The recent attacks in Egypt and Malaysia on churches have raised concerns about the erosion of rights for religious minorities in Muslim countries. Faith leaders and academics from both the Muslim and Christian communities have been united in their condemnation of the attacks and the calls for unity and greater religious pluralism, understanding and acceptance.
Two such statements are reproduced below:
PRESS STATEMENT FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
JANUARY 10, 2010
We are outraged by the tragic attacks on our Christian brothers and sisters and reiterate our unequivocal condemnation of the bombing of churches in Malaysia. Today’s attack on the oldest standing church in Malaysia, the All Saints Church in Taiping, is an attack on our nation’s heritage.
As a nation we struggle to uphold the spirit of unity that our founding fathers envisioned at independence. We must hold fast to Article 11 of the Federal Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and the right of religious groups to manage their own affairs. In such times the spirit of engagement and dialogue must transcend those voices that would seek to sow discord and enmity across our land.
The people of Malaysia must unite against those who exploit race and religion to incite hatred for political gain. We must renew our commitment to religious understanding and religious freedom. This is a time that tests the resolve of all religions for peace and mutual respect. We must remember that the God who we worship is in fact the same God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
With respect to the use of the word Allah, for example, it cannot be disputed that Arabic speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews have collectively prayed to God as Allah throughout the last fourteen centuries. While sensitivities over its usage have arisen in Malaysia, the way to resolve these conflicts is not by burning churches and staging incendiary protests but by reasoned engagement and interreligious dialogue.
Muslims must recall the memory of our own tradition’s remarkable commitment to understanding and coexistence with the People of the Book. Islam clearly grants respect to Christians and Jews. In the Quran’s second chapter, God says: Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God (Aal-Imran, 3:64) And in the 29th Chapter He says:
And dispute not with the People of the Book but say “We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and that which came down to you…our God [Allah] and your God [Allah] is One, and it is to Him we bow (al-Ankabut, 29:46)
Jesus is himself revered as one of the greatest prophets whose noble example should be followed. The Caliph Umar, who visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 638 AD, was careful to ensure that the Muslims respect the sanctity of Christian places of worship. What then of our own Police’s hesitation to offer an assurance of safety and security for Malaysian churches?
Much of the blame for the recent attacks can be placed at the doorstep of the UMNO-led BN ruling party. Its incessant racist propaganda over the Allah issue and the inflammatory rhetoric issued by government controlled mainstream media especially, Utusan Malaysia, are reprehensible. Such wanton acts of provocation are indeed criminal and demonstrate the duplicity of the 1Malaysia campaign.
I am encouraged by the swift condemnation of the attacks issued by Muslim organizations and leaders. I likewise applaud our Christian leaders for their strong statements calling for calm and forgiveness and resisting revenge and retaliation.
The need for interfaith dialogue in Malaysia is an idea whose time is long overdue. We must now advance the spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood which is inherent in our religions and enshrined in our Constitution. Pakatan Rakyat will collectively take steps to ensure that the necessary dialogue and discussion take place throughout the country. Our fellow Christians must feel safe and secure in this country knowing that their freedom to worship is protected.
Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and the Opposition leader in the parliament, and former holder of the Malaysia Chair of Islam in S.E. Asia at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
Muslim Puralism Problems
Recent attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt and firebomb attacks on churches in Malaysia have raised major concerns about deteriorating rights and security for religious minorities in Muslim countries. In the town of Nag Hamadi, near Luxor in southern Egypt, seven people were killed when gunmen sprayed automatic fire into a crowd of churchgoers after a Coptic Christmas midnight mass on January 7. Egyptian officials believe the attack was in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. Clashes between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon in southern Egypt or, in recent years, in Cairo.In Malaysia, where Muslims make up 60 percent of the population, eight churches have been attacked with firebombs as bands of militants threatened further actions. Malaysia has long been cited as an example and model of a progressive multiracial Muslim country.
However, its peaceful coexistence has been strained by interreligious tensions and conflicts in recent years between the Malay majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.In recent years, Malay militants have insisted that Christians stop using “Allah,” the Malay term for God, despite the fact that this has been an accepted practice in Malaysia as it is in Indonesia and the Middle East. Malaysia’s Home Ministry prohibited Catholics from using the word in their Malay-language publications since 2007. Customs officials seized 15,000 Bibles from Indonesia because they used the word “Allah” as a translation for God. However, Malaysia’s High Court overturned the government ban, ruling that the word Allah is not exclusive to Muslims and that others, including Catholics, who had been prohibited by the Home Ministry from using the word in the Malay-language edition of the Catholic monthly the Herald, could use the term. Incensed by the decision, militants attacked several churches and pledged to prevent Christians from using the word “Allah.” The High Court in response to the government’s appeal to the higher Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling, granted a stay of its order on Jan. 7; the government appealed.
This is not an isolated instance. Religious minorities in the Muslim world today, constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights — and with good reason. Interreligious and inter-communal tensions and conflicts have flared up not only in Egypt and Malaysia but also in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. Conflicts have varied, from acts of discrimination, to forms of violence escalating to murder, and the destruction of villages, churches and mosques.In the 21st century Muslims are strongly challenged to move beyond older notions of “tolerance” or “co-existence” to a higher level of religious pluralism based on mutual understanding and respect. Regrettably, a significant number of Muslims, like very conservative and fundamentalist Christians and Jews, are not pluralistic but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes towards other faiths and even co-believers with whom they disagree.
A key Islamic issue and debate today regarding pluralism and tolerance is the relationship of past doctrine to current realities. Many call for a reinstatement of the “protected” (dhimmi) status in the past in which Christians and Jews could practice their faith and be guided by their religious leaders in exchange for payment of a tax. Although in the past this was progressive as compared to Christian practice, in today’s modern nation state, it would amount to second class citizenship. Other Muslims insist that non-Muslims be afforded full citizenship rights because pluralism is the essence of Islam, revealed in the Qur’an and practiced by Muhammad and the early caliphs, and not a purely Western invention or ideology. They emphasize that the Qur’an envisions a pluralistic world, mutual understanding and religious tolerance. Jews and Christians are regarded as “People of the Book,” who have also received a revelation and a scripture from God (the Torah for Jews and the Gospels for Christians), a recognition that in later centuries was extended to other faiths.
Today Muslim reformers represent a vanguard that is facing resistance from many conservative religious leaders and movements, fundamentalist and extremist factions. Most reformers both build on and also transform notions of religious pluralism already present in the Islamic tradition. They turn to Qur’anic texts that reveal a pluralistic vision such as: “O humankind, We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” (49:13) or “To everyone we have appointed a way and a course to follow” (5.48), and ”For each there is a direction toward which he turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together [on the Day of Judgment]. Surely God has power over all things.” (2.148) These verses support religious diversity in the human community and reflect support for pluralism, not exclusivism.Religious tolerance and equality of citizenship remain fragile whether in more secular Muslim countries like Egypt and Turkey or self-styled Islamic states and republics in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran states that too often limit the rights of non-Muslims, tolerate or foster religious intolerance of other faiths or of those Muslims with alternative interpretations of Islam.
The more pluralistic visions of Islamic reformers will need to be adopted and implemented in society. Substantive change can only come with strong leadership from government and religious leaders and government legislation; seminary and university curriculum in religious, particularly comparative religion courses, to counter religious exclusivism and intolerance by instilling a more inclusive, pluralistic and tolerant vision and values in the next generation of imams, priests, scholars and the general public.
We have come a long way in inter-religious dialogue and relations both nationally and globally. Major religious leaders and scholars meet at gatherings, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Al-Azhar University, the Vatican, Organization of the Islamic Conference, the World Economic Forum, UN Alliance of Civilizations, to discuss and address and issue statements of concern. In a major global initiative, Muslim leaders sent an open latter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” to the heads of major Christian churches. They emphasized the importance of the two largest global faiths on the basis of the foundational principles of both faiths, the two great commandments: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor, to join together to contribute “meaningful peace around the world.”Finally, religious discrimination, conflict and violence cut across all the world’s religions affecting Muslim minorities in the Philippines, Thailand, Greece, Croatia, Serbia, India, and Jews and Muslims in Europe and America where Islamophobia and ant-Semitism are on the increase.
To more effectively address critical issues of religious freedom, a more ad hoc, a rapid response mechanism must be initiated. Modern technology and communications can be used as a more powerful tool for major religious leaders and organizations of all faiths. They need more initiatives to join together, condemning all forms of discrimination, intolerance and oppression against ethnic and religious minorities. Together they can speak out whenever and wherever abused occur, whether it be their own religion or government or someone else’s that is the oppressor or the victim.
By John L. Esposito, University Professor and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University
Originally Printed in the at the Washington Post-On Faith: