Perspectives: Christianity and Islam

The Relationship between Christianity and Islam

A sketch of the current situation in the Holy Land(Adapted from an address by Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., to the Netherlands Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, 10 June 2010)

The attacks on September 11, 2011, and the speech of Pope Benedict in Regensburg in September 2006 on “Faith, Reason and the University” ruffled many feathers. The media inundated us with stories about Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, and the persecution and massacre of Christians, causing fear and mistrust. The subsequent events in the Netherlands in connection with Islam also color our assessment of the problems in the Holy Land.

I want to clarify some facts presented by the media and hopefully make a contribution towards true rapprochement between Christians and Muslims. Please note that I am limiting my comments geographically to Israel, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

Since there is no clear definition of the term “persecution” in the Dutch language, let me begin by sharing with you my definition, “the deliberate denial of rights, or suppression or, in extremis, even destruction of a certain group usually for reasons of their beliefs.”

It has been said…

…that persecution is one of the reasons why Christians leave the Holy Land.

In 1982 the then patriarch, Msgr. Beltritti, gave three reasons for emigration in general: the first was economic, because people were seeking income for their families; the second was social, in that people wanted to escape from the stifling pressure of being a minority in a Muslim or Jewish society; and, the third was psychological, in that people wanted to be liberated from the hopeless occupation and oppression.

However, there are other reasons, such as the lack of opportunities for higher education. Generally, Christian youth in the Middle East come from educated, middle or upper-middle class families and intend on pursuing higher education. They are attracted to better educational opportunities in other countries and later settle down there since there are also better career opportunities.

The second intifada (September 2000) is another reason. During the fighting, militants used Christians neighborhoods to fire upon Jewish settlements, because, in the eyes of many Muslims, Christians are regarded as accomplices of the western “Christian” governments. (Muslims generally have no separation between religion and state.)

The pope has also cited international policy as a reason for Christian emigration from the Holy Land. In the Instrumentum Laboris, the working paper for the meeting of the Synod of Bishops from the Middle East regarding the situation in the Middle East, he wrote: “International politics oftentimes pays no attention to the existence of Christians, and the fact that they are victims, at times the first to suffer, goes unnoticed. This is also a major cause of emigration.”

Nowhere, therefore, do we find persecution as a reason or indication as to why Christians emigrate.

It has been said…

…that the Palestinian authorities have a policy intended to change the demography, particularly of Bethlehem, and that this was successful pointing to the fact that in 1947 Christians comprised 78 percent of the population of Bethlehem, and now they represent less than 23 percent of the population.

An obvious reason for this decline is the low birth rate among Christians as compared to the Muslims in the area — Christians more than Muslims are influenced by the values of western secularism. Another reason Christians are emigrating is because of Israeli-imposed travel restrictions, e.g. permits, checkpoints, etc.

The Palestinian authorities have upheld, and continue to uphold, equal rights for Christians. Although this does not mean there has never been incidents of discrimination, but those incidents are the exception rather than the rule. Historically, there have always been two Christian ministers in every government body. Israeli law stipulates that six council seats be reserved for Christian candidates: two from Bethlehem, two from Jerusalem, one from Ramallah and one from Gaza. In addition, the law requires Christians serve as mayors for the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Ramallah, Birzeit, Jifna, Aboud, Taybeh, Ein Arik, and Zababdeh.

During the years Yassar Arafat served as president, when conflicts arose between Christians and Muslims, usually as a result of a Christian woman eloping with a Muslim man, he often personally intervened. Muslims even accused him of favoring Christians. Nonetheless, the muftis (Muslim scholars who interpret the law based on the Koran) often pressured President Arafat to limit the rights granted to Christians in the constitution.

Under the current government of Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas, there has been a clear improvement for Christians. The two leaders consider the presence of Christians in the Holy Land important and aspire to decrease their rate of emigration. As part of that effort, they have offered considerable financial assistance to Christian institutions, e.g. approximately $2.6 million to St. Joseph Hospital and $2 million in the form of interest-free loans to construct homes for Christian families in Beit Safafa (a project of the patriarchate in close collaboration with Pontifical Mission).

The president has also established a presidential committee for Christian affairs consisting of seven members (two of whom are Muslim), which has direct access to the president and the P.L.O.

In addition, the Hamas-led government in Gaza has expressed support of the Christian community as its official position. The fact remains, however, that the situation in Gaza is much more volatile, as indicated by incidents such as the burning of a Christian-owned restaurant and convenience store.

It has been said…

…that Muslims destroyed much of the interior of the Church of Nativity and planned to keep priests and nuns hostage during the siege. This allegation is absolutely untrue! The Franciscan superior of the Church of the Nativity opened its doors to fleeing Palestinian civilians, police and soldiers, who were roaming the streets because their homes or barracks had been completely destroyed, and as the Israeli army cornered them in Manger Square. No one in the group dishonored the church, as happened later, unfortunately, at the hands of Western peace activists.

What attitude toward Islam is consistent with our Christian identity?

There is in us a certain fear of Islam. Fear engenders fear and leads to aggression. Endorsing half-truths or false facts, arising from fear, makes the situation for Christians in the Holy Land more difficult and even dangerous in their relationship with Muslims. Most of us know little about Islam and its culture, which experienced its heyday as part of the Silk Road trading route. It is alien to us, even though Western civilization owes much to Islamic thinkers and scholars.

I do not think our knowledge of Islam is confined to that of the crusades, which all-too-often gives us a somewhat distorted picture of the victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Lepanto through the Rosary. In recent times, we have had more and more interaction with Muslims in our respective countries. As with our other beliefs, one rarely sees what unites us but almost always notices what divides us, especially vis-&aagve; -vis religious and cultural differences. But you can also look at it from another angle: it is not unreasonable to consider Protestantism as having served as a reminder to Catholics to place the Bible as the word of God’s word more at the center of its teachings. Similarly, Islam could help remember that the Trinity is but one God.

We are called upon to change our attitude toward Islam.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said recently at a conference in Granada, “We must not fear Islam, but I would say more: Christians and Muslims, when they profess their own faith with integrity and credibility, when they dialogue and make an effort to serve society, constitute a richness for the latter.”

Pope Benedict XVI also states in the Instrumentum Laboris, that “[w]e need to be freed from everything that blocks and isolates us: fear and mistrust of one another, greed and selfishness, unwillingness to accept the risk of vulnerability to which we are exposed when we open ourselves to love.”

Our concern is to protect the Christians in the Holy Land and to support them in their tasks to witness to the Risen Lord through the church’s many works of charity and to engage in dialogue with Muslims (and Jews) in order to seek the truth that unites them as one.

I suggest that we be inspired by St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil who, during the fifth crusade, succeeded where politicians of the time failed. The two managed to reach a true meeting of the minds, which resulted in great mutual respect. St. Francis was not only an idealist who preached sermons to flowers and birds, but a peacemaker. Their encounter should serve a message for today’s society, in which cultural, ethnic and religious identities have become so important. For in the work for peace and justice, it is a prerequisite to stand strong in our faith and traditions, learn from the virtues of others and grow in respect for each other.

Rev. Guido A.M. Gockel, M.H.M.

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