As Egyptians come to terms with the near-sweep of the Muslim Brotherhood in their new government, no one is more apprehensive of what this new government means than Egypt’s minority Christian population. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, has promised protection for minorities, but Coptic Christians in Egypt are still nervous about the future. And they are not alone. In countries across the Middle East, life for religious minorities is often uncertain; and as the violence of the Arab Spring continues, these groups remain at risk of persecution and discrimination.
But a gathering of Christian and Muslim faith leaders in Beirut last month gives me hope that religious leaders can play a role in speaking up for minority religions and negotiating conflicts between groups. The symbolism of holding such a meeting in Beirut is resonant and powerful. For Protestants and Catholics to come together with Shi’ites and Sunnis in a city so often shredded by sectarian violence sends a powerful message to faith communities and the world.
Of course this kind of interfaith communion is remarkable – but it really shouldn’t be.
Despite what centuries of history might lead us to believe, the commonalities among people of faith are much greater than the differences. Our values are shaped by a power far beyond human understanding; we seek guidance in prayer and holy texts; we work to build a world of greater justice and deeper love. We all believe that building holy community is central to achieving God’s will.
Yet across the globe, notably in the U.S., cultural norms that still lead to triumphalism and fear cause minority communities to suffer. Americans know well the discrimination visited upon our Muslim brothers and sisters, made much worse in the decade since 9/11, but I have been a firsthand witness to a growing community of Christians who stand against Islamophobia and build bridges to fellow believers.
In the Middle East, where another religion forms the majority, the equation is reversed: minority Christians are being pushed out of their ancestral homes by discrimination, threats and violence.
In the past few years, some two million Christians have left the region in which their faith was born— whether they’re Orthodox from Syria, Copts from Egypt, or Protestants from Palestine. The world was heartened during last year’s Arab uprisings by images of Muslims protecting Christians at prayer, but such moments, as important as they are, are too rare. Radical anti-Christian violence and rampant legal discrimination still set the tone across the region.
Just as American and European Christians have begun to act against anti-Muslim bigotry, Muslim religious leaders everywhere must begin to challenge anti-Christian prejudice and violence. Similarly, Western Christian leaders must be far more forceful in expressing our dismay at the struggles faced by our fellow Americans of faith, no matter where they may be.
Far too often, religion has been the excuse for hate, violence, slavery, and misogyny – and not one religion: all religions. Christians and Jews who condemn Islam as “violent” need to study their own religious texts and their communities’ history. The problem doesn’t lie in faith or creed but in religious fundamentalism, no matter what its form. In the eyes of religious fundamentalists, no matter what their religion, the human condition is defined by the polarities of darkness and light. It’s really as simple as that.
Simple to describe perhaps, but not simple to combat. The work requires dedication and many willing hands.
The Beirut summit followed up on a similar gathering hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in 2010. Throughout these years we have been working to build an international community of agents of change, religious leaders and activists striving for peace among our communities, using our influence to create peace internationally.
Our hearts reach out to the innocents harmed or killed during the recent conflicts in Syria; but we are also especially mindful of the violence that has plagued the Middle East for decades. We understand that a just and durable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an essential foundation to build justice and peace not only in the region, not only between faith communities, but in the entire world. Above all, that peace cannot be achieved unless and until justice prevails so that all peoples might enjoy their full rights, including the right to self-determination.
Christians and Muslims share the conviction that the one God is deeply interwoven in the story of what we now call the Middle East. Our communities and our outreach must stress the importance of our common religious teachings, our shared dedication to the dignity and rights of others, and authentic plurality and diversity in the Middle East and around the world.
We share an obligation, to each other and to our Creator, to reach past old hurts and old hates, and make real change in the lives of all God’s children.