Concern for Christian Minorities Under Islam Continues
Although media attention is focused primarily on the situation in Egypt, it is a mistake to overlook other trouble spots that are tangential to the same issue. As reported in previous articles, the plight of Christian communities in the Muslim world is beginning to attract attention and even some indignation.
Doctor William Oddie, a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster and a former editor of the Catholic Herald, expressed his pessimism over the future of Christian-Muslim dialogue. He reached this conclusion given the reaction of top Muslim scholars at Egypt's Al-Azhar University who suspended dialogue with the Vatican to protest Pope Benedict XVIth's condemnation of anti-Christian violence in Egypt. The writer was referring to the decision of Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the supreme Muslim religious authority in Egypt, and members of the Islamic Research Academy to suspend dialogue with the Vatican.Sheikh el-Tayeb called the papal comments "inacceptable interference in Egypt's affairs."
According to Dr. Oddie, the double standard that allowed Muslims to comment on anything that happens to Muslims anywhere in the world, but refuses to allow the pope similar rights when complaining about the persecution of Christians, is unacceptable. It also was not the doctrine of a minority but that of the religious establishment and seconded by other Al-Azhar scholars. Doctor Oddie claimed that the idea of defensive jihad has now been extended to secure Islam's borders and to carry the fight to regimes that do not allow Islam to flourish.
Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester who was the first Asian to be appointed a Bishop of the Church of England, has stepped up his role on the issue. He recently retired from his post in order to concentrate his full attention on protecting Christian minorities the Muslim world. He knows the situation firsthand, because he too was forced to flee Pakistan for England due to religious persecution after his parents converted to Christianity from Islam. He, however, returned to Pakistan to work with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
The main topic on Nazir-Ali's agenda is a call to repeal the blasphemy law that imposes the death penalty on insulting Mohammed and life imprisonment for those desecrating the Koran. He pointed out to the Pakistani president that Muslims suffer from the law as well because the denunciations are frequently used for settling personal scores. To circumvent the power of local courts that are frequently captives of Islamic fundamentalists, he urged Zadari to create a legal body answerable to the president that would assume authority in such cases, as well as special police units. Zadari was sympathetic but acknowledged that given Pakistan's situation, this was highly toxic.
Italy is also trying to engage Pakistan to safeguard Christian and other minority rights and modify the blasphemy law. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini underlined this while speaking to the Italian group called "Italy for Asia Bibi Freedom Justice and Human Rights Committee. Bibi is a 45 year old Christian mother of five facing the gallows for presumably insulting Mohammed.
While the tone adopted by Oddie, Nazir Ali and Frattini is not a total surprise, one cannot say the same about a recent article in the Huffington Post by Prof. John L. Esposito, Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. It is coauthored by Sheila B. Lalwani, a Research Fellow at the Center.
Esposito is a longtime defender if not an apologist for Islam. Now Esposito is forced to take note of "the significant threat to religious minorities in some Muslim societies, citing a vast arc extending from Turkey to Pakistan and acts varying from discrimination to murder.
Esposito manages not to abandon political correctness by saying that "this is an act of a significant minority of hard-line conservative fundamentalist and militant Muslims – like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism." Esposito expressed his shock that the assassin of the governor of Punjab was greeted as a celebrity and lawyers are lining up to defend him, pointing to the seepage of fundamentalism to the mainstream.
In proposing a solution Esposito returns to "evenhandedness".
Both Muslim and Christian religious leaders will need to work more closely on religious and curricula reforms for madrasas, seminaries, schools, and universities and utilize mass media, the internet, and other avenues of popular culture.
Still, it is something that Esposito has to address the issue and it is remarkable that the Huffington Post, a critic of "Islamophobia", has printed it.