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In Iraq, Pope Francis stands up to Iran regime
Survival of Iraqi, Lebanese Christians mandates end to Iranian militias
When describing the prosperity of the city of Palmyra in the first three centuries of the Common Era, Appian — who lived near Antioch and died around 150 CE — emphasized Palmyra’s neutrality in the conflict between the Iranians and the Romans, and “ascribed this to their role as intermediaries in the trade in Indian and Arabian merchandize.” This neutrality, according to the historian Eivind Heldaas Seland, changed by the second century. After taking the side of the Romans in the 270s, and then that of the Iranians a few years later, the Romans invaded Palmyra and sacked it in 280 CE, bringing three centuries of trade-led prosperity to its end.
Palmyra’s mantle was picked up by Lebanon, in 1949, giving the country two decades of unprecedented economic expansion and prosperity. Lebanon was so neutral that it sat out the major Arab-Israeli war of 1967, in which Israel defeated the Arabs led by the late iconic Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser. In his bid to save face, Nasser started a war of attrition against Israel and sponsored the rise of non-state violent militias that launched their attacks into Israel from Jordan and Lebanon, inviting severe Israeli retaliation against these two countries and dragging them into war.
In 1970, Jordan put its foot down as its government ejected the Palestinian militias and maintained neutrality since then. In 1993, Jordan — then the only friend and ally left of radical and crazy anti-Israel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — signed peace with Israel. Jordan, in effect, compartmentalized its relations, and held peace with both Israel and the Arabs, despite the antagonism between these two sides. Neutrality and peace paid Jordan good dividends. The Jordanian economy has out performed its mostly resourceless and arid land.
Lebanon, however, proved less fortunate. In 1969, Nasser managed to play on its domestic divisions — especially on the ambitions of local Christian leaders — and impressed on Beirut to sign the Cairo Agreement, which allowed Palestinian militias to launch their attacks from Lebanese territories against Israel. Since then, Lebanon has not lived a day of the neutrality that delivered economic miracles between 1949 and 1969. After the downfall of Saddam in 2003, America copied the Lebanese model in Iraq, and since then Iran has been using Iraq — like Lebanon — a launchpad for Iranian regional ambitions and settling of scores.
Lebanon and Iraq have therefore suffered the dominance of Iranian militias, which have undermined neutrality, peace and stability in both countries. Instability has, for its part, caused the economies of both Lebanon and Iraq to nosedive. Militias have also terrorized the local populations, especially minorities. As a result, the number of Christians in both Lebanon and Iraq has been dwindling at such a high rate that has alarmed the Vatican, which seems to have launched an effort to reverse these trends.
In Lebanon, the patriarch of the Maronite Church, in communion with Rome, has been calling on the Lebanese government to restore its sovereignty, disband Hezbollah, and endorse neutrality with Israel. Meanwhile, Pope Francis is visiting Iraq, and meeting with Grand Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in a similar bid to push Iraq toward neutrality, and therefore stability and economic growth. Sistani has already spoken out against Iran’s militias.
The Christian effort of Pope Francis and Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Raii will come to naught without Western powers throwing their weight behind such policy. The West should nudge local Iraqi and Lebanese chieftains and politicians, who have been either coerced or coopted to let Iran’s militias rule supreme, to support the Christian drive to neutrality. Only neutrality will save Lebanon, Iraq, Christians, and everybody else, just like it did with Palmyra 1700 years earlier.