Persecution of Christians in Middle East is profoundly un-Islamic

Persecution of Christians in Middle East is profoundly un-Islamic

By Faisal Kutty

“Are you Muslim?” asks a Daesh member to a Christian couple. When the husband answers in the affirmative, the terrorist instructs him to recite from the Quran. The man recites from the Bible. Upon hearing the Arabic, the guard says “Yallah” and motions them through.

The man’s wife later says: “I can’t believe the risk you just took. Why did you lie? If he knew, he would have killed us.”

The punchline: “Don’t worry! If they knew the Quran they would not indiscriminately kill people,” answered the husband.

A Leger poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus released earlier this month revealed that a majority of Canadians (51 per cent) believed that Christians and other minorities face genocide in large parts of the Middle East.

Indeed, their plight at the hands of Daesh, other extremists and to a lesser extent even some of our allies is no laughing matter.

Poll results were released at an event in Toronto that coincided with a conference attended by top Christian leaders from the Middle East. Speaking at the event, the Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church, Ignatius Joseph III Younan, said: “Our Churches go back to the first Christian communities, in their liturgy, traditions, culture and language. They are now a kind of endangered species, that could be wiped out for good.”

Indeed, an in-depth New York Times piece last year concluded that extremists across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight. ‘‘Everyone has seen the forced conversions, crucifixions and beheadings,’’ David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom, said. ‘‘To see these communities, primarily Christians, but also the Yazidis and others, persecuted in such large numbers is deeply alarming.’’

Even other Muslims who are branded as kuffar (unbelievers) for deviating from extremist interpretations are subject to the same fate.

History bears witness that Islamic rule included both periods of co-existence and of intolerance. Yet the fact remains that the extremist treatment of minorities is not consistent with Islamic teachings. Indeed, a letter attributed to the prophet states:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.”

Though scholars disagree on the authenticity of the document and the wording, the gist of it is consistent with the Quran, prophetic traditions and even state conduct. For instance, upon accepting the surrender of Jerusalem in 637, Umar Ibn Khattab, the Caliph, was invited by the Christian leader, Patriarch Sophronius, to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Caliph refused for fear that it may be converted into a mosque in the future.

This status applied initially only to Christians and Jews, but eventually extended by jurists to others, including the Sabians, Zoroastrians, and Hindus. Though they did not enjoy full citizenship rights (and in fact were discriminated against from our vantage point today), their treatment was progressive for the time and certainly a far cry from the oppression today.

That there were thriving minority communities throughout the region prior to the extremist onslaught is testament to their acceptance in history. Indeed, millions of Christians and others lived in peace. Now there is a serious fear that Christianity may be wiped out in parts of the Middle East. As of 2015, about a third of the 2.1 million Christians in Syria and Iraq have had to flee. Overall, the proportion of Christians has dropped from 14 per cent in 1910 to 4 per cent today.

Extremists deserve our contempt, but what about our allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia whose treatment of Christians and others violates basic human rights?

Canada’s recommendation that the UN Security Council investigate Daesh’s crimes is a good first step, but Ottawa must also call out the treatment of minorities by our allies in the Middle East.

Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. @faisalkutty.

[This Op-ed was originally published in The Toronto Star on Tuesday, August 16, 2016]