By Chiara Santomiero
TUNIS, Tunisia, JULY 27, 2011 (Zenit.org).- "The revolution is the passage through the Red Sea, the expression of the desire for liberty, justice and peace. The post-revolution period is the crossing of the desert, a long and harsh period, characterized by taking up our own history."
This is the image used by Archbishop Maroun Lahham of Tunis to describe the reality of his country, more than seven months after popular uprisings ousted the president of 23 years and began a wave of revolutions in the Arab world.
In a pastoral letter from Sunday, titled "Behold I Make All Things New," the 63-year-old archbishop reflected on the events from the point of view of the Word of God.
Tunisia is set to elect a constituent assembly Oct. 24 and the drafting of the constitution is not expected to take long. Nevertheless, there are those who are eager to speed things up, particularly as the economic situation of the nation is precarious. Tourism was badly affected by the revolution, and unemployment is high. The crisis in neighboring Libya has resulted in the return of some 50,000 Tunisian workers and the consequent end of remittances they sent home.
Just last week, at the same place where Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and kindled the spark of the Arab Spring, a 14-year-old boy, Thabet Belkacem, was killed by a bullet fired by police during protests against the government.
The provisional prime minister, Beji Caid Sebsi, has criticized those who seek to undermine the revolution and democracy, pointing to confessional political parties and extremist movements linked to them, which are conscious of not being able to take part in the October elections and, consequently, are mobilizing to impede them by fueling street violence.
As the country seeks to define itself, the small Catholic community -- some 22,000 Catholics out of 10 million inhabitants -- is making its own contribution.
The faithful are organized in 11 parishes, with 121 nuns and 49 priests running 11 Catholic schools that have 6,000 Muslim pupils in their classrooms.
"It is necessary to accept this reality in its novelty and to live with humility the present situation in the Church," wrote Archbishop Lahham in his pastoral letter. Humility means, among other things, "to accept being a Church in an almost 100% Muslim society" and, therefore, "to live the faith and witness to Jesus Christ in the midst of a non-Christian people," in addition to "discovering in the life of these people and in their cultural and religious traditions, the gift that God himself has given them, to enrich our faith and that of our Church."
Especially in this phase of democratic transition, the Catholic Church is being given a great opportunity, the prelate proposed: "In addition to reciprocal respect, the dialogue of life which is our daily bread, we have the possibility, and perhaps the mission, to be a bridge between these two worlds: the Maghreb and the West, and in a broader sense, between the heart and reason, words and concepts, the transcendence and immanence of God, the sacred and the profane."
In regard to the tensions the country is experiencing, "one thing is the revolution and another is democracy," the archbishop told a group of journalists as he spoke of the pastoral letter. "A constitutional phase represents, in fact, a giant step forward in this direction, but to establish the values of democracy will take whole generations."
"For decades the people have been afraid of the authorities, now it is the authorities who fear public opinion," he continued. "Hence, it is good that youths protest; however, they must not lose the sense of reality because not everything can be had at once."
Archbishop Lahham spoke of this time of waiting as a moment to live "hoping with a positive and optimistic spirit, despite the difficulties, the insecurities, and the surprises that the country will face, and we with it."
"We are the optimistic and amazed watchmen," he said, though he cautioned against "the temptations of dominion, of possession and of personal interests" that face his country.
While voicing opposition to the "mosque of the state," Archbishop Lahham also recalled that healthy democracies are founded on "values that have a religious root: liberty, respect, peace, equality, preferential election for the poor, solidarity."
To realize this, he said, Tunisia can keep in mind the experience of the West, whose errors -- "suffice it just to think of the problem of immigrants" -- are born from the loss of this perspective on situations, inspired in the evangelical values on which the founding fathers of Europe were based "for the benefit of the personal interests of individuals and peoples."
"It is no accident that the two last Popes have not failed to remind politicians of the Christian roots of Europe," observed Archbishop Lahham.
From these considerations "we hope that Tunisia will be able to find a good way for each one of the spiritual and religious aspirations of its citizens and their guests," he said. We also hope that "the new Tunisia will be able to live at the same time the democratic transition and its membership in the Muslim Arab world and that it will find the way to reconcile fidelity to the one God with the gifts of modernity."
In this way, "the democratic construction" truly "represents the arrival in the Promised Land."
Laboratory of democracy
"The Arab spring is real," continued Archbishop Lahham. "The Arab countries are experiencing, each one in its particular context, a promising spring." "We are invited to follow with realism and optimism all that is happening in the Arab-Muslim world."
"Tunisia represents a laboratory of democracy for the Arab countries," he added. "If the process to the democratic transition arrives here, the same can happen in other places and perhaps change structures consolidated in international relations."