Encourage moves toward religious freedom by Islamic leaders

Demonstrating his by now well-known courage and candor, the 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Sa...

Posted: Apr 10, 2018 9:48 AM
Updated: Apr 10, 2018 9:48 AM

Demonstrating his by now well-known courage and candor, the 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, could not have been more clear to Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo last fall when he said he aimed to turn the Kingdom in the direction of a "moderate Islam" that is "open to the world, open to all the religions."

The crown prince's message is being reinforced by his recent and much-publicized visit to the United States and the momentum of reforms emerging from Arab nations across the Middle East. We will have to see if the prince's spirit of tolerance prevails against the well-entrenched Wahhabists, the ultraconservative Islamic sect that originated in Saudi Arabia and has been accused of providing an ideological framework for extremism throughout the world.

It could very well be that we are witnessing the prelude (or more) to a theological and political reformation within the Islamic world -- one that ought to be encouraged and validated by Christians. We are very good at protesting the abuse of religious freedom and less vocal when it comes to praising those who are trying to make a positive difference.

These days, there are plenty of efforts being undertaken that are worthy of praise.

Take Egypt's Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, president of the Arab world's largest nation. Politics aside, he has now made a habit of publicly attending Christian church services during important parts of the religious year as a symbol of solidarity with Christians. He has deployed security forces to guard churches from the same terrorists whose extremism also led them to kill over 300 Muslims in a single mosque attack last year.

President el-Sisi also personally ordered and funded the rebuilding of dozens of churches, destroyed by the Muslim Brotherhood extremists almost immediately after he came to power. When members of the US Congress criticized Egypt recently it was the Coptic Christians in the Egyptian parliament who responded, specifically mentioning the 83 churches that had been repaired or rebuilt on President el-Sisi's order. When a law passed by parliament to protect churches was trapped in a maze of bureaucracy and indifference, the president intervened, ordering it all to be sped up.

Under President el-Sisi, Egypt's religious establishment has also signaled moderation. The country's Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, has been very outspoken theologically on the need to protect Christian churches, and the country's senior Islamic jurist -- theGrand Mufti -- ordered a rare death sentence for a terrorist convicted of killing a Coptic priest.

The Minister of Religious Endowments further issued a theological opinion noting that anyone who dies protecting a Christian from a terrorist should be honored as a "martyr." Also, the head of Egypt's Al-Azhar University -- sometimes called "Sunni Islam's most prestigious university" -- responded to a 2017 Christmas terrorist attack by calling on all of the country's Muslims to attend Christmas services with Christians in a show of solidarity.

Then there's Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who worked last fall with Sunni and Shi'ite scholars, the rabbis of the famed Simon Wiesenthal Center and me to draft and release the widely distributed Bahrain Declaration on Religious Freedom and Peaceful Coexistence. The declaration dedicated an entire section to the "freedom of choice," forbidding forced religious observance and affirming the right of people to choose to change their beliefs.

The Arab ruler wrote in the declaration that, "it is the responsibility of governments to respect and protect equally, both religious minorities and majorities." Hundreds of Coptic Christian families have found such protection while traveling from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain each weekend to worship in the nation's vibrant Coptic church. The country is now also building one of the largest Catholic churches in the entire region on land donated by the king, and it has a thriving evangelical community-- especially rare for the Middle East.

Who could have even imagined all of this happening a few years ago?

Of course, this historical change hasn't happened overnight.

Jordan's ever-diplomatic King Abdullah II has been recognized for this efforts to address violence toward Arab Christians. He has called for peaceful coexistence and led the kingdom to produce landmark documents like the "Amman Message," which was signed by over 500 Muslim scholars from more than 80 countries, and calls for tolerance, mutual respect and religious freedom.

In one meeting I personally attended in Jordan in 2013, Jordan's noted Islamic scholar Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, who is also the author of the introduction of the Amman Message, went so far as to say, "Christians were in this region before Muslims ... they are not strangers, nor colonialists, nor foreigners. They are natives of these lands and Arabs, just as Muslims are."

Other Muslim-majority countries like Azerbaijan have joined their Arab co-religionists in similar pursuits, building upon decades-long efforts in countries like Indonesia, whose moderate "Wasatiyyah" Islam has long offered an alternative path to extremism.

It seems as if change is moving in the right direction, and with the blessing of Saudi Arabia there is potentially growing momentum toward an Islamic reformation that could serve as a counterbalance to the extremist clerics who lead Iran.

Of course, these countries are very far from perfect, and there are plenty of issues worthy of criticism and contradictions worth noting. But positive reinforcement is often as important as criticism.

We must celebrate such progress as we work to extend the reach of change, and we must affirm the positive decisions of these countries against the backdrop of countries like Turkey and Pakistan where religious suppression is the status quo.

It will take time to fully root out the historic system of dhimmitude - that is, providing a "protective status" but not equal rights to religious minorities living under Muslim rule, essentially relegating them to a second-class citizenry. Though at the current rate of change, we might very well see something we never imagined more quickly than we ever thought was possible.

Who knows -- in a few years, I might head over to Saudi Arabia to celebrate Easter.

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