Save the Middle East’s Christians

France will remain by the side of the Arab world's embattled minority.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Christians in the Middle East are worried. Worried about their survival in a region where they have lived for 2,000 years. Worried about their rights being respected at a time of major upheaval. Worried about heightened religious tensions. I want to tell them that I understand them, that I understand their fears.

For centuries, France has had a special mission with respect to Eastern Christians. It will not shy from it. That is why, in January 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy established the framework of our policy, emphasizing that the fate of Eastern Christians symbolizes "the challenges of the globalized world we have irrevocably entered."

Our vision is clear: There can be no true democratic revolution without the protection of minorities. Eastern Christians are destined to remain in their region. They are destined to help build their future, as they have always done in the past.

This is not a new issue. It has existed for centuries. But it has become more and more dramatic in recent years.

France has demonstrated its vigilance, first by sending clear messages to the countries in the Middle East, which bear primary responsibility for the security of their citizens. France has also mobilized its efforts in support of the EU Foreign Affairs Council’s Feb. 21, 2011, condemnation of violence against Christians and a U.N. Security Council statement addressed to them on Nov. 10, 2010, following terrorist attacks in Baghdad.

Iraqi Christians have paid an especially heavy price in recent years. We have expressed our solidarity by welcoming more than 1,300 of them on French soil since 2008 and by evacuating the injured following the attack on Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad on Oct. 31, 2010.

The Copts also occupy a special place in Egypt, rooted in the long history of their country. They have suffered increasing violence, abuses, and discrimination, as exemplified by the horrific 2011 attack on a church in Alexandria.

But the Copts are also engaged in the political life of their country like never before. Since the revolution, they have participated in elections — they want to be heard and to contribute, along with their fellow citizens, to the country’s democratic transition. The newly elected Egyptian parliament has expressed its commitment to guaranteeing the rights of the Copts, and we are counting on its decisive action.

In Lebanon, coexistence among minorities is a reality. But this model must be guarded constantly against the various attempts to undermine it. All actors in Lebanese society and political life are responsible for this task.

As President Sarkozy told Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rahi during his official visit to Paris last December, the best protection for Eastern Christians and the true guarantee of their survival in the region is the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Arab countries.

That is why we urge the Christians of the Middle East not to be taken in by the manipulative measures implemented by authoritarian regimes alienated from their own people. I remain very concerned about the tragic situation in Syria — about the fierce crackdown by a doomed regime that uses military force against its own people. I deeply hope that Christians, like all of Syria’s other communities, will participate in creating a new, democratic government in which all citizens will have the same rights and the same duties.

We are not naive. We know that the road will be long and chaotic. But beyond the undeniable risks and dangers, the Arab Spring offers a historic opportunity for Eastern Christians. Can anyone really believe that minority rights are better protected by bloody dictatorships than by democratic regimes? Who can deny that Christians, Kurds, Druze, Alawites, and Assyrians, too, are murdered, tortured, and imprisoned in Syria?

The Arab Spring offers signs of hope. I want to pay tribute to the initiative of the grand imam of al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, who in January drafted and published a document on religious freedoms in Egypt. This text stresses the importance of freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of scientific research, and freedom of creation — including artistic creation. Such initiatives, which strengthen interfaith dialogue, show that it is possible to rally diverse societies around universal principles, enabling all to coexist harmoniously.

While there are many lingering questions about the future, I want to tell Eastern Christians that France will not abandon them. Our faith in the revolutions of the past year is accompanied by absolute vigilance with regard to the respect of human rights, particularly those of minorities. I myself strongly stressed this issue during my discussions with the Syrian National Council, which is designed to rally the Syrian opposition and has pledged to guarantee these rights.

In Syria and across the Middle East, it is in Eastern Christians’ interest to embrace changes that are both ineluctable and positive. It is by resolutely engaging in building a new region that they will protect their future. As President Sarkozy told religious leaders in his New Year’s wishes on Jan. 25, "Christians are part of the history of the East; there can be no question of tearing them from this land. The Arab Spring will keep its promises if minorities are respected."

The message I want to send them is simple: France was and will remain by your side.

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