Thanks to my colleague Reid Perkins-Buzo for the link to this article about two Muslim clerics (one Sunni and one Shiite) spoke to a collection of Catholic Bishops about Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East, especially in Muslim countries. I was impressed that the clerics seemed to be well-connected, rather than from minority or fringe groups within their branch of Islam. The Sunni is an advisor to the cheif Mufti of Lebanon. The Shiite is a professor at a university in Tehran, Iran, and an Ayatollah. It is interesting, and perhaps encouraging, to me that they accepted the invitation to speak to Catholic Bishops at all. What they had to say is also interesting.
There was apparently talk that Christians are needed in the Middle East, and talk of a desire to live peacably with each other. The Shiite even mentioned that Christianity should not be held responsible for the actions of some Christians. (I wonder if he was referring to the Crusades or something more recent, like American occupation of Iraq?) He apparently tied this to Christians not blaming Islam for all of the actions of individual Muslims. I think that this is a fair point. I am appalled at the behavior of those who perpetrated the horrors of the Crusades in the name of Christ (as I think most reasonable Christians would be), so why wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that many Muslims are appalled at the behavior of those who kill innocent men, women, and children in things like 9-11, or suicide bombings in Israel?
While there are some encouraging things in the words of these two Islamic scholars, it is interesting to note that while the Shiite Ayatollah speaks of the freedom that Muslims have to leave the faith:
The ayatollah 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.”
When journalists tried to push him to clarify, he said publicly announcing that you are no longer a member of your original faith group is an act of unacceptable “propaganda.”
This doesn’t really sound like freedom to choose religion to me. My guess is that converting from Islam to Christianity (or anything else) would lead one to stop attending services at the local Mosque. Naturally, someone will notice, and might ask why you are not coming anymore. Would telling them that you were no longer Muslim be considered publicly declaring your conversion, and thus “propaganda”? I fear it might be.
I would like to think that the words they spoke were words they meant, and that there is some chance of normalizing relations between the various religious groups living this tension in the Middle East. I will pray that the Prince of Peace will be with the Christian in this region, and help them to be a light in the darkness around them. May God grant to them the strength to stand for Him and follow the Spirit’s leading as they navigate the difficult terrain that they face just living their daily life as a minority in their own country. These are my brothers and sisters in the faith, more a part of my family than many of those who live in this country, since we have been adopted by the same Father.
Lord, may I not forget those members of Your family who suffer hardships unimaginable to me as they live for You in countries far away from my own experience. Help my brothers and sisters to feel Your presence and Your Spirit with them every moment, and to trust You to walk with them through the good and the bad, working out Your purposes through their obedience in all things. May it not take the same exterior circumstances for me to realize that I must depend on You just as much as they need to. Amen.