Muslim scholars have told the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East that Islam promotes respect for Christians and Jews and that the entire region will suffer if Christians depart.
Muhammad al-Sammak, Sunni adviser to the chief mufti of Lebanon and secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, and Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad Ahmadabadi, a Shia professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, spoke at the gathering at the invitation of the Pope.
Mr al-Sammak said Christians are not the only people suffering in the Middle East or tempted to emigrate.
“We share our sufferings. We live them in our social and political delays, in our economic and developmental regression, in our religious and confessional tension,” he said.
At the same time, he told the Synod, the “new and accidental phenomenon” of Christians being targeted because of their faith is dangerous, and not just for Christians. By attacking Christians, he said, misguided, fundamentalist, politically manipulated Muslims are tearing apart the fabric of Middle Eastern societies where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side for centuries. They also are showing “Islam in a different light than the one it truly reflects” and working against one of the fundamental teachings of Islam: the teaching that differences among people are the result of God’s design and part of God’s will for humanity, Mr al-Sammak said.
The emigration of Christians makes it difficult for the rest of the region’s Arabs to live their identity fully, he said. “They [Christians] are an integral part of the cultural, literary and scientific formation of Islamic civilisation. They are also the pioneers of modern Arabic renaissance and have safeguarded its language, the language of the holy Koran,” he added.
Mr al-Sammak told the bishops he hoped the synod would be “something more than the cry of Christian suffering which echoes in this valley of pain”, which is the Middle East. He said he hoped the Synod would mark the beginning of “Islamic-Christian cooperation that can protect Christians and watch over Islamic-Christian relations, so that the East – the place of divine revelation – remains worthy of raising the banner of faith, charity and peace for itself and for the entire world.”
Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad said the Koran’s view of Christian-Muslim relations is one of “friendship, respect and mutual understanding,” even though there have been “dark moments” in the relationship over the past 1,400 years.
But the “illegitimate acts of certain individuals and groups” should not be attributed to the religion to which they belong, he said.
In Iran and most other Muslim countries, he said, “Christians live side by side and in peace with their Muslim brothers. They enjoy all the legal rights like other citizens and perform their religious practices freely.”
He said leaders of all religions must recognise that their people no longer live cut off from believers of other faiths, and religious leaders have an obligation to help their faithful understand the respect that is due to the other.
The ideal, he said, “would be the state where believers of any faith freely and without any apprehension, fear and obligation could live according to the basic principles and modes of their own customs and traditions. This right, which is universally recognised, should in fact be practised by states and communities.”
Earlier Mr al-Sammak had said the death penalty for apostasy from Islam to Christianity dated from a time “when changing religions meant joining the enemy – it was punished as an act of treason”. While some still think converts should be punished, he said the “golden rule” of Islam is that “there is no compulsion in religion, that’s what the Koran says”.
Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad said: “You are free to choose any religion in your heart, because religion is a very, very private matter for everybody, but conversion means something else. If you are no longer a member of your original faith group is an act of unacceptable “propaganda”.