Over the past few weeks, a number of events made me realise that religion - some mistakenly refer to it as religiosity too - is playing once more quite an active role not only in our private lives but also in our public ones. Gone for now I think are the decades when God and Caesar inhabited different compartments.
Today, we often come across stories of radicalism, persecution, discrimination, bigotry, forced conversions and marriages or even beheadings in the name of religion. Conversely, we hear stories that edify the spiritual and use it as a bastion against all ills. Religion - not always synonymous with faith - is much more omnipresent today in our headlines and consciousness if not always in our lives.
The first event that drew my attention was a meeting in Damascus a fortnight ago assembling Orthodox and Catholic Church hierarchs in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in order to discuss the problems facing their Arab Christian communities in this increasingly uncontrollable region. I am quite aware of the ordeals challenging many of those communities let alone of their refugee plights in Iraq to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. I am equally aware of the attempts by the so-called ‘boat people’ who risk life and limb to escape to Europe. But I still hope that the Churches of the Orient - and us as their sisters and brothers in faith - would realise that Christians cannot become part of an alliance of minorities - tahalouf al-aqaliyyat in Arabic - as if they are inside-outsiders to the region. They are an integral fabric of the societies in which they live today despite the perils, pains and abuses staring them in the face on most days.
In fact, this meeting brings me also to the recent visit by Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, primate of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, to the Iraqi Christian refugees in Erbil. Accompanying him to Iraqi Kurdistan were Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, and the Maronite Church Council. Their visit was meant to express solidarity and fellowship with those refugees who fled Iraq - and also Syria - as a result of the wars in the MENA region. But here again it is important to recall that there are an even larger number of refugees who are not Christian and who also need our solidarity and advocacy.
The other incident that struck me was an article published by Dr Muhammad Amarah in the Al-Azhar magazine. Entitled ‘Why am I a Muslim?’, the writer who is deemed to hail from either a Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist background concluded that the answer is because Christianity is a failed religion - diyana fashila in Arabic. I do not personally have a problem with people who do not believe or who are loyal to their own faiths, but I take exception when people attack another religion with claims that are objectionable. Not only is this not the time to ramp up tensions even further between faith communities with such conclusions, it concerns me also that it was published in an official magazine belonging to the Al-Azhar Al-Sharif in Egypt that has often been considered the foremost centre for Sunni Muslims. Regardless of the on-going debate on whether the curricula of Al-Azhar should be updated across its many institutions, does this article somehow imply that Al-Azhar - let alone its Grand Imam - subscribes to this viewpoint whilst at the same time promoting interreligious dialogue?
I suggest that the author of this pugnacious article look at what some forms of Islam are doing in the name of faith: is Daesh / ISIL the example of a successful religion in the opinion of the author?
But amidst those two issues, and as often happens in life, there was also some good news for me.
For one, there was a Society Sunday event celebrated at the Methodist Central Hall in London. Supported and broadcast by Premier Radio, this event (in which I too had a role) was meant to celebrate the official birthday of HM the Queen as well as the work of elected public officials. But another key focus was to prove that religion can play a positive role in society and does not have to be disruptive and negative - or at best marginal. The contributors to this event highlighted the positive role of religion as a bridge-builder, not as a stumbling block or checkpoint, despite all its human excesses.
I was also delighted to learn that a new Catholic Church had been inaugurated in Mussafah, in the southwest of Abu Dhabi not far from Maqta, as a gift from the Emirati rulers to their Catholic communities in the country. How refreshing it is to see such pragmatism and generosity in the face of increasing narrow-mindedness and myopia across many parts of the MENA. I rejoice with Bishop Paul Hinder and with his fellow bishops across the Gulf region who faithfully pursue their Christian ministry and who adhere to Jesus’ commandments for us all to love God and also our neighbour (Mt 22:37-40).
Finally, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours’ list. I would not have included this in my blog today were it not that the Order was given to Bishop Angaelos for his relentless work in the field of religious persecution. It is indeed an honour that also underlines the need to combat together all forms of extremism no matter the source, perpetrator, instigator or ideology. Besides, Bishop Angaelos is a friend of Premier Radio and one of its foremost Oriental Orthodox voices on our airwaves.
Over the years, I have deduced that we in the West at times lack the sense of religion as an integral cultural component in our lives. So it is hard for us to fathom what makes other communities tick in their own homelands. No matter, what is vital is to underline - as Society Sunday did last week - that religion is first and foremost a personal contract between believers and their Almighty. But if it is meant to impact the public domain - as I believe it should in view of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - then it should become a bridge-builder that helps draw people together rather that a checkpoint keeping them apart.
As I write this monthly blog, I also think of MENA Analysis that Marcus Jones and I will put together this week. What stands out for us that could be shared with our ever-increasing number of listeners?
No doubt we will look more closely at some of the events that are taking place in the MENA region - from Palestine to Yemen - as well as their possible impact on the local Arab communities let alone on us. But in light of the worrying number of British - and European - Muslims who are heading to Syria to fight for a cause that - frankly - still befuddles me, Marcus and I will now devote part of our hour together this month to discuss radicalism. What causes it, how does it take shape in the MENA region and then spread across families in the West? Why is it happening today and what ways might I suggest to deal with it?
Interestingly enough, my thoughts today include an article entitled “Good grief: ISIS cannot be fought with Facebook likes” written by a friend of mine. Rami Khouri, himself a Palestinian-Jordanian Christian, suggested that ISIL’s appeal to some people succeeds because their real life conditions - poverty, corruption, tyranny, occupation, subjugation, colonisation, drone attacks, foreign invasions, humiliation, hopelessness - push them into desperate quests for something that offers them an alternative life.
So could we challenge ourselves out of our comfort zones a tiny bit today and accept his thesis that some people perhaps end up showing misplaced empathy to ISIL not because of its messaging but because the policies of Arab, Israeli, American, British, Russian, French and other governments over the past several decades have sucked the life and hope from the lives of hundreds of millions of Arab men and women? Or is it easier - and more accurate perhaps - to argue that Rami is singing from the wrong hymnbook?
Join us on MENA Analysis next Thursday at 10 PM and have a conversation with us! Perhaps together we could come closer to an understanding on whether religions create bridges or checkpoints!