Muslim-Christian relations clouded in the new Middle East

September 12, 2012

(Archbishop and mufti at the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Jordan, 24 Nov 2011/Tom Heneghan)

When Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims meet to discuss religion and the region’s future, it can sometimes seem like they are talking about two different places and using divergent meanings for the same words.

The Christians, worried by the rise of Islamists since last year’s Arab Spring democratic uprisings, usually speak of reforms they want to see so they and other religious minorities can live as full and equal citizens with the majority Muslims.

Faced with the protesters’ grassroots demands for more individual rights, the Muslims often cite the tolerance and co-existence that marked the region’s multicultural past as useful guideposts for interfaith relations going forward.

Some meetings, such as one held in Istanbul last weekend, end with declarations supporting national unity and respect for religious diversity. But the words can have such different shades of meaning that it’s not clear how much progress is made.

“I can’t accept tolerance because that implies domination,” Bishop Munib Younan, the Jerusalem-based leader of Lutherans in Jordan and the Holy Land, told the assembled clerics of both faiths. “I don’t accept being called a minority.”

“Are we ready to separate church and state?” he asked the conference, organised by study centres of Marmara University in Istanbul and Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. “If we don’t separate them, then we can forget equal citizenship.”

El Siddiq Omer Yaqub, a lecturer at Tripoli University in Libya, responded with the traditional Muslim view: “You can’t separate religion and state in Islam. The Koran addresses itself to both the state and the people.”


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