Poland, Lebanon, and the Catholic Church

Interesting parallels between Poland and Lebanon (this probably applies to Ireland as well). Two places where a strange marriage between Catholicism and nationalist projects took place. In both cases, a perceived “external threat” led groups to find in the Catholic church a way to not just defend their interests but also to imagine their national specificity (although arguably the threat in the Polish case was much more real judging from the successive invasion of the current territory we call Poland up until the world wars). But what was the kingdom of Poland before these invasions (with its highly diverse population) could only become the “nation” of Poland through a complex (probably unfinished) homogenizing process in which the Catholic church would play a central role. There is no other way to understand this bastion of Catholicism that is Poland in a sea of Protestant regions on one side and Orthodox on the other. Catholicism which was the last remnant of an older pre-nationalist world order became here the main locus for the development of nationalist specificity. the paradox here is that the once “universalist” brand Catholicism could strive in isolated territory because of the development of a peculiar nationalist specificity. For examples, the Lebanese specificity developed by Maronites involved a complex bridge between Europe and the East, Arab but not really, between Latin and Syriac etc). Here the “essence” of being Lebanese is always escaping but is easily substantiated by Catholicism.

Meanwhile the church’s interest involved mainly the purchasing of land (which still happens in Poland and I think in Lebanon) as they made up for the loss of territory encountered in “the wars of religion” in the rest of Europe and all the privileged they enjoyed before the protestant reformation movements. The church struggled to adapt to the rising sovereignty of nation states, by espousing the latter’s strategies of control but without ever being able to institutionally monopolizing this process leaving local nationalist project the task to preserve their interests. In echo to this, one should not find strange that Islamic institutions sponsored by either Saudi Arabia or Iran have followed a similar strategy of land purchase all around the world as they adapt and seize opportunities offered by nation state institutional apparatuses and the modern legal framework of private property.

Ironically, the Polish nationalist project was a main instigator of the persecution, displacement, and emigration of whole Jewish communities to the newly created state of Israel. Initially most members of these communities identified to their original locality (Polish from this or that city) just as much as Arab Christians were entrenched in theirs. Zionism was born out of a reaction to other European forms of nationalism with its invention of one Jewish people. It is ironic because although the Catholic church, through the Poles (or those now labeled as Poles), helped create the territorial problem of the Zionist project, both Poles and Lebanese Christians where relying on the same institutional and ideological help, that is the Catholic church, to create their respective sovereignties.

Raï in Jerusalem

Maronite-Cardinal-Beshara-Rai-Getty-1The new Christian maronite patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros el Rai, has been making some bold moves since the beginning of his mandate. First his visit to Syria in the midst of the conflict degenerating, and now his decision to visit Jerusalem as the Catholic pope has schedule a Middle East tour, all show that Rai wants to re-assert some form of power for Christians in the Middle East. Now I don’t know why everyone on the left side of the political spectrum (whatever that really means nowadays) lashed out at Rai, I think this visit is deemed to be considered as involving novel strategies that inscribes Rai as the most Arab of Christian Maronite authorities since the coming of the French in the region.

Rai kept on repeating, as he defended his controversial trip to Jerusalem, that he was going strictly for religious reasons. But then Rai added “I am going there to say this is our city, I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.” Now that’s cleverly said as it contributes in a way to challenge the sovereignty of Israel over this chunk of land. Holy land is not to be possessed by nation-states. But that’s the Khomeinist rationale as explicited by his Jerusalem Day commemoration. That’s probably why Hizbullah was not so vociferous about Rai’s visit, opposing it publicly but quickly silencing the subject at the media level.

In the land where “non-state actors” prosper with or without the support of official states, what better way of producing political leverage than to use the various institutional tools at one disposal. Rai seems here to have learned from Hizbullah who uses Iran to further the interest of their community in Lebanon, producing political actions that can spill over outside of Lebanon.

Rai’s power material and symbolic springs from two different directions. His constituency and the various implications of the confessional system in Lebanon, and his institutional affiliation to the Catholic church based in the Vatican. This means that if Rai wants to bolster his position he can act on both these fronts. His recent visit to Jerusalem is clearly an attempt at gaining leverage through the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church especially now that the latter elected somewhat of a “third world” oriented pope. And in so doing, Rai can gain more independence as a figure representing a community that is not delimited by nation-states (Maronites in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, etc).

By using the “religious” card, his institutional affiliation to the Church, Rai reminds contemporary societies that communities are still represented by institutions that transcend State boundaries (in this case Israel and Lebanon). Most importantly, they remind us that where State fail to provide solutions for communities, other institutions can be used. Given the type of power the Catholic Church has, this is probably the best political move they can do. And by saying that his motivation are non-political and strictly religious, these are religious motivations that are strictly political.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Rai’s move manifest an action that transcends the State, it is still framed by State-related political calculations, in this case, the power leverage Christian can get in Lebanon.

Christians back at it

Muslims had the upper hand in this, but I guess this Polish priest understood how it works in the age of modernity-print-capitalism-economy.

Maman …

Okay, so Mother’s Day is just around the corner, so this post goes out to She Who Brought Me Into The World. Having already established herself as the foremost (okay, only) Arab nationalist in the Middle States, the Giver of Life has abandoned such profane matters and taken an earnest, but somewhat comic (earnest + comic = cute) interest in phenomena Islamica. So I was thinking of her and our many talks on the historical relationship between religion and politics when I read this most hilarious article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription only) about the Pontiff’s recent trip to Brazil:

As the first Brazilian-born saint, Friar Galvão is big news here. The country’s leading newsmagazines have run depictions of the friar on their covers, and the faithful have been snapping up tens of thousands of “Friar Galvão pills,” small capsules nuns produce that are said to have miraculous properties. The government considered declaring a national holiday in honor of the new saint but scrapped the idea for fear of slowing economic growth. Brazil has so many official and unofficial religious holidays already, even the country’s Roman Catholic bishops opposed the notion.
The pontiff’s visit — the 80-year-old’s first trip to Latin America since he became pope two years ago — comes at a critical moment for the church here. Although Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world, around 125 million, Catholicism here is in a quickening decline. About 74% of people said they were Catholic in a 2000 census, down from 89% in 1980.
The losses are coming mostly at the hands of evangelical Protestant congregations, primarily Pentecostal churches, despite Catholics’ efforts to compete. In the 1970s, the church became politically active, resisting Brazil’s military dictatorship and reaching out to the poor. More recently, it has encouraged “charismatic Catholicism,” whose practitioners hold evangelical-inspired revivals, speak in tongues and even carry out exorcisms. It has also given its blessing to Marcelo Rossi, a singing priest who does aerobics during mass and has sold millions of albums.
Sister Cadorin had to work 16 years for the Vatican to recognize Friar Galvão’s miracles. She looked through 23,929 purported miracles to identify a second case, involving a difficult pregnancy by a woman living in Brasilia. The nun says she had to obtain expert medical opinions, hire theologians, and prepare fancy presentations to send to officials in Rome. “The first miracle cost $95,000, and the second cost me between €45,000 and €50,000 [about $60,000 to $68,000],” she says. The money was raised through donations.
The São Paulo nunnery founded by Friar Galvão has been drawing crowds, and demand for his pills has soared. They are swallowed but they don’t actually contain medicine, rather, prayers written on tiny slips of paper. According to the Rev. Armênio Rodrigues Nogueira, a priest who works at the convent, the nuns’ production of pills has jumped from 3,000 a week to 30,000 since the Vatican announced the new saint in December.
Lucila Ortonho and Odita Ponte, São Paulo housewives, say they have visited the convent three times since then to pick up pills through a rotating wooden door, behind which unseen nuns dispense them. “I believe because his miracles were proved by the church,” says Ms. Ponte, 60, who said she was praying for good health.
Father Nogueira says the faithful can also request the miracle pills through the convent’s Internet site.

It is all about retail, mom. Here, there, everywhere … So in that spirit and on “Mother’s Day,” you can know I love you because the card is in the mail … 🙂