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