Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eygyptian Muslim Imam Defends Christians

There is not usually much good news coming out of Egypt about its Coptic Christian minority. From pogroms to kidnapping of Christian girls, the lot of Christians in Egypt is not a happy one. Al Arabiya News reports of a prominent Egyptian clergyman who wants to change that. Sheikh Khaled al Gindi is quoted by Al Arabiya as saying , "All citizens have the right to practice their religious rights. As we demand that the West allows us to build mosques, we have to do the same here (in Egypt) with churches. "

Gindi blamed the sectarian strife in Egypt upon extremists and voiced some unconventional thinking about interfaith relations in Egypt.Al Arabiya quotes him as follows.

"These problems have always existed, but did not come to the surface before. Extremists who incite hatred are more dangerous to Muslims than they are to Copts," Gindi said, adding extremists were behind the clashes that have erupted over the years between Muslims and Copts.

"Extremists have caused the Muslim mind to be afflicted with psychological disorders. Therapy is what Muslims need now. Islam has become torn between the ignorance of its followers and the helplessness of its scholars."

Gindi is married to a Coptic woman. Although this is permitted under Islamic law, he has been criticised for being married to a non Muslim. What is interesting psychologically about Gindi is that he has incorporated his personal experiences into his world view, showing a level of empathy with non Muslims that is not universal in Egyptian society.

The problem of Christians being restricted from maintaining and building houses of worship is not unique to Egypt. Saudi Arabia bans non Muslim houses of worship completely. Even Turkey, with its secular state imposes bureaucratic restrictions and obstacles to building churches and Christian religious institutions. Since 1971 when it was closed by the Turkish government, the historic Halki Seminary has been a source of tension between Greeks around the world and the Turkish Republic

Pakistan likewise has a spotty record at best of respecting the rights of Christians. Although Christians are entitled to religious freedom and freedom from harassment, local authorities often refuse to enforce the law.

Egyptian religious scholars are influential beyond the borders, at least among Sunni Muslims. At a time when religious extremism is on the rise, it is heartening to find advocates of religious tolerance with the credibility conferred by Islamic scholarship. I hope that Sheikh Gindi's views gain wider acceptance in Egypt and beyond its borders. Religious intolerance has a malignant quality to it. Even when a country rids itself of a demonised minority, it often turns on itself. In much of the world, western constitutional norms have limited acceptance. A theology of tolerance and coexistence is good for everyone. I hope it spreads.

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