solution for everybody, peace for everybody and security for everybody.”