Pope Benedict’s visit to the Middle East last week has accentuated the need to improve relations between Muslims and Christians at multiple levels. Despite sharing a common Ebrahamic lineage, both faith communities have a checkered history of relations going back to the Crusades. While the Quran recognises Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book’, some verses of the book are often taken out of context as well by some Muslims to advocate an exclusionary theology that marginalises other faiths.
The Pope visited the Holy Land at a time when there is a major migration of minority Christian communities from the Muslim-majority region to other parts of the world. In his recent book about the “Middle East’s vanishing Christians”, Charles Sennott raises the significant question of why this is occurring. In areas such as Palestine, the population of Christians has declined from 7 per cent in 1948 to around 2 per cent in 2009.
What are the factors for such a decline? Some may argue that Christian communities have historically had higher education levels and were able to migrate more easily during times of economic stress. However, there is perhaps also an issue of feeling marginalised in Muslim dominant countries that may need to be addressed. For example, in addition to the Christian exodus from Palestine, there is the problem of mass migration from Iraq, where the US-led invasion has left long-standing Christian minorities prone to the threats of extremist groups.
Although the media tends to carry the vociferous voices of those on the extreme fringes of the religious spectrum from both faiths at the expense of the silent majority, there are reasons to be hopeful about religious co-existence in the broader Middle East.
Take Lebanon for example, a country traditionally polarised along sectarian lines. Political alliances for the upcoming Lebanese elections show that traditional Muslim-Christian divides are being widely replaced by cross-cutting ideological, economic, and political differences.
The Lebanese government has recently removed any mention of citizens’ sect from official ID cards, and calls for civil marriage laws have become ever more forceful with current confessional-based laws preventing inter-religious matrimonies. Or take Qatar, an Arab Gulf country enshrined in conservative Islamic tradition, which now hosts 6 churches for various Christian denominations. This is not to mention the recent Gaza offensive which rallied the Arab street, in all of its confessional colours, against the war.
As contemporary societies in the Middle East begin to embrace pluralism at multiple levels, it is essential for the curricula in Muslim schools to also tackle the issue of misinterpretation more directly. Positive interactions between Muslims and Christians in Islamic history need to be more clearly highlighted. For example, the first hijrah which Muslims made from Makkah was to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia ruled by emperor Najashi, who provided them with refuge in their hour of greatest need.
There will always be theological differences between various faiths; differences that external players will always attempt to manipulate for broader purposes. But in a politically volatile region such as the Middle East, it is essential to build better relations between two of the world’s largest religious groups. It is also important that Muslim-Christian unity should not be at the expense of alienating other faith communities; our collective relations as people of faith should transcend the minutiae of theological differences.
The Pope’s symbolic gesture of a visit to Al Aqsa mosque and the positive reception he received there from the imam must be reinforced with a specific renunciation of negative narratives on both sides. Both faith traditions share the blame of abusing historical incidents as a means of propagating a sense of alienation from each other. In an increasingly globalised world, we must strive to learn from history but not let the past hamper our progress towards mutually advantageous human relations.