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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Six deaths must not end a history of religious harmony

I remember clearly, when I was growing up in Abu Dhabi, the local
Anglican bishop being invited to Muslim households for lunch – often on
Christmas Day. I recall an Egyptian Muslim lady telling me that as a
child she had a Jewish classmate, in a Catholic school, where she was
taught Islam by local teachers, and other subjects by nuns. Schools in
the Arab world often had a mix of Christian and Muslim children, all
having deep loyalty to their countries while maintaining their own
religious affiliation.

Indeed, strong Muslim-Christian harmony has long been a feature of
the Arab world. So what are we to make of events in Nag Hammadi in
southern Egypt last Wednesday night – Christmas Eve in the Orthodox
Christian calendar – when six Coptic Christians were shot dead by
Muslim gunmen as they left midnight mass?

For centuries,
religious co-existence was the norm in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere
– even while the region was predominantly Muslim and deeply religious.
Islam recognises the Christians as “People of the Book” and the Quran
speaks favourably of pious Christians, while the Prophet Mohammed
invited Christians to worship in his own mosque.

The phenomenon of Arab nationalism did not threaten this sentiment.
On the contrary, it strengthened it; many of the movement’s founders
were Christian Arabs, and the Christian and the Muslim religious
establishments were united in both their nationalistic tendencies and
their opposition to western colonialism. The Arab identity has never
been a solely Muslim one, and Christians have historically been (and
continue to be) disproportionately represented among the wealthy and
influential in Arab societies.

The
growth of Islamism, however, has been a worrying development for
Christians. Islamism is not a specifically spiritualist revival; it is
more a political identity movement, born out of opposition to the West.
The West, however, was identified as a Christian civilisation, often as
the inheritor of the Crusades, so opposition has often been articulated
with anti-Christian overtones.

This is not to say that
Islamists in places such as Egypt (birthplace of the Muslim
Brotherhood, the “mother” movement of Islamism) wanted to eradicate
Christians from the Arab world. They might have wanted political
sovereignty, with all the implications that had for Christian
populations, but that is not the same as a Christian-free Middle East.
Nevertheless, increasingly anti-western sentiment in mosque sermons had
an effect on local Christian-Muslim dynamics.

There are other more mundane reasons to explain why Christians are
diminishing in numbers across the Arab world. Palestinian Christians,
like Palestinian Muslims, often take whatever opportunity they can to
flee the Israeli occupation. In Iraq, Christians were keen to escape
Saddam Hussein’s regime (although they were disproportionately
represented in it), and the harsh aftermath of the US-led invasion.

Identity politics, whether with religious or nationalist undertones,
is often deadly to pluralism. In Europe it has led to proposals for
laws against religious clothing, such as in France, in the context of
growing public concern about the Muslim presence. Such views are not
remotely respectable in Arab Muslim societies, where Christian holidays
are often national ones – but this does not mean that there are not
significant pressures on the Christian population.

There are reasons to be optimistic, nevertheless. The political
elite in most Arab countries is keen to ensure that their Christians
not only remain, but feel at home. Jordan’s monarchy, for example, goes
to great lengths to identify Christians as an integral part of
Jordanian society, with support from King Abdullah, Prince Hassan bin
Talal and Prince Ghazi (author of the Common Word, the most significant
Muslim-Christian co-existence declaration in modern history).

The religious establishment in Egypt consistently engages in
interfaith dialogues, involving figures such as the Grand Mufti and the
president of Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prominent educational
establishment. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has
likewise signed up to interfaith dialogue, and all over the Arab world
the Brotherhood has made no secret of its public acceptance of the
Christian presence, some going as far as to include Christians in the
ranks of their political movement.

In the UAE itself, the Abu Dhabi-based religious scholar al Habib
Ali al Jifri, and the Grand Mufti of Dubai, Ahmed al Haddad, and many
others in the Emirati cultural and religious elite have been vocal in
expressing warm sentiments towards Christians.

Nevertheless,
the religious elite of the Muslim world, as well as the Islamist
leadership, needs to intensify their public declarations confirming
their acceptance of the Christian presence – not so much because it is
in doubt, but to counter the radicals and extremists who say otherwise.

I mentioned the troubles in the south of Egypt to an Egyptian Muslim
police officer near where I live in Cairo. He knew few more details
than I did, but he did take the opportunity to tell me where he had
been the previous night: on duty, along with police colleagues, at the
local church, to ensure that nothing untoward happened to his Christian
compatriots. He saw this as, on the one hand, entirely justified, since
Egyptian Christians deserved the complete support of Egypt: but on the
other hand, rather sad. Surely, he said, it would be better if there
were no need for security at a church.

That probably sums up the situation across the Arab world: a strong
mainstream current of support for the Christian population, coupled
with an unfortunate reality that means that support has to be
articulated with force, to counter the extremists in our midst.

But
considering the history of Christians in this region, and that
predominant sense of community, one can still realistically hope that
harmonious relations can prevail, and Christian Arabs will not become a
museum piece.

Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick

www.hahellyer.com

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