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Issue Date:  October 13, 2006

No retreat from 'reciprocity' challenge


If anyone wondered whether the heartache of the last few weeks would persuade Benedict XVI to dial down his challenge to Islam on “reciprocity,” Vatican argot for the religious freedom of Christians and other minorities in Muslim nations, Sept. 25 showed the pope instead more determined than ever.

On that day, Benedict met with ambassadors from Muslim nations, along with representatives of Italy’s tiny but growing Muslim community, at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. It was a carefully choreographed damage control exercise, designed to turn a corner following his controversial Sept. 12 remarks on Islam. Even in this atmosphere of made-for-TV harmony, however, the pope could not resist laying down a marker on reciprocity, the one issue above all that has driven a more assertive line toward Islam within the Catholic church.

In his brief talk, the pope hit all the anticipated notes: dialogue, peace, mutual respect. He also, however, pointedly quoted John Paul II’s 1985 address to Muslim youth in Casablanca: “Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom.”

Benedict did not elaborate. But the fact that he singled out this lone quotation from John Paul’s vast body of speeches and messages on Islam, in a session carried live on Al Jazeera and widely seen as his best chance to quell anger in the Muslim street, indicates there were will be no retreat from the reciprocity challenge.

In reality, at least on reciprocity, almost no one disputes that the pope has a point. The imbalance between the basic freedom of Muslims in the West to worship as they choose versus a range of de jure and de facto restrictions on Christians and other groups in many Muslim nations is abundantly documented.

Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., who has testified about reciprocity issues before the U.S. Congress as chair of the bishops’ International Policy Committee, said that the recent crisis offered a wake-up call to both Muslims and Christians regarding the urgency of talking about such matters.

“It’s put the need for dialogue on the radar screen,” he told NCR.

The real question, experts on both sides of the Muslim/Catholic divide said in interviews, is not whether there’s a problem to discuss, but whether Benedict -- or the Catholic church generally -- is equipped to be part of the solution.

Clear challenges

Even a cursory review illustrates the challenges in the Islamic world.

In its annual report on religious freedom, the U.S. State Department flagged eight “Countries of Particular Concern,” four of which are majority Muslim states: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Eritrea. (The others are Burma, China, North Korea and Vietnam.) The nonpartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom cited another three countries, all Muslim states: Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The commission’s “watch list” adds an additional seven nations as problem areas, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia and majority Muslim areas of Nigeria.

Likewise, the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom lists seven countries as “completely un-free,” four of them Muslim: Turkmenistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. (The others are Burma, North Korea and China.)

No Western government, and no majority Christian nation other than Cuba, makes either list. Of the 46 predominantly Muslim nations on earth, not one ranks in the top tier of religiously free states.

When the Italian branch of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charitable group, began producing an annual report on religious freedom in 1998, its first edition was focused on countries with a Muslim majority.

Experts caution that such findings, taken in the abstract, can be misleading. In many Muslim nations, they note, the most repressed groups are not Christians but other Muslims, such as non-Wahabbi forms of Islam in Saudi Arabia, or the Ahmadiyya movement in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s reasons for repressing religious expression (adherence to a strict form of Islamic doctrine) are different from Turkey’s (commitment to Western-style secularization), even if in practice they can translate into similar policies.

Further, experts note, while there may be little de jure discrimination against Muslims in majority Christian states, de facto life can be just as hard. In the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines, for example, Muslims worship legally, but in some parts of the country they live in fear of death squads.

Even in Europe, Muslims face difficulties.

“In France, it’s hard to get a permit to build something that looks like a mosque, with minarets and the rest,” said Mohammad Fadel, an Egyptian scholar at the University of Toronto. “It’s OK for Muslims to worship in warehouses, but not in identifiably Islamic structures.” Recent explosions of rage in both France and England testify to the second-class citizenship young Muslims often feel in the West.

Finally, experts say, Islam has no monopoly on repressive behavior. Anti-conversion laws in majority Hindu India or in majority Buddhist Sri Lanka are just as appalling by Western standards, to say nothing of totalitarian states such as China or North Korea. In fact, Muslims in the Western China region of Xuar often bear the brunt of antireligious crackdowns by communist authorities.

A dismal record

Even so, the situation facing religious minorities in many Islamic countries, based on data collected from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Aid to the Church in Need, and other sources, still makes for dismal reading:

  • Saudi Arabia: The Quran is officially the country’s constitution, with public religious expression other than the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam prohibited. This ban is backed up by the mutawaa, or religious police. In 2005, the mutawaa conducted at least four raids of Christian “house churches,” according to the Center for Religious Freedom. Christians cannot import Bibles or wear religious symbols, and clergy cannot wear religious dress. Capuchin priests charged with pastoral care of several hundred thousand Catholics, mostly Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean guest workers, cannot minister openly.
  • Iran: The constitution proclaims Shiah Islam the official religion. It recognizes Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as protected minorities, but all face discrimination in education, government and the armed services. Common law applies the death sentence for trying to convert Muslims. Over the past 13 years, at least eight evangelical Christians have been killed by government authorities, and more than 20 are reported “disappeared.” Last year, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary general of the powerful Council of Guardians, stated that “non-Muslims cannot be described as human beings, but as sinning animals come to earth to disseminate corruption.”
  • Sudan: Everyone in the north of the country, Muslim or not, is subject to Islamic law. Although permits are regularly granted to build mosques, permission to build churches is denied. The death penalty for apostasy from Islam remains the law, even if it’s rarely enforced. Converts typically cannot remain in Sudan. Since President Omar El Bashir came to power in 1989, alcohol has been forbidden, which makes use of wine illegal even in the Catholic Mass.
  • Egypt: The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, but Islam is the official religion and Shariah the main source of legislation. Coptic Christians, who represent 15 percent of the population, are limited to roughly 1 percent of positions in parliament, military and police academies, the judiciary and diplomatic corps, and teaching. Family law is also an issue. If a Christian father converts to Islam, his minor children must follow. The mother’s custody rights, which otherwise take precedence, are ignored. Recently, a civil court ruled that the Coptic church must remarry a divorced person, despite church teaching to the contrary. Another court ruled that polygamy is permissible in Christianity.
  • Nigeria: Since October 1999, 12 northern Nigerian states have extended Shariah into the state’s criminal courts. Some states have sanctioned quasi-official Hisbah, or religious police, to enforce it. Christians suffer discrimination in building or repairing churches, access to education and media, representation in government, and employment. In August 2005, the Hisbah forced 15 Christian churches to close in one state alone.
  • Turkey: Although officially tolerance is the law of the land, religious services without authorization are illegal, and religious communities cannot own property. The government often deposes religious leaders not to its liking. Seminaries of the Armenian Apostolic and the Greek Orthodox churches were closed in the 1970s, and the government has resisted attempts to reopen them. Foreign religious workers face harassment, and religious communities are under state surveillance.

Muslims often say that such examples are selective, pointing to other Islamic nations with allegedly better track records such as Jordan, Indonesia or Malaysia.

Even in traditionally tolerant Malaysia, however, trends are disturbing. Recently a woman named Lina Joy, who converted to Christianity from Islam in 1998, petitioned to officially change her religious status so that she could marry a Christian. She was refused by Malaysian courts on the grounds that “the plaintiff exists under the tenets of Islam until her death.” Other Malay Muslims who have attempted to convert have been imprisoned and sent to “rehabilitation camps.” Joy is currently awaiting a ruling from the country’s Federal Court.

Pluralism and Islam

Facing this record, the towering question is whether there’s something inherent within Islam at odds with religious liberty.

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, recently said that “considered on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion,” though he clarified in a June interview with NCR that he meant to raise a question rather than propose a definitive conclusion.

In response to claims that there are different strains in Islam just as in Christianity, Pell issued this challenge: “Show me where they’re tolerant.”

Muslims say that challenge can be met.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Washington-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said religious liberty “is an Islamic principle.” Al-Marayati said that where imbalances exist, they are generally the result of dictatorial regimes or social and political rivalries that have little to do with Islamic theology. He dismissed claims that the concept of the dhimmi, meaning a non-Muslim under Islamic law, condemns non-Muslims to subjugation. In principle, al-Marayati said, dhimmi denotes respect (in Arabic, it means “honor”), and its requirements are open to interpretation.

Reza Aslan, an Iranian-born journalist and scholar and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, argues that religious freedom is part of Islam’s genetic code.

“There are few scriptures that can match the reverence with which the Quran speaks of other religious traditions,” Aslan said, asserting that “democratic ideals such as … pluralism and human rights are widely accepted throughout the Muslim world,” though not the Western notion that church and state must be separate.

Perhaps the most often-cited reference supporting an Islamic version of pluralism is sura 2, verse 256, of the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

In this regard, Aslan and other Muslim commentators contend that Benedict XVI made a critical error in his Sept. 12 address in Regensburg, Germany. The pope attributed this sura to the early Mecca period of Muhammad’s life, when Islam was a tiny minority -- the suggestion being that Muhammad abandoned tolerance once Islam attained political power. In fact, Aslan said, the sura comes from the later Medina period, when Islam was already a majority. That indicates, Aslan said, that religious pluralism is possible in majority Muslim states.

Some Christian activists think so too.

Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom, the lobbyist widely credited with making anti-Christian persecution a “hot topic” on Capitol Hill, attributed the repressive climate within Islamic cultures largely to “social and political” factors, not the religion itself.

“When I talk to Christians in these places, they usually say that they’ve lived in peace with Muslims for generations,” she said. “Something has changed.”

That something, Shea argued, is the emergence of a global “politicization” of Islam, which seeks to expand the reach of Islamic law to the entire planet -- an effort, she argued, that reached an apogee with reaction to Benedict’s comments on Muhammad, with even the pope seemingly expected to obey Muslim laws on blasphemy.

Yet because politics rather than doctrine seem to be driving this trend, Shea said, perhaps it can be reversed.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, who served as the Vatican’s expert on Islam from 1981 to 1994, agreed that there are worrying developments in some countries, but said that most Muslims regard Shariah as a code for Muslims, not anyone else. Such a distinction, Michel said, “can create the basis for a pluralistic society.”

Six-point program

How can Benedict make the case for reciprocity in a way that doesn’t feed extremism? Muslim and Christian experts recommended a six-point program:

  • Humbly acknowledge that Christians have had, and in some places continue to have, their own struggles with religious freedom;
  • Don’t make reciprocity seem like special pleading for Christians, but rather a principled stand in favor of freedom for all religions;
  • Make it clear that this is not a crusade against Islam;
  • Recall areas where Catholics and Muslims are natural allies, such as resistance to secularization;
  • Speak directly to Muslim governments that are responsible for repressive policies, not just to clerics and theologians in theological language;
  • Make religious freedom part of a broader message about civil and political liberties across the board.

Wenski said it’s important to cite cases where the church has stood up for other religions. Michel agreed, offering the example of former Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo of Palermo, Italy. When Muslims in Palermo needed a place to worship, Michel said, Papallardo gave them an unused church.

“This is not a Muslim/Christian thing,” Michel said. “The situation is just as bad, or worse, in places like India.” Michel warned that an exclusive focus on Islam feeds suspicion that “reciprocity” is a smokescreen for Western interests.

Shea said the pope should direct his appeals not just to religious leaders, but to governments.

“What needs to be recognized in the West is that most of Islam is controlled by Muslim governments,” she said. “The muftis [Muslim scholars who interpret the Shariah] are selected and paid for by the governments, the mosques are underwritten and registered, and the schools are controlled.”

Wenski said the church must remind Muslims of common interests, pointing to the U.N.-sponsored Cairo Conference on population in 1994, when the Holy See and Muslim nations resisted liberal proposals on abortion.

Fadel said that as Benedict presses the reciprocity issue, he should avoid awakening “old paradigms” in the Muslim world, one of which involves “outside powers using minority religious communities as a pretext for interfering in internal affairs,” such as the British did with the Copts in Egypt.

Instead, Fadel recommended that Benedict present a “universalist human rights agenda, stressing democratic and civil rights issues, such as free speech, freedom of the press, and voting rights.”

As a Muslim, Fadel said he would welcome such a contribution from the pope. “Anything that raises serious issues is always welcome, and the Catholic church still has a reservoir of goodwill,” he said.

But in reference to the recent controversy, Fadel added: “Last time he didn’t do a very good job. The performance has got to get better.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006

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