On May 25, Maronite Bishop Bishara al-Rahi became the first Lebanese Christian patriarch to set foot in Israel since its establishment as he accompanies Pope Francis on a three-day Holy Land tour. Al-Rahi’s decision has since set off a political firestorm in Lebanon following the announcement of his visit on May 3.
Lebanon is technically at war with Israel, with nearly every one of its 18 religious sects largely unified in their opposition to the Jewish state following two wars and 18 years of military occupation. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese faction, whose militia is increasingly on the cusp of war with Israel, recently organized a political delegation to persuade al-Rahi to reconsider.
The As-Safir newspaper called the visit a “historic sin,” warning that it sets a precedent for normalization of ties with Israel, and arguing that, at the very least, the coordination required for the visit is tacit recognition of the enemy Israeli government.
There is no denying, however, that al-Rahi’s decision to accompany the pontiff to the Holy Land is historic, a reality that both his defenders and critics seem to admit.
While Al-Rahi has insisted that the visit’s purpose is purely religious, its political significance is undeniable when put against the backdrop of Christian oppression by extremists in the Sunni majority in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
For Israel, al-Rahi’s visit provides an opportunity – exactly the kind that the bishop’s critics in Lebanon are afraid of. As the homeland of a fellow religious minority which also sees itself under persistent threat from Islamic extremists, al-Rahi’s visit presents a window for Israel to reflect on and revive its relations with minorities across the Middle East, which have historically yielded considerably strategic benefits.
For decades, mutual sympathy between Israel and threatened minorities in the region have materialized into strategic partnerships, including those with the Kurds in northern Iraq, Black-African rebels in Sudan, the Berbers of the Sahel, and Christians, Druse and Circassians inside Israel. Even the Shi’ites, now represented by Israel’s sworn enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, once maintained positive relations with the Jewish state.
The same men that now fill Hezbollah’s ranks had once thrown rice on Israeli tanks to welcome them during the 1982 invasion. The Shi’ite peasant class, along with other minorities in southern Lebanon at the time, were undergoing systematic harassment by Palestinian militias who invaded the area after being exiled from Jordan.
Most Arab Christian sects in the region, however, have traditionally been hostile to Israel as part of their strong nationalist ideologies.
Egypt’s late Coptic Pope Shenouda III enforced a strict ban on followers making pilgrimages to Jerusalem in solidarity with the Palestinians, even after the two countries signed a peace accord in 1979. The Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was founded by Christian George Habash who himself gained international notoriety when he orchestrated the hijacking of four airliners in 1970.
Christians have traditionally served at the highest levels of Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria, while also taking lead roles in the secular-nationalist movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Some Christian factions in Lebanon did, however, align with the Israeli military during the 1982-2000 occupation, primarily due to mutual opposition to Palestinian and pro-Palestinian factions, with thousands being granted asylum in Israel after the disengagement of 2000.
All Christian Lebanese factions since that time, even those opposed to Hezbollah, have adopted an anti-Israel stance, including al-Rahi’s own Maronite predecessor, Nasrallah Sfeir, who refused a request to accompany Pope John Paul II during his 2000 visit to Israel.
Al-Rahi’s policies could indeed reflect a wider Christian awakening in the Middle East where religious identity and solidarity now take priority over nationalism and Palestinian solidarity. In this context, al-Rahi’s visit to Israel is preceded by his equally controversial visit to war-torn Syria in February 2013.
Al-Rahi has branded both visits as part of an effort to demonstrate Christian solidarity across the region.
Elsewhere, Coptic Christians in Egypt have increasingly defied the late Pope’s pilgrimage ban, visiting Israel in record numbers, while the new Egyptian Pope Tawadros II has been slow to demonstrate his disapproval.
Christians in Israel meanwhile, have volunteered for national service at exponentially higher rates in recent months, with some community leaders calling for solidarity with the Israeli government.
The arrival of Pope Francis’ delegation in Israel, however, comes amid an unprecedented increase in hate crimes targeting the country’s minority Arab Muslims and Christians, something that Israel’s critics worldwide are more than likely to highlight. These attacks, called “price tags” are traditionally carried out by Jewish extremists in retaliation for the destruction of West Bank settlements, and consist of mainly vandalism in Arab areas of Israel and the West Bank.
And while the price tag trend in Israel is incomparable to the deadly violence targeting Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, their increasing frequency has drawn domestic criticism against the government for failing to formulate an adequate policy to apprehend their perpetrators.
In a region where alliances between governments are about as stable as quicksand, the strategic benefits of cooperation between minorities shouldn’t be underestimated.
There is much Israel can do to demonstrate its solidarity with these groups, particularly those in neighboring Lebanon and Syria.
These efforts, however, must begin at home, where the largely loyal and proud Israeli Christian community will be measuring the government’s resolve in curbing hate crimes toward minorities. For Christians and other minorities living under the threat of Islamic extremism, the chances for public support for Israel will be diminished as long as the Palestinian issue remains a pan-Arab focus. But if the region continues to divide itself along sectarian and religious lines, the Middle East’s minorities will find themselves increasingly forced to stick together.
The author is the president of the Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv-based geopolitical consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter @Dannynis.