This commentary was published in The Independent on 25/01/2011
For me as a British Muslim, one of the greatest joys of living in this country is to see the way different faiths are not just tolerated, but embraced. Freedom of worship is one of the fundamental rights of a civilised society, and the way it is fulfilled is emblematic of the British values I love. When that basic right is threatened, it diminishes us all. Every time a group of Arab Christians is attacked and killed in the Middle East for their faith, it sends a shockwave which alarms all right-thinking people, and the slaughter is condemned by political and religious leaders throughout the world.
Two examples will suffice. On 31 October 2010 terrorists attacked a cathedral in Iraq and took hostages. In the gunfight that followed, 58 people were killed and 78 injured. In Egypt, the New Year began with a car bomb exploding outside a Coptic church in Alexandria, just minutes after midnight. At a time when people should have been exchanging good wishes and celebrating with their families, they instead faced bloodshed and carnage: 21 people were killed, and 43 injured.
In both countries, such outrages come after increased threats of violence against Christians in the Arab world, which have led many to abandon their homes. The Pope has strongly condemned the incidents, and the authorities in the countries concerned are doing their best to protect people. But it seems to me these are just two examples of a worrying trend that is evolving in a particularly nasty way.
What is occurring in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere is part of a systematic attempt by violent extremists to purge the region of Christians, and force them to flee to the West. If this religious cleansing is allowed to continue, it will rob the Arab world of a vital ingredient. Such an outcome is unthinkable.
Religious persecution is ugly and wrong wherever and whenever it occurs, and we all have a duty to speak out against it. The attacks that are taking place are immoral, they are acts of terrorism, and above all they are profoundly un-Islamic. For a group of extremists to claim that killing innocent people is in some way serving Islam is simply offensive and unacceptable. Islam considers life to be sacred, and that means the life of all, not just Muslims. A verse in the Koran tells us:
‘On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.’ (Sura 5, verse 32)
The targeting of Christians also flies in the face of the history of the Arab world. Arab Christians have played a significant role in the history of the region, and they rightly consider both their faith and their ethnicity as inseparable parts of their identity. Their forebears played a major role in preserving certain ancient Greek texts by translating them into Arabic, amongst many other significant achievements. They have contributed greatly to the culture and economic prosperity of the Arab world, and continue to do so today. It is also clearly absurd to pretend that Christianity – a faith that originates in the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen – is a Western creation that has been imported into the Middle East. But that is what the fanatics would have us believe.
Islam historically has in any case long promoted tolerance and respect between the faiths. That is the faith that I believe and was taught, and it is also what history teaches us. When the Second Caliph, Umar, entered Jerusalem in 637, he displayed a great sensitivity to the Christian population in particular. Invited to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he chose instead to pray some distance away, so as not to endanger its status as a Christian temple, and to ensure it would not become a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. He also wrote a declaration, known as the Treaty of Umar, which gave a guarantee to the Christians they would enjoy security ‘for themselves, their money, their churches, their children, their lowly and their innocent, and the remainder of their people’. It continued:
‘Their churches are not to be taken, nor are they to be destroyed, nor are they to be degraded or belittled, neither are their crosses or their money, and they are not to be forced to change their religion, nor is any one of them to be harmed.’
Those whose twisted thinking abuses the name of Islam to try and justify attacks on and massacres of Christians should learn from this example of humility and respect. Arab identity has actually been strengthened by the region’s Christian population, who have throughout history been loyal to their homeland. Even on the most emotionally and politically divisive issue – the question of Palestine – the region’s Christians have historically taken the Arab and Islamic side.
Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the Middle East for centuries, and are each as legitimately Arab in their identity as the other. No one can take that from them, or change that basic fact. Both faiths are entitled to live in peace, and to have their property and freedom of worship protected. Those of us around the world who value the religious protection and freedom we find in the West should not remain silent as we see it being destroyed elsewhere. It should be condemned loudly and without reservation.
Dr Mohammed Abdel Haq is a businessman and former Conservative Parliamentary candidate. He is Chairman of the Centre for Opposition Studies.