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Montenegro’s Churches Get a Religious Freedom Do-Over

Image: Filip Filipovic / Getty Images
Priests and Orthodox nuns watch the funeral service for Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic from the balcony on November 1, 2020 in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Europe’s second-newest nation made a second effort this week at greater religious freedom.

And evangelicals in Montenegro, the Balkan nation independent from Serbia since 2006, couldn’t be more pleased.

“This is a great blessing, we are out of the gray zone and drawn into legal existence,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica.

“We were permitted before, but now we know our rights and duties.”

Montenegrin evangelicals were pleased with the new law’s first iteration a year ago as well. But in between, the controversial text split Montenegro’s 75-percent Orthodox community, and nearly tore the nation apart.

Controversially passed last February by lawmakers aligned with the 30-year ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (which ran the regional government when the nation was part of Serbia), ethnic Serbian politicians stormed out of the session in protest.

At issue were not the general provisions of the law, which guaranteed the right to change religion, to establish religious schools above the elementary level, and to conscientiously object from military service.

Replacing a 1977 communist-era law, it also eased licensing procedures and permitted foreign-born leadership and international headquarters.

Rather, a clause in the religious freedom law required all religious communities to provide evidence of ownership for properties built prior to the 1918 integration of Montenegro into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Critics interpreted it as a challenge to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Failure to do so would transfer ownership of hundreds of ancient churches and monasteries to the state, to be regarded as part of Montenegro’s cultural heritage.

Church leadership rallied the faithful in protests throughout the year. The end result was a narrow electoral victory for an alliance of opposition parties, including the ethnic Serbian-led Democratic Front.

Their first priority was to change the religious freedom law.

“This is the ‘Year of Justice’ in Montenegro,” Vladimir Leposavic, newly appointed Minister of Justice and Human and Minority Rights, told CT.

“Our amendments are an example of how we will fight for the rule of law, with clear norms and nondiscrimination.” Seeking to strengthen the law further, the amendments also…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Archbishop: Our Holy Mission Is to Keep Peace

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The saying is clear: To the victor go the spoils.

And morally, with it comes the burden of peace.

In November, Christian-heritage Armenia surrendered to Muslim-majority Azerbaijani forces besieging the Caucasus mountain area of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire agreement ended a six-week war that cost each side roughly 3,000 soldiers, and left unsettled the final status of the Armenian-populated enclave they call Artsakh.

Azerbaijan, however, recovered the rest of its internationally recognized territory, including the historic city of Shushi. The first Karabakh war ended in 1994, and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes on both sides.

Archbishop Alexander, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan, reached out to CT to promote a process of reconciliation.

It will not be easy.

What is your vision for reconciliation?

We are both eastern Christian communities, and we have much in common.

At the same time, 1,500 years of separation between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Armenian Apostolic church has complicated relations. We have holy books and traditions in common, but we are not in fellowship.

Both of us have been living among Muslims since Islam was introduced in our region. But the manner of living has been very different. The Orthodox church in Azerbaijan found a way to live together with Muslims, but Armenians did not. Relations were not always…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full article.

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Will Caucasus Conflict Come Also to France?

Image: Courtesy of Gilbert Léonian
Gilbert Léonian and his wife in front of their Paris church.

Throughout the six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian diaspora rallied in support of an ancient Caucasus mountain homeland they call Artsakh.

Overall, they donated $150 million in economic and humanitarian aid.

In California, they blocked freeway traffic to protest the lack of news coverage.

In Lebanon, they hung banners against Azerbaijani and Turkish aggression.

And in France, they successfully lobbied the senate for a non-binding resolution recognizing Artsakh’s independence. (International law recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory.)

The symbolic vote angered Azerbaijan, which called for France’s removal from the Minsk Group, co-chaired with Russia and the United States and tasked with overseeing negotiations with Armenia since 1994. Turkey has petitioned for a leading role.

But the consequences go beyond regional politics. The controversy could threaten the French social peace, already riled amid President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against Muslim “separatism.”

Azerbaijan, and especially allied Turkey, also have an extensive diaspora throughout Europe. And last month, their supporters led demonstrations in Armenian neighborhoods in Lyon, vandalizing the Armenian genocide memorial.

France then banned one of the more violent groups, the Grey Wolves.

To gauge the situation, CT interviewed Gilbert Léonian, a Paris-based pastor and president of the Federation of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Europe. Of the roughly 500,000 French people of Armenian origin in France, about 3 percent are evangelical, worshiping across nine churches.

(Like many French pastors across all ethnicities, Léonian studied at the well-known evangelical seminary in Vaux sur Seine, near Paris. He recalled reading CT in the 1970s, as he studied under the renowned theologian Henri Blocher.)

Léonian discussed relations between the ethnic communities, his fears for the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh churches, and his personal struggle to love his Azerbaijani and Turkish neighbors:

To what degree are the Armenian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani communities integrated into secular French society? Do they maintain their respective faiths?

The first Armenians arrived in France in the early 1920s, following the genocide of 1915–1918.

Others came to France in different migratory waves due to insecurity in their countries of origin: Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and more recently, Armenia, following the 1988 earthquake.

Today in France, the Armenian population is mainly established along a south-to-north line from the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, where the majority of original immigrants arrived and settled, through France’s second largest city of Lyons, and up to Paris.

The Armenian people are deeply religious, and were the first people to accept Christianity as their state religion, in 301 A.D., 12 years before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Tolerance in 313 A.D. In France, 90 percent belong to the Apostolic [Orthodox] community, in 24 churches. Catholics represent 7 percent, in five churches. Very few Armenians call themselves atheists.

However, we are seeing a major secularization of religious practice, reflecting the general trend in Europe. For many Armenians, the church is more the place where the diaspora maintains its identity and culture, rather than a place where Christian piety is nurtured. There are about 800,000 Turks and 50,000 Azerbaijanis in France, and overall they try…

(Interview and translation by Jean-Paul Rempp.)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 8, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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France’s Free Speech Makes Arab Christians Squirm

French authorities insist that “Islam is in crisis.”

A teacher was beheaded in the streets last month. Three Catholics were knifed at church.

And around the world, Muslims are protesting religious cartoons.

The French reaction has been firm.

“We will defend the freedom that you taught so well, and we will strongly proclaim the concept of laïcité [secularism],” President Emmanuel Macron said of Samuel Paty, the slain teacher who used the infamous Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Muhammad in a class discussion about freedom of expression.

“We will not disavow the cartoons, even if others recoil,” Macron added.

And the official reaction has been swift.

A mosque that shared a video venting hatred toward Paty—prior to his murder—was shut down for six months. A Muslim charity linked to extremism was dissolved.

Meanwhile, a recent poll indicated 87 percent of the French believe that “secularism is in danger.” An additional 79 percent believe that “Islamism has declared war on the nation and the Republic.”

Muslim world leaders responded in outrage to Macron’s rhetoric.

Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan called for a boycott of French products. Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia, said Muslims have the right to “punish” the French, and “kill” them for their past atrocities.

Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar, led the Abu Dhabi–based Muslim Council of Elders in a call to sue Charlie Hebdo. The crisis has renewed the Muslim cry for an international law to ban the defamation of Islamic symbols. Others would broaden it to ban defamation of religion in general.

CT spoke with eight Christian leaders in the Arab world about the controversy, as well as a representative of France’s evangelical community.

The latter—also sometimes beleaguered in France—stands with Macron. “French evangelicals, like moderate Muslims, support…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 10, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christians Defend Cultural Heritage in Muslim-Majority Countries

khachkars

This article was first published in the November 2019 print edition of Christianity Today.

Dozens of men with sledgehammers pound slabs of stone in an otherwise empty mountainous field. Filmed in 2005 by the prelate of northern Iran’s Armenian church, Bishop Nshan Topouzian, the clip purports to show the destruction of khachkars, ornately carved headstones from a Christian graveyard, some dating back to the 6th century.

The site is in Nakhchivan, an enclave of primarily Muslim Azerbaijan geographically separated from the country by primarily Christian Armenia. Iran shares its southern border in the ethnically tangled web of states that make up the Central Asian Caucasus. Russia is to the north, Turkey to the west.

The destruction of more than 2,000 khachkars—in addition to 89 churches, 5,480 cross stones, and 22,000 tombstones—has been labeled “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century” by Simon Maghakyan, an Armenian American activist and scholar whose research was profiled in the Guardian. He believes the move represents a campaign by the Azerbaijani government to wipe out its Christian heritage.

“The destruction of these khachkars seems to match in scale and tragedy ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra in Syria and the Taliban destruction of the Bamayan statues in Afghanistan,” said Wissam al-Saliby, advocacy officer at the United Nations for the World Evangelical Alliance.

“This issue goes beyond religious freedom. It is the heritage of mankind.”

But Azerbaijan denies Armenians ever lived in Nakhchivan, and cites similar cultural cleansing…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Religious Freedom Comes to Europe’s Second-Newest Nation. But Christians Are Concerned.

"Crkva Gospa od Zdravlja" church, Kotor bay, Montenegro.
Orthodox Church in Kotor Bay, Montenegro

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on February 4, 2020.

Deep within the Orthodox heartlands of the Balkans, one might expect local evangelicals to celebrate the passage of Montenegro’s first religious freedom law.

Instead, as tens of thousands fill the streets to protest against it, the relative handful of believers find themselves on the sideline of a struggle between giants.

And the stakes could further shake the greater Orthodox world.

Europe’s 6th-least evangelical country is also one of its newer nations. Having achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 through a tightly contested referendum, Montenegro is now seeking autocephaly—spiritual independence—for its local Orthodox church, viewed as a schism by the Serbian Orthodox.

Protests have erupted in Belgrade also, with thousands rallying last month against Serbian “suffering” in Montenegro and other neighboring nations. Crosses, icons, and church banners peppered the demonstrations.

But in Montenegro, rather than waiting for a liberating tomos (decree) similar to the one issued to Ukraine by Archbishop Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is the ecumenical patriarch for Eastern Orthodox communities, the government is acting to register all of its religious communities.

The protesting ethnic Serbian citizens of Montenegro fear the religious freedom law is nothing but a trojan horse for an elaborate ecclesiastic land grab targeting Serbian Orthodox Church properties.

“The law is a step forward, as it helps us ‘small religious communities’ have a legal basis to operate,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica and one of the nation’s five registered evangelical churches.

“But none of us want to enjoy this benefit if it will create in Montenegro…”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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From Russia, Without Love: Ukraine Marks Orthodox Christmas with Biggest Schism Since 1054

ukraine russia tomos autocephaly
(Via UNIAN)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on January 6, 2019.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been born again.

On January 6, it received the tomos of autocephaly—the documentation of its independence among Eastern church bodies—from one Orthodox heavyweight, the Patriarch of Constantinople, despite the vociferous opposition of another heavyweight, the Patriarch of Moscow.

To understand the significance of the biggest Christian schism since the Protestant Reformation, unfolding since last fall and formalized this weekend as Eastern churches celebrated Christmas Eve, a brief history is in order.

Founded in Kiev in 988 A.D., Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity on behalf of the Rus peoples, who would eventually constitute the nations of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine.

Tradition holds that the formerly pagan Vladimir wished to give a religion to his realm, and queried representatives of Judaism, Islam, and the different rites of Christianity.

Astounded by the majesty of the Byzantine mass, Vladimir chose Constantinople. In 1054, the Great Schism split Christianity—and the Rus remained in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Geopolitical winds shifted, however, and in 1686 the Patriarch of Constantinople—considered within Orthodox leadership to be the first among equals—placed the patriarchate of Kiev under the ascendant patriarchal church of Moscow.

In the modern era, geopolitical and religious winds continued to blow…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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The Muslim Brotherhood in England and Egypt

MB England EgyptLondon and Istanbul have become the new base of operations for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Following the ouster of Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2011 and their subsequent banning in Egypt in December last year, the organization is recalibrating abroad.

An early base of operations was Qatar, where the al-Jazeera network was widely perceived, even by its own staff, as being biased toward the Brotherhood.

But the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia joined Egypt in labelling the MB a terrorist organization, and their pressure on Qatar resulted in the expulsion of some leaders.

Now several office blocks on London’s A406 North Circular Road comprise one of the two main centres of operation, the other being Turkey.

An investigation into MB links to terrorism was completed by former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins in July 2014, but its results have not yet been made public.

And bar a few lone journalists keeping tabs on the story, there is little public accountability about the presence and growth of such a controversial movement in Britain.

The MB is accused of burning up to 50 churches and Coptic businesses following the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14, 2013. In December, in an Asyut court 40 Morsi supporters were found guilty, while 61 others were acquitted.

Ian Black of the Guardian has followed the story, implying the inquiry is being leaned on by Gulf nations who have banned the MB.

Delay in its publication is attributed to their displeasure that the report clears the MB of terrorism.

Black quotes MB apologist Anas al-Tikriti, founder Director of the Cordoba Institute, who says Islamists like the MB must be seen as a middle ground in the fight against extremism. If allowed to govern, he says, they would liberalize and sideline their hardliners.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute debunks this theory, saying Islamists only ever moderate their behaviour under duress. Once enjoying democratic freedoms, they tend to revert to their original illiberal religious conservatism.

Tikriti, whose father was in the Iraqi Brotherhood, recently denied on Twitter being a member or lobbyist of the MB.

Al-Jazeera however describe the Cordoba Foundation as a Brotherhood front. And the Hudson Institute, in a study of UK-based Islamism, calls him one of their shrewdest activists.

But Ibrahim Mouneer, an MB senior leader in London, told the Times that if the group were banned it would result in increased terrorism at home, with moderate Muslims concluding that an irenic approach didn’t work.

Lapido Media has argued this purported dichotomy between Islamism and jihadism is a false choice, and the government should not be gulled.

According to Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph, the UK inquiry will confirm that the MB is not a terrorist group and should not therefore be banned.

And a British security source told Lapido they prefer to turn a more or less blind eye within the law, believing this offers opportunities for ‘influence’.

But Gilligan provides extensive evidence the group is linked – directly and indirectly – with terrorist groups, in particular with Hamas, and is at least potentially outside the law.

Cordoba Foundation is named by Gilligan as one of 25 groups with Muslim Brotherhood links. The Muslim Charities Forum is mentioned also.

A June report by the UAE based The National linked Takriti, his family, and associates also to the Middle East Eye and Middle East Monitor.

The Egyptian foreign ministry has asked in vain that London shut down UK based pro-MB satellite channels and newspapers like Alarabi, al-Hewar, and al-Araby al-Jadeed, saying they incite terrorist activity in Egypt.

The BBC has examined this growing media outreach that fails to promote impartial journalism, and is said to be funded by Qatar.

According to the Washington Post, this incitement is clear in the MB’s other haven abroad, Turkey. It says the Masr al-An channel, funded and managed by the MB, warned that the families of Egyptian police officers would be ‘widowed and orphaned’.

Other Turkey-based pro-MB channels like al-Sharq, Mukammilin and Rabaa employ similar rhetoric, and even allowed one MB supporter to issue a fatwa during a live interview to assassinate Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Others advocate the killing of media figures and warn foreigners to leave Egypt lest they become legitimate targets.

The fatwa caused uproar, leading the Brotherhood on its English language Twitter feed @IkhwanWeb to condemn it and deny endorsing the channel.

The call to kill Sisi was made to audible applause by grinning Egyptian cleric Salama Abd Al-Qawi who said: ‘Doing this would be a good deed that would bring (the killer) closer to Allah.’

Although Al-Qawi was official spokesman for the Endowments Ministry during the presidency of Morsi, it is hard to pin down his ‘membership’ in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The MB is a hierarchical organization with strict guidelines for who is in and who simply is like-minded. Those who are members follow policy. Others aid and cooperate. The MB does not publish its membership list.

Many MB self-identify. And the period in power gave the opportunity to see new faces emerge. But without an admissions policy, it is very difficult to identify ‘members’.

MB-watchers have not seen the sheikh identified either way. But clearly he is at least a supporter and often featured in their broadcasts.

On January 25 this year a delegation of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council and the so-called Parliament in Exile, including leading MB figures, visited Washington and met State Department and White House officials.

They asserted that the revolution was non-violent and the only way to undo the coup. The State Department had previously said Egypt had given it no evidence of MB links to terrorism.

Just two days later the MB released a statement urging its supporters to prepare for a long and uncompromising jihad, stopping just short of an outright call for violence.

Charl Fouad El-Masri, editor-in-chief of Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm said: ‘Egypt’s Copts suffered during the Muslim Brotherhood rule greatly.’

Anglican Bishop of Egypt Rt Revd Mouneer Hanna Anis had his Suez church attacked by pro-Morsi supporters following the dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins in August 2013. He strongly suspects the MB to be behind Egyptian violence and terrorism.

‘They may not be directly involved in terrorist attacks,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘but they encouraged the flourishing of terrorist groups in Egypt.’

This article was originally published at Lapido Media, as a press briefing service.

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Lessons in Peacebuilding from Northern Ireland

Avila Kilmurray
Avila Kilmurray

From my recent article on Arab West Report, reporting a visit to Egypt by Avila Kilmurray, a veteran peace activist from Northern Ireland. The lecture was arranged by the American University in Cairo, hoping for cross-pollination of ideas.

Her lecture was entitled, ‘Peace Building during Religious Strife: What Can Citizens Do?’ But even the title demands questions about the Egyptian particulars. Is Egypt’s religious strife the suffering of Copts at the hands of Islamists following the deposing of Morsi, or the longer patterns of discrimination and neglect on the part of the state? Or, is the strife the suffering of Islamists after the coup and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, or the longer patterns of discrimination and exclusion on the part of the state? Others would deny there is religious strife at all.

Within these options Kilmurray would counsel not a definition, but a participation. Citizens are free to label the troublemakers as they wish, but they must share a common purpose toward community peace. But a further recognition is necessary, at least from Northern Ireland’s experience. It will prove especially controversial in Egypt.

Kilmurray stated that early citizen initiatives sought to exclude the extremists. There was only one problem: It did not work. As long as the sponsors of violence remained outside the process peace proved elusive. Solutions began when they were brought into the room.

Kilmurray presented in November, 2013, before the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, but while official and popular sentiment was very much against them. They cannot be brought into the room now; what then are the possibilities for peace?

From this foundation relationships can be built, so that any proposed solutions to conflicts become mutually agreed upon, not forced. Otherwise, the culture of blame, which runs rampant when each group speaks among themselves, can result in accusation and acrimony when together.

Simply agreeing on these principles does not ensure success, however. Activist peacemakers from all sides must take care not to move too quickly. Otherwise their hopeful but perhaps reluctant constituencies grow uneasy and divisions will creep into each camp. Their commitment will be especially tested when sponsors of violence erupt again in community disturbance.

At times like this, it may be necessary for their representation to withdraw, but not absolutely. As meetings continue between normal citizens on both sides, those connected to groups of violence are to be briefed, so as to be part of the process, if from afar. When the time is right they must be encouraged to reengage, for no success can come unless every faction of society sees itself represented in these community groups.

The acrimony is present, and violence has erupted again. Are there any backdoor channels currently operating between anyone in the government and Brotherhood leaders, whether in prison or abroad? During the process of crafting the constitution, the participation of the Salafi Nour Party ensured that some Islamists could see themselves involved, though many others labeled them as hypocrites and opportunists.

But few mixed community groups exist; the above only describes the very limited official sessions. Here is one example of some citizens who are trying.

To progress, Kilmurray notes, they must leave out the politicians. But to succeed, they need them.

Community peace groups, therefore, had to have a positive agenda. Many took up the cause of human rights, holding accountable both militias and police. They also tended to operate without politicians, giving participants of sense of responsibility and risk taking that eluded electoral leaders. They would hold protests in the street condemning violence. But they would also work behind the scenes to craft a shared narrative history of ‘the troubles’, in order to work their perspective into society’s official institutions.

Participants in community groups were aware that peacemaking must not be surrendered only to the politicians, or else their rhetoric might become just one more tool in the political power grab. But lasting peace cannot be achieved without politicians, for they operate within government to make lasting agreements in the name of the divided peoples.

So perhaps this is too late, if it was feasible anyway. But from the conclusion:

Kilmurray did not speak about Egypt, but a number of her remarks engender reflection on the current political and sectarian struggles. Given the current rule of an army backed government that deposed the Islamist Morsi from power following popular demonstrations, especially critical will be any role for his Muslim Brotherhood.

I imagine Kilmurray would draw a distinction between participation of Brotherhood politicians and of citizens, both members and sympathizers. Of the former she would likely take little interest, for they, like their rivals, are involved in the back-and-forth power struggles that were unhelpful in Northern Ireland.

Instead, she would likely counsel the desperate necessity for greater civil society involvement in the issues of peace. Dialogue groups exist among clergy, and human rights groups exist as per the issue chosen. But where are the community groups that are deliberately inclusive for the sake of local relations and development?

Such groups must bring together Copts, liberals, Salafis, Sufis, Baha’is, Nubians, the non-religious, and yes, the Muslim Brothers, she would likely advocate. Here, Egypt’s challenge is potentially greater than Northern Ireland’s, for in Belfast the population is relatively evenly divided. In Egypt, the presence of any of these groups might offend the sensibilities of others right from the start on a conceptual basis. And furthermore, the inclusion of some tiny minorities might appear more a political statement than a representation of an actual community.

But community groups are not chiefly for the political statements. It might be hoped that local citizens within the above factions might bear less grievance against their neighbor. And if the tiny minorities are not present in any particular local community, there is no representation necessary. As the circles widen, however, all must be included.

This is another of Egypt’s challenges: 85 million people would engulf Belfast. Finding appropriate citizen participation to speak peace to the nation is a herculean organizational endeavor. But to start small, in each community, is the task at hand. Hold together, and hold to account. However Egypt’s sectarianism is to be defined, this is the beginning of the solution.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Islam and Europe: Polemics or Engagement?

Swiss Islam

Polemics are poison to interfaith relations. Unfortunately the salve of dialogue and cooperation often fails to make as wide an impression, leaving wary religious communities under the assumption of mutual opposition. Polemics reduces ambiguity and nuance, allowing the non-specialist citizen to appreciate his or her own heritage when challenged by ideologies of a foreign ‘other’. Yet this reduction is achieved in a manner often repulsive to the ‘other’, no matter how much it may be reflective of part of the ideology. The specialist in interfaith relations deals with the complexity, but the audience is often limited. By speaking to the street the polemicist simultaneously comforts and infuriates.

This is very much the situation currently governing the Mediterranean world. Arab Muslims widely believe Europe is dominated by ‘Islamophobia’ – a rejectionist attitude which dismisses their faith. For example, Johannes Jansen, whom I wrote about here concerning his book, ‘Religious Roots of Muslim Violence’, writes concerning their prophet:

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, may have been born around 570 AD in Mecca and if he existed, he died in Medina around 632 (italics mine).

Questions of historicity in the academic world are proper and legitimate, but Jansen, though a scholar, writes popularly. After first undermining the religion of Islam at its source, he reinforces its oppositional nature through irresponsible generalization:

Also printed testimonies from within the Muslim world abundantly illustrate that in general Muslims (with individual exceptions, one hopes) distrust and hate the West. They see the West as an enemy, and it is their religious background that encourages such judgements.

Critique of such ideas may be found elsewhere, but suffice it to say that when attitudes such as these reach the shores of North Africa and the Middle East, let alone communities of Muslims resident in Europe, interfaith coexistence and cooperation receives a setback.

Jan Slomp
Jan Slomp

This is why the example of European Christian leaders necessitates wider dissemination, especially as concerns their response toward the Muslim minorities in their midst. Jan Slomp is a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and together with Hans Voecking summarized the history of this interaction. This article is a summary of their essay, ‘The Churches and Islam in Europe’, published in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, vol. 21, 2011.

Worthy to note is that Christian leaders did not consider the wave of Muslim immigration to be a religious issue at all, in the beginning. Instead, it was a socio-economic challenge, and churches organized to assist. In 1964 Protestant and Orthodox churches founded the Committee for Migrant Workers in Europe, while Roman Catholics formed the International Catholic Migration Committee shortly thereafter. Though these services had a religious subsection, the churches deliberately put priority on service and love before issues of doctrine and belief. They believed the Gospel called them to do so.

It soon became clear to both groups, however, that the presence of Muslim immigrants in particular placed challenges in front of local Christian congregations. In 1976 Christian leaders organized a conference to directly consider the needs of Muslim communities in Europe along with those of traditional Christians vis-à-vis their new neighbors. Ali Merad, an Algerian professor resident in France detailed the Muslim position. They needed in particular:

  • Proper housing
  • Job security
  • Children’s schooling
  • Religious education in public schools
  • Facilities to worship and practice Islamic festivals

Merad argued that by fulfilling these needs the Muslim world would receive a positive view of Christianity and promote reconciliation between Christian Europe and the Muslim Third World. Indigenous Arab Christians, especially, would be indispensable mediators between East and West.

Slomp relates that thirty-five years later, to a large degree, these needs have been largely addressed. Yet the conference also spelled out principles to be implemented in the churches, including:

  • Respect for Muslims requires greater knowledge of their religion
  • Islam and Christianity to be presented correctly
  • Churches establish offices to meet with Muslim representatives

In 1978 Christian leaders recognized many churches were still slow to relate to their Muslim neighbors in witness and service, and thus another conference was held. It tasked three committees to produce reports through which to guide Christian response. The first concerned working together with Muslims to protect and further their basic human rights as a minority community. The second envisioned positive cooperation between the two faiths in confronting secularism as a dominant ideology. The third, however, dealt with theological questions, and failed to reach consensus.

The difficulty in theology led Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox leaders to establish a new organization in 1979, the Consultative Committee on Islam in Europe. A conference held was again motivated to encourage witness and service to Muslim neighbors, but emphasized this was especially in light of their religious freedom and the necessity of social integration. Work was established to create literature for local churches to educate properly about Islam, as well as to highlight instances in which Muslims suffered discrimination. Issues of theology, however, continued to be contentious.

Most Christian leaders in these meetings were challenging themselves to respond positively to the message of Islam as a partner in monotheism. Though keen not to water down the distinctives of Christian theology, many urged Muhammad to be accepted as a prophet within the continuing Old Testament tradition. Leaders emphasized common positions on ethics and urged cooperation in promoting spirituality. Hope was expressed that Muslims might continue to honor Jesus and be attracted to him, within an eschatological position where God would ‘restore all things (also all things Islamic transformed by him) in heaven and on earth into a unity in Christ’.

Such positions made many local churches uncomfortable, as they felt Islam was being made too akin to Christianity, which might lower the barriers for conversion away from the faith. No firm positions were taken, but in 1987 the Islam in Europe Committee was formed between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to improve Islamic studies in all seminaries and theological faculties in Europe for the benefit of ordinary congregations, among others, by inviting Muslim teachers. In particular they wished to move beyond studies of comparative religion by allowing space for Quranic studies into the curriculum for Biblical studies, by which Islam might integrate into every aspect of theological inquiry.

However much the committee influenced local congregations, it was disbanded in 2009 in light of two encouraging developments. First, it was noticed that many churches by this time had incorporated an Islam desk to engage their congregants and communities. Second, the formal work of local churches in regional conferences was honored, as local leaders gathered to consult and exchange experiences. Across the continent churches had become aware of the peculiarities of these now Muslim citizens, and were engaging with them for the common good.

The differences in approach are apparent. Polemicists begin by viewing these newcomers to Europe as a religious other, make generalizations about their faith, emphasize points of departure, and establish a foundation of fear and opposition. While undoubtedly Christian people have engaged in such polemics, the Christian leadership of Europe has taken a different approach. They began by serving the humanity of these immigrants, subsequently recognizing the implications of their religious differences. Yet instead of opposition they sought understanding, integration, support for human rights, and even pushed the boundaries of Christian theology to find common ground.

In brief evaluation, if there were faults in the efforts of Christian leaders, it lies in the level of popular engagement. Polemicists have enough academic study to be accredited as experts, but their strength lies in simplification and mass appeal. Their message is also easily translatable through the media. European Christian leaders, on the other hand, hosted conferences, formed committees, and issued recommendations. These are not the avenues to reach the common man. Furthermore, in accepting the challenge to engage theology with Islam, they threatened the simple faith of the local believer. This can well aid the polemicist who reinforces popular belief through fear, now also of ‘compromising’ leadership.

Yet these Christian leaders are no ivory tower theoreticians. Each and every step was calculated to form wide councils of all denominational leadership, with an eye toward speaking toward the common man. Such broad consultation and engagement is done to build a network that can withstand media-driven and politicized polemicists. They printed literature and nurtured regional networks of pastors and priests. They assured the predominant message from the pulpit was one of engagement and respect. This is slow work which does not command attention. Yet despite the popularity of polemicists, it was noted that nearly all Muslim essential needs as a minority community have been met. Where this is lacking, especially as regards full integration, there may be indication the Christian message has fallen on the deaf ears of a secular population still Christian in heritage. This is a fertile ground for polemicism.

Unfortunately, there are polemicists in the Muslim world also. Despite the successes of Christian leaders in welcoming the Muslim ‘other’, many are quick to highlight Jansen or others as typical of a dominant European rejectionism. Yet the reasoned attitude in the Muslim world regards Europe as a place of freedom and equality, where Muslims have largely shared in a better life. Economics above all determine voting by the feet – immigrants continue to pour into Europe – but without the foundation of welcome labored for by Christian leaders over many decades, they might not be so eager to come.

Yet it is France’s niqab ban or Switzerland’s forbiddance of minarets that pervades common Muslim perception of Europe, aided by local polemicists. Has Murad’s prediction failed, that European attention to Muslim immigrant needs would reflect positively on Christianity and foster reconciliation? Slomp demurs that over this same time period the position of indigenous Christians in the Middle East has not improved. He takes no position on Muslim world reciprocity towards Europe, at least in this essay.

Yet this question highlights the seductive danger of polemics. ‘We’ are better than ‘they’ is the lens through which it is asked. The superiority of self and kin is inherent to human nature; Christian leaders have demonstrated the spirit of their faith is to overcome it.

Service, welcome, equality, and love – this is what the Europe Christian leaders have sought to build. In dialogue with Muslims, they may just find the ‘other’ intends the same. Jansen may doubt, but it is only through engagement that truth is discovered. Faith demands such risk; it is the salve that undoes the poison.

This essay was first published in Arab West Report in February 2012.