Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Freedom of expression and
respect for religious beliefs

The forlorn Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Theodoros Trion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford,

21 April 2015,

The Three Faiths Forum,

The Revd Dr Kieran Flynn Memorial Lecture Series,

The Lantern Centre, Synge Street, Dublin


These notes were prepared for a Lecture organised by the Three Faiths Forum in the Lantern Centre, Dublin, as part of the Revd Dr Kieran Flynn Memorial Lecture Series (Islam in the West: Contemporary Issues), followed by Questions and Answers and an open discussion.

Freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs:

For many of us, as we consider the present-day situation and the debate about freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs, our considerations within a Three-Faith context, involving Jews, Christians and Muslims, is likely to focus less on Asher’s Bakery or a Drogheda printer’s stand on wedding invitations, and more on the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin.

From a Western perspective, this gives priority to the plight of Christians, particularly in places where there are Muslim majorities, and especially the plight of Christians caught in areas in Syria and Iraq controlled by the self-styled ‘Islamic State.’

We may consider, of course, the brutality of the mass murder of 30 Ethiopian Christians on a beach in Libya this week, and a few weeks before that the mass murder of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

In the past few days, these concerns have been linked with reports of Christian migrants thrown overboard from over-crowded ships in the treacherous seas between Libya and Italy, or the plight of refugees fleeing conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East only to find themselves abandoned at sea, drowned in the Mediterranean or washed up on rocky shores in Rhodes.

Nor should we forget the suffering of Christians, particularly Christian women and girls captured by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the neighbouring countries in West Africa.

When we add to this the total exclusion of Christians from Saudi Arabia, the bombing of churches in Pakistan and Iraq, or the low-level intimidation of Christians in Malaysia, including judicially-sanctioned prohibitions on their use of the common word Allah for the one and only God, it soon becomes possible to paint a canvas that leads to abrupt conclusions.

But such conclusions do not take account either of the teachings of the Qur'an or of the places where Christians have often benefited from the benign patronage of Islamic rulers.

Verse 256 of al-Baqara, one of the most quoted verses in the Qur'an, notes that “there is no compulsion in religion.” It excludes forced conversion and applies in particular on to “People of the Book,” meaning Christians, Jews, Sabaeans, Mandaeans, and by extension, I imagine, Yazidis, and all faiths with a tradition of scriptural revelation, including Samaritans and Sikhs. I know one Muslim scholar in Turkey who extends this too to those Hindus who are monotheists.

When Pope Benedict XVI in a lecture at Regensberg University in 2006 argued about the meaning of this verse, 36 Muslim scholars disagreed with this interpretation, saying this verse was a reminder to Muslims that “they could not force another’s heart to believe,” and specifically intended to dissuade recent Muslim converts in Medina from trying to convert their own children from Judaism or Christianity to Islam.

At the annual conference last year of Us (formerly USPG), an Anglican mission agency on whose boards I sit, the Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Right Revd Michael Lewis, described his diocese which includes several million Christians in the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf. The residents of the United Arab Emirates are almost exclusively are not-Emiratis, and a large proportion of these are Christians.

In Dubai, on a normal weekend, he said, 32,500 Christians pass through the doors of Holy Trinity (Anglican) Church, and there are similar figures for churches in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Bahrain, and similar numbers for Roman Catholics.

Ironically, in the past, Christians in Iraq and Syria have fared better under Saddam Hussein and the Assads, father and son.

Nor should we forget that Christians are not the only victims of Islamists. The so-called Islamic State is actually more concerned with Sunnis who disagree with them, and with Shia Muslims, who are rejected as heretics or even outside the world of Islam. And, along with Muslims and Christians, they are also targeting Yazidis, Mandaeans, and other faith groups who had long been tolerated in the region.

Many Muslims do not feel they have religious freedom in their own countries. The present conflict in Yemen, and much of the continuing violence in Baghdad is the political expression of an age-long distrust between two groups of Muslims.

We must remain conscious of the plight of Ibrahim Halawa (19) from Firhouse in Dublin who is being held in prison in Egypt and whose trial is constantly being postponed. Amnesty International and other bodies believe he is being detained solely for his religious views. His father, Sheikh Hussein Halawa, is Ireland’s most senior Muslim cleric and Imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh.

We must remember too that the Muslims who took part in the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo a few years ago held hands with their fellow Christians in what was known as the Arab Spring.

Today, many Muslims do not feel safe at the hands of many Christians. The marches organised by the pernicious Pergida continue in Germany, even though they have gone off the media radar. Last week, 10,000 people took part in their rally in Dresden, their main base. Geert Wilders, the Dutch xenophobic politician, told them: “In my eyes, you are heroes. Islam does not belong in Germany.”

Of course Islam belongs throughout Europe. We should never forget that Spain was a Muslim land for more centuries than it has been a Christian kingdom, and that under Muslims Jews were tolerated there in a way that they were not tolerated with the introduction of the Inquisition.

In a similar vein, what we now know as Turkey was the heart of the Byzantine Christian empire for many more centuries than it has been an Islamic society.

Nor should we forget that Islamophobia is not solely the prerogative of Christians. A militant atheist was to blame for a murderous attack on Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in February.

In the Middle East, Christians are not the victims of Muslims alone. The rapid decline of the Christian population in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is taking place in areas where Christian Palestinians and Christian Israeli Arabs are caught between the hammer of militant Zionism and the anvil of militant Islam.

I am just back from Turkey, where two or three stories may help to illustrate how religious tolerance and pluralism and religious persecution can paradoxically be experienced in the one society in the Mediterranean basin.

There I was reminded how, during centuries under the Ottoman Empire, the rulers vacillated in their attitudes to Christians.

As I explored the churches and monasteries hewn into the rock-faces of Cappadocia, I was reminded that what we now know as Turkey was once the heartland of Christianity for centuries.

Saint Paul was from Tarsus, he and Saint Barnabas preached in Iconium, which is now Konya, and many of Saint Paul’s letters are written from or to believers in Anatolia or Asia Minor, including Ephesus and Galatia. Saint John addresses his letters from Patmos to Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation, each of them in Asia Minor, in or close to the areas around Ephesus and Smyrna. Later, the key credal propositions of Christianity were formulated by the Cappadocian Fathers.

Two weeks ago, we travelled three hours by bus from central Cappadocia to Konya to visit the tomb of Rumi. We were the only non-Muslim visitors among the sea of Muslim pilgrims visiting what is perhaps the most sacred Muslim shrine in Turkey. Never was I made feel ill at ease … quite the contrary.

Rumi, who wrote in Persian Arabic, Turkish and Greek, died on 17 December 1273 in Konya. There I was reminded of the age-old tradition of hospitality offered by the Mevlevi order, dating back to the time of Rumi in the 13th century. In his tradition, the Mevlevi invitation reaches out to people of all backgrounds:

Come, come, whoever you are,
whether you be fire-worshippers, idolaters, or pagans,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a dwelling place of despair.
All who enter will receive a welcome here.


Christians survived, albeit at times perilously, for 600 years under the Ottoman Empire. As Loukas Notaras (Λουκᾶς Νοταρᾶς), the last Grand Duke or Prime Minister, of the Byzantine Empire, noted, the Byzantines preferred the Muslim turban in Constantinople to the Latin mitre. Unfortunately for him, however, the capture of Constantinople was followed by his execution in 1453.

At times the Ottomans were tolerant, at times Christians were persecuted, at times Christians enjoyed undisturbed communal autonomy, and at times Christians prospered. Until the 20th century, Christians rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and, with certain exceptions, they were free in their choice of residence and profession. Indeed, the Swedish king Charles XII (1682–1718) took refuge in Constantinople after his defeat by the Russians at Poltava (1709), like many a Venetian politician before him.

Christians, including Greeks and Armenians, often rose to high rank in the Sublime Porte without abandoning their religion, and there were Greek and Armenian Foreign and Finance Ministers in Constantinople until the 1910s.

It is only as the Ottoman Empire begins to collapse that Christians suffer the full impact of what becomes religious intolerance: the massacre of Armenians, followed after World War I by the expulsion of Christians on a mass scale, including Greek-speaking, Syrian and Armenian Christians, whose ancestors had lived for generations and centuries in villages that still remember their names.

But let us not blame the perpetrators alone. Those who stood by silently were complicit too. Had European ships not remained offshore at Smyrna as Christians were leaping to their death in the sea and as the city burned behind them, had Europe stood up then and said ‘No’ in the 1920s, the plotters of genocide in the 1930s would never have felt free to develop and implement their evil plans.

Two weeks ago in Cappadocia, I was visiting the underground city of Derinkuyu, which had the capacity to accommodate up to 20,000 people for 2,000 years. As I emerged into the daylight that morning, there was a stark reminder that until 1923 Derinkuyu was known to its Greek-speaking residents as Malakopea (Μαλακοπέα). Across the square from the entrance to the underground city stands the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Theodoros Trion, lonely and forlorn like a sad scene in an Angelopoulos movie.

This once elegant church was built in 1858-1860, but has stood abandoned since 1923. Its walls have started to crumble and collapse, and inside the frescoes are decaying, for the promised restoration of the church and its bell-tower has been abandoned.

Similar stories are well known from the villages of Kaya Köyü, known until 1923 as Levissi, 8 km south of Fethiye in south-west Turkey, or in Şirince, because they have been celebrated in modern literature by authors such Louis de Bernières in Birds without Wings in the case of Levissi, or Dido Sotiriou’s Farewell Anatolia, in the case of Şirince.

I have visited churches throughout Turkey that have been turned into mosques, in Istanbul, in Seljuk, in Kaş ... these scenes and stories are repeated and re-enacted throughout Turkey.

But the plight of the Cappadocian Greeks, or of the Pontic Greeks, who were expelled from their homes of generations and centuries, simply because of their religion, is often forgotten for there is no great fiction writer or novelist to tell their stories.

The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque is one of the surviving treasures from Ottoman Crete in the old town of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Of course, the same stories can be told in reverse. I have spent time in the fast few years cataloguing the lost mosques, Muslim fountains and Ottoman balconies throughout Rethymnon on the Greek island of Crete, and have visited the villages outside Rhodes town that were settled by Muslims expelled from Crete in the 1920s and who then found themselves under Greek rule once again in the 1940s.

On the other hand, Jews seem to have fared better than Christians under Ottoman rule. Indeed, it is an indictment of what we call Western European civilisation that Jews under Islamic rule in the Ottoman Empire fared better than Jews under Christian rule in the Iberian peninsula. The first synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim (‘Tree of Life’) in Bursa which came under Ottoman rule in 1324. This synagogue is still in use, although the modern Jewish population of Bursa has shrunk to about 140 people.

When the unification of Spain was realised in the 1490s, Jews and Muslims alike were expelled en masse from the Iberian peninsula. But the Sephardic Jews were warmly welcomed on the other side of the Mediterranean, and by-and-large they prospered in the Ottoman Empire.

In the mid-16th century, Joseph Nasi, a Sephardic Jew who was born a Marrano in Portugal but had fled the Inquisition, was appointed Duke of Naxos, Sanjak-bey or Governor of the island of Naxos, a rank usually only bestowed upon Muslims.

The Jews of the Dodecanese islands, including Rhodes and Kos, continued to live there after these islands were captured from the Ottomans by the Italians at the beginning of the 20th century. In Rhodes, for example, they had many synagogues, their own Ladino newspapers, soccer clubs, and so on. It took the invading German Nazis just a few months, if not just a few weeks, to virtually wipe out a culture and traditions that had survived and blossomed for centuries under Ottoman Muslim rule.

When a society is tolerant, it is exemplary; when a society’s intolerance results in suffering and death, we must all accept the blame.

The Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is controversial for many of his views. But it is interesting how points out that until relatively modern times, tolerance in the treatment of non-believers, at least as it is understood in the West after John Locke, was neither valued, nor its absence condemned by both Muslims and Christians.

Religious tolerance, freedom and respect are relatively new ideas, but neither the adherence to them nor the denial of these values is the prerogative or monopoly of any one religious grouping, and, indeed, when they are denied to one, eventually they are being denied to all.

In a back-page interview in the Church Times last Friday [17 April 2015], Dr Georgette Bennett, who has an international reputation for her work in dialogue between the three primary monotheistic faiths says one of the most beautiful statements about pluralism is found in the Qur’an. She misquotes, the verse, but admits she is offering a paraphrase: “If God had intended for all of us to be the same, he would have created us that way. Instead, he made us different so that there would be many paths to God.”

[The verses she refers to actually say: Unto every one of you have we appointed a different law and way of life. And if God had so willed, he could surely have made you all one single community: but he willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what he has revealed to you. Compete then with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return and then he will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (5: 44-48)]

Some passages from the Quran for citation in the subsequent Question and Answer session:

Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (5: 32)

Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabaeans whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness – their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow. (5: 69)

… and you will find the nearest in love to the believers (Muslims) those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud. (5: 82)

True piety (or righteousness) does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or west but truly pious is he who believes in God and the last day and the angels and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggar, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and truly pious are they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril, it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God. (2: 177)

The evening was chaired by Joe Humphries (The Irish Times) and the other invited speakers were: Dr Ali Selim, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, and Dr Rosemary Byrne, Associate Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Trinity College Dublin.