30 April 2015

‘I do not like thee, Doctor Fell’ … but
you are a child of Lichfield Cathedral

The Deanery in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield … a 17th century dean was the father of Dr John Fell of nursery rhyme fame (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.

Many of us grew up learning this well-known Mother Goose nursery rhyme. As adults, some of us now have reasons to find it less comforting and more frightening – after all, the author Thomas Harris uses the name of Dr Fell as a pseudonym for Hannibal Lecter in the novel Hannibal when this frightening character poses as a library curator in Florence.

On the other hand, Dr Fell has earned a modern literary reputation through references to him by James Joyce in Ulysses, and in 1979 the Irish playwright Bernard Farrell named one his plays ‘I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell.’

But how many of us know that in his childhood Dr Fell lived in the Deanery in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield in the mid-17th century and that his father was once Dean of Lichfield Cathedral?

The Deanery is one of the fine architectural works in the Close. This two-storey Queen Anne-style house was built ca 1707, with substantial alterations in 1807-1808, and further alterations in 1876, 1893 and 1974. But the Deanery stands on a site more ancient than the present building, to the west of the Bishop’s Palace.

Christ Church, Oxford … Dr Fell, father and son, were Deans of Christ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

An earlier deanery on this same site became home in 1637 to Dr Samuel Fell (1584-1649), who had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. At an early stage in his career, Fell was a Calvinist in his religious views, and he complained to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, about the excessive number of alehouses in Oxford. But he later changed his theological position and became an active ally of Archbishop Laud.

Laud rewarded Fell’s loyalty by securing his appointment as Dean of Lichfield in 1637. Fell succeeded John Warner (1581-1666), a staunch monarchist who had been Dean of Lichfield and chaplain to Charles I since 1633. Warner had left Lichfield on his appointment as Bishop of Rochester, and so Fell could have expected his move to Lichfield came with the promise of rapid progression in his clerical career.

Fell had a varied earlier career that included parishes in the Isle of Wight and time as a chaplain to King James I before beginning on an academic career in Oxford.

Fell moved into the Cathedral Close in Lichfield at the beginning of 1638, be he stayed at the cathedral for only a short time. He returned quickly to Oxford after a few months when he became Dean of Christ Church later in the year.

Back in Oxford, Fell also became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. On the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a prominent royalist, and was deprived of all his offices by the parliamentarians. He died in Oxford on 1 February 1649, two days after the execution of King Charles I.

Bishop John Fell ... was 12 when his father became Dean of Lichfield (from a portrait by Peter Lely)

Dean Fell’s son, John Fell (1625-1686), was a prominent Oxford academic, and he too would become Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and later Bishop of Oxford.

John Fell was a 12-year old when his father became Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. By then, despite his age, he was a student at Christ Church, Oxford, and so he can hardly have lived for very long in Lichfield. He was ordained deacon in 1647 and priest in 1649. During the Civil War, he fought on behalf of King Charles I with a commission in the royalist army.

After the Restoration, John Fell became a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and a chaplain to King Charles II. Later, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1666-1669). Then, in 1676, he was consecrated Bishop of Oxford in 1676, although he remained Dean of Christ Church. Some years later, he turned down the opportunity to move to Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh.

Fell rebuilt much of his college, finishing with the great Tom Tower gate, to which the “Great Tom” Bell was moved from the cathedral in 1683 after being recast. At his own expense, he also rebuilt Cuddesdon Palace as the bishop’s residence outside Oxford. The materials were collected by one of his predecessor, William Paul, who had been Dean of Lichfield (1661-1663) before becoming Bishop of Oxford (1663-1665), but who died before he completed the project.

Fell was often regarded as stern and controlling by his colleagues and his contemporaries, and he had a reputation among his students for being a disciplinarian. He pardoned one of his students, Tom Brown (1663-1704), the satirist and author of The Dialogues of the Dead, who was about to be expelled from Oxford, but only on condition that he could translate ex tempore the 32nd epigram of Martial:

Non amo te, Sabidi,
nec possum dicere – quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere,
non amo te.

To this, Brown immediately replied with the well-known lines:

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.

Fell, who had never married, died on 10 July 1686. Neither Brown nor Fell could have imagined that the son of a Dean of Lichfield would be remembered by generations to come because this witty composition became a well-known Mother Goose nursery rhyme.

The deanery we see in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield today is not the deanery that would have been known to either Dr Fell, father or son. Samuel Fell’s deanery was badly damaged during the Civil War in 1640s and 1650s, when the Cathedral Close came under siege three times in rapid succession.

The damaged deanery was assessed for tax on only two hearths in 1666. Thomas Wood, who became Dean of Lichfield in 1663 and later became Bishop of Lichfield, dismantled what remained of the hall with the intention of rebuilding it. The house had been restored sufficiently by 1687 for a later dean, Lancelot Addison (1632-1703), to host King James II during his visit to Lichfield.

But this next deanery did not remain standing for too long. William Binckes, who succeeded Addison as Dean of Lichfield in 1703, built a new deanery in the early 18th century. The southern part of the long range was taken down, because it was ruined and it obscured the view from the new episcopal palace. A front was built at a right-angle to the remaining portion of the range with a central doorway flanked by three windows on either side. The new deanery was completed in 1707.

The doorway was moved to its present position on the east side of the house in 1807-1808, and internal remodelling was carried out at the same time. Additions and more alterations were made in 1876 and 1893. The northern part of the mediaeval range, which had been converted into outbuildings, was demolished in 1967.

The entrance has fluted Tuscan pilasters. Some of the original windows have been blocked, and it seems one of the original doors may have been moved. The 18th century gate is attached to rebuilt brick piers.

Although the house has been much altered, it retains an impressive facade and some interior features of interest. Inside, many early 19th century details survive, including a fireplace, cornices, doorways, the round arches connecting the front rooms, and the elliptical arch to the right of the stair hall. But the open-well stair was altered in the early 19th century and again in 1974. Queen Elizabeth stayed here in 1988 when she was distributing the Maundy Money in the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday.

As you walk around the Close, it is worth noting that the frontage of the Deanery is 120 ft; next door, the frontage of the Bishop’s Palace is twice that length, 240 ft, while the frontage of the canon’s house on the other side is half the length, 60 ft. … so the bishop was twice as important as the dean, and the dean was twice as important as a residentiary canon. Dr Fell may have been important in his day … but perhaps not as important as he would have liked others to think.

Tom Tower and the Quad at Christ Church Oxford … Dean Fell moved the “Great Tom” Bell to its present place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. He has strong family roots in Lichfield, and returns regularly throughout the year.
This essay and these photographs were first published in April 2015 in the Spring Edition of Three Spires and Friends of Lichfield Cathedral, 78th Annual Report, 2015 (editor, David Wallington), pp 42-47.

27 April 2015

A weekend of poetry, reading, history
and photographs on Achill Island

The beach at Dugort, Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have been invited once again to speak at the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend in Achill Island, Co Mayo.

This year, the weekend takes place from 1 to 3 May 2015, beginning on Friday evening [1 May] in the Cyril Gray Memorial Hall, Dugort.

Declan Kelleher, the Permanent Representative of Ireland in the European Union, will give his opening address on the theme, “Culture, Diplomacy and Mutual Understanding.” Prior to his appointment to Brussels he was the Irish Ambassador in China from 2004 to 2013, and was instrumental in opening up trade and cultural links between Ireland and China.

Later in the evening, Kevin Toolis will speak on ‘The Prophet and the Bishop: the religious war between Edward Nangle 1800-1883 And Archbishop John MacHale 1791-1881.’ Kevin is a BAFTA winning film maker, playwright and writer. He won the 2014 Single Drama BAFTA award for his MI5 spy thriller Complicit, and is the playwright and director of the West End hit The Confessions of Gordon Brown.

Saturday’s programme includes an exhibition of archival photograph material from the Böll family collection at the Cyril Gray Hall, a guided walk with Eoin Halpin, and a writing seminar with Mike McCormack.

Later, Hilary Tulloch will give an illustrated talk on Edward Nangle with family pictures. Her great-grandfather, Harry Nangle, was one of the children of the Revd Edward Walter Nangle and his first wife, Eliza Warner. He was born in the Settlement at Dugort in 1841 and there he spent the first 11 years of his life and the summer holidays for the remainder of his childhood.

‘The Colony’ in Dugort, beneath the slopes of Slievemore on Achill Iskand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patricia Byrne is also going to speak on ‘Women in the Colony.’ Edward Nangle’s first wife, Eliza, and six of their children are buried on the slopes of Slievemore. The presentation looks at the Mission roles of Eliza Nangle, her sister Grace Warner, and Isabella Adams, and how they related to the position of philanthropic women of the period.

Her narrative non-fiction book, The Veiled Woman of Achill – Island Outrage & a Playboy Drama, was published in 2012.

I have been invited to lecture on Saturday afternoon (3.45 p.m.) on ‘TS Eliot (1888-1965): the Nobel poet and his Irish connections.’

The programme notes say:

“Like Heinrich Boll, TS Eliot was a Nobel laureate and was deeply influenced in his writings by the events of war – ‘The Waste Land’ grows out of his reflections on World War I, and the events; he was an air warden in World War II, and the ‘Four Quartets’ draws on many of those war-time experiences.

“This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death on 4 January 1965, and the one hundredth anniversary of his marriage to Vivienne Leigh-Wood in 1915, portrayed in the film Tom & Viv. Her family’s wealth rested on property inherited in Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown).

“Eliot’s reputation has been plagued by accusations that he held anti-Semitic and anti-Irish views. In a study of Eliot’s impact on Anglican theology, Professor Barry Spurr deals convincingly with the accusations of anti-Semitism. But Eliot has often been accused of being anti-Irish.

“Yet his conversion to Anglicanism is attributed to his childhood Irish nanny in America, Annie Dunne from Co Cork. His marriage to Vivienne Leigh-Wood brought another forgotten Irish connection, for her family’s wealth was built on her Irish-born grandmother’s inherited properties in Dun Laoghaire.

“Eliot had a strong friendship with James Joyce, a more difficult relationship with WB Yeats. Patrick Comerford tackles these questions by looking at Eliot’s portrayals of Irish characters from his references to the Irish princess Isolde in ‘The Waste Land’ to his deployment and of Irish figures such as Sweeney and Reilly in his poetry and plays.

“Patrick Comerford reassesses Eliot’s Irish influences and examines his friendships with four key Irish contemporary literary figures: WB Yeats, James Joyce, the Jesuit philosopher Martin D’Arcy, and the poet Louis MacNeice who closely identified with Achill.”

The programme describes me as follows:

“(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Theology in Trinity College Dublin, and a visiting lecturer in Mater Dei Institute of Education, a college of Dublin City University.

“He studied theology at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Kimmage Manor, Maynooth and in Cambridge, and holds degrees and diplomas from Maynooth, Trinity College Dublin and the IOCS, Cambridge.

“Patrick worked for 30 years as a journalist with provincial and national newspapers, and is a former Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times. He has contributed to many books, journals and magazines, and writes for three monthly magazines. He has published two studies of TS Eliot in this 50th anniversary year.

“He is a member of the General Synod and Standing Committee of the Church of Ireland, serves on the Irish and British boards and councils of the Anglican mission agency Us (formerly USPG), and his work for Anglican mission agencies has brought him to Romania, Egypt and China. He has been a regular visitor to Achill since the 1970s, and spoke about Nangle and the Achill Mission at these weekends in 2013 and 2014.”

I have also been invited to speak later on Saturday afternoon in the Cyril Gray Hall at the opening of an exhibition of photographs of Dugort Village Colony by the American photographer John Michael Nikolai who lives in Achill.

Last year he was commissioned by Kevin Toolis to take photographs at some of the locations on Achill Island associated with Nangle. As he worked on this project, the artist tried to imagine Achill during this period and what it might be like to have a powerful and enigmatic figure such as Nangle roaming the landscape.

The programme on Sunday morning [3 May] includes a guided walk with Eoin Halpin of Slievemore, the Colony and Finsheen, a recording of Sunday Miscellany for RTÉ in Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort, and readings by Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman and John F Deane. Interestingly, John F Deane has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

Saint Thomas’s Church, Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

26 April 2015

‘Weep for the waste of all that might have been,
weep for the cost that war has made obscene’

Candles and wreaths at the Gallipoli centenary service in Christ Church Cathedral this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of today in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, taking part in the Cathedral Eucharist this morning [26 April 2015] and in Choral Evensong this afternoon which was a Service of Remembrance marking ANZAC Day and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in April 1915.

My grandfather was in Turkey and Thessaloniki in 1915-1916 with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and so it was particularly poignant but also an honour to robe and take part in this afternoon’s service as a member of the cathedral chapter.

Anzac Day has been marked in Ireland since 1990 when the New Zealand and Australian communities first gathered on 25 April 25 to honour the memories of Anzac soldiers. There has been an Anzac ceremony every year since then with the focus gradually extending to include Irish participants.

This evening’s service was sung by the Cathedral Choir, and the music included Philip Moore’s Responses, the canticles from Stanford’s Evening Service in G and John Ireland’s ‘Greater Love,’ which was sung as an anthem.

Ireland’s anthem is based on Scriptural verses from the Song of Songs, John 15; and I Peter:

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree:
that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.
Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation:
that ye should show forth the praises of him
who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God,
that you present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto to God,
which is your reasonable service.

As the choir sang, members of the congregation took part in an act of remembrance, bringing forward lighted candles and placing them in front of the wreaths that had been laid at the rood screen at the beginning of the service.

It was comforting to know that there was one candle there for my grandfather.

The address was delivered by the Deputy Ambassador of New Zealand, Mr Rob Taylor, and others taking part in the service included the Australian Ambassador, Dr Ruth Adler, and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, TD.

At one point, we heard the words written by Ataturk in 1934 as his tribute to the Turkish and allied dead who were buried together in Gallipoli:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us. Where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours ... You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away the tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.

I expected to hear hymns such as ‘O God, our help in ages past,’ ‘Kohima,’ the epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds that has been provided with a setting by John Tavener, and the words from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them, we will remember them.

But for the first time I also found myself singing ‘The Anzac Hymn’ by Shirley Erena Murray:

Honour the dead, our country’s fighting brave,
honour our children, left in foreign grave,
where poppies blow and sorrow seeds her flowers,
honour the crosses marked forever ours.

Weep for the places ravaged with our blood,
weep for the young bones buried in the mud,
weep for the powers of violence and greed,
weep for the deals done in the name of need.

Honour the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall,
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame,
branded as cowards, in our country’s name.

Weep for the waste of all that might have been,
weep for the cost that war has made obscene,
weep for the homes that ache with human pain,
weep that we ever sanction war again.

Honour the dream for which our nation bled,
held now in trust to justify the dead,
honour their vision on this solemn day:
peace known in freedom, peace the only way.

Later, Minister Humphreys hosted a state reception in Dublin Castle.

Earlier in the morning I had been subdeacon at the Cathedral Eucharist, assisting at the administration of Holy Communion.

Before going to lunch, I had taken a small group who are interested in movie locations on a private tour of the cathedral, showing them locations associated with the filming of the television drama series, The Tudors.

The beach at Bray on Saturday afternoon … a peaceful contrast with the beaches in the Dardanelles 100 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

But before such a busy day, I had a walk on the beach in Bray late yesterday afternoon [25 April 2015], and a very late lunch in Carpe Diem.

As I walked back along the seafront after lunch, I was aware of the calm and peace of this beach today, and the horrors of the beaches by the Dardanelles 100 years ago.

25 April 2015

An introduction to Islam and the plight
of Christians in the Middle East today

Exhausted and traumatised Christians from villages in north-east Syria gather at an Orthodox Church in Hasakah, seeking refuge after their small communities were terrorised a few weeks ago (Photograph: IOCC/GOPA)

Patrick Comerford

In recent months, many of us have been exercised by developments or changes in the Middle East and North Africa. These events have been given significant coverage in all media, and they include:

● The murder and martyrdom of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians by the self-styled Islamic State in Libya.

● The break-up of Syria and Iraq, with the consequent militant drive by ‘Islamic State’.

● The plight of refugees in the Mediterranean, fleeing their homes in many parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

● The attacks on shopping centres, universities and tourists by Islamic jihadists based in Somalia but with support in the Middle East, and the attacks on tourists in Tunisia.

● The conflict in Israel, Palestine and the West Bank.

● The present civil war in Yemen, involving Shia and Sunni Muslims, and linked to the competing interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

● The kidnapping of bishops and nuns in Syria.

●The bombing of churches in Pakistan.

●The role of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the subsequent electoral rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by a military coup.

● The plight of persecuted Yazidis in an area on the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

All of this has been made more difficult to discuss rationally when we think of:

● the recent spate of violence throughout Europe,

● the attacks on Charlie Hebdo,

● the attacks on a kosher supermarket in France, and on synagogues in Belgium and Denmark,

● the weekly anti-Muslim xenophobic marches in Dresden and other German cities, and so on.

So this afternoon, I want to introduce us to some of the main aspects of politics and Islam in the Islamic world, and perhaps also to look at some of the other religious communities in the Middle East and the Islamic world.


With Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in the Western Desert in Egypt

The three major families of religion in the Middle East are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all claiming religious and spiritual descent from the religion of Abraham, and each originating in the Middle East.

But the Middle East and the Islamic world are not co-terminus, nor are the Middle East and the Arab world.

The country with the largest Muslim population in the world is Indonesia, which is not in the Middle East, and the second largest is Pakistan. The two largest Muslim countries in the Middle East are not Arab countries or Arabic speaking – they are Turkey and Iran. And, of course, Israel is also part of the Middle East.

Fewer than 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. The majority of Muslims live outside the Middle East, in places like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan.

Both Pakistan and Turkey have had women Prime Ministers, so it is important to be careful about stereotyping Islamic societies and their attitudes, values and cultural heritage.

Islam in its many forms is by far the largest religious grouping in the Middle East, but it is divided into many diverse branches, schools and sects.

In addition, the followers of many other religions exist, smaller minority religions are found as minorities throughout the Middle East, including the Bahá'í, the Druze, the Yazidis, the Mandaeans, the Sabaeans, the Samaritans, Parsees or Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus and so on.

The rise of political Islam

What are the differences between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS)? How do the three groups compare? Why did they split?

The Taliban (“students”) is an Islamic fundamentalist political movement founded in 1994 in Afghanistan. It spread throughout Afghanistan and formed a government, ruling as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from September 1996 until December 2001, with Kandahar as the capital. However, it gained diplomatic recognition from only three states: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Mohammed Omar is the founder and the spiritual leader of the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda (meaning “The Base,” “The Foundation” or “The Fundament”) is a global militant Islamist organisation founded by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other militants, around 1988-1989, and its origins can be traced to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 the group has been led by an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Its network includes a multinational, stateless army and an Islamist, extremist, wahhabi, jihadist group. It was responsible for 9/11, the Bali bombings, and other attacks across the globe. In the Syrian civil war, al-Qaeda factions started fighting each other, as well as fighting the Kurds and the Syrian government.

As Salafist jihadists, they believe the killing of non-combatants is religiously sanctioned. Al-Qaeda also opposes what it regards as man-made laws, and wants to replace them with a strict form of sharia law It is responsible for instigating sectarian violence among Muslims, and the leaders of al-Qaeda regard liberal and secular Muslims ,Shias, Sufis and many other Muslims as heretics and have attacked their mosques and gatherings.

Their sources of income included the heroin trade and donations from supporters in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaeda believes it is the primary duty of Jihadists today to fight Jihad; in particular, they believe that it is a religious duty to fight a type of Jihad called Jihad Al-Daf or “defensive Jihad.”

Strange as it sounds, al-Qaeda actually claims it is fighting a defensive war and that establishing a caliphate cannot be achieved by force.

On the other hand, ISIS believes the duty of Jihadists is to establish the caliphate, and that it can only be established by force of arms. This is significant because in their understanding once the Caliphate is established Muslims who do not submit to it are considered Khawarij and as such can be fought and killed.

ISIL or ISIS is a Salafi jihadist force that evolved out of a group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who moved to Iraq after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. He later launched al-Qaida in Iraq, where it was responsible for bombing of the Askari mosque in Samarra and so triggering Iraq’s civil war 2006-2007.

The group was renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria after its leader was killed in a US raid in 2006, and it was weakened in 2007 after US forces aligned with Sunni Iraqi tribes to fight the group.

ISIS believes the battle against secularist and moderate Muslims today takes precedence over fighting those they regard as infidels. In recent days, Abdu Bakar al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has called the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar “a fool and illiterate warlord”. Al-Baghdadi has said that Mullah Omar does not deserve a spiritual or political credibility.

Yet, last October the Pakistani Taliban declared its backing for ISIS and ordered fighters across the region to help the group in its campaign to set up an Islamic caliphate. In a message to mark the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, the Pakistani Taliban said it fully supported ISIS’s goals to set up a caliphate in the Middle East.

ISIS has been described as the richest terrorist organisation in the world. After capturing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last year, ISIS fighters looted about $420 million (€308 million), and Iraqi officials estimate the group has perhaps $2 billion in its war chest.

Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting the ISIS jihadis. Last year [17 June 2014], the then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for the financial and moral support given to ISIS.

Günter Meyer, Director of the Centre for Research into the Arabic World at the University of Mainz, has told Deutsche Welle that the most important source of financing for ISIS to date comes from the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia but also Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Additional financing sources include the oil fields of northern Syria, northern Iraq and perhaps Libya, and there is a continuing flow of money from the systematic extortion conducted by ISIS in Mosul and other captured areas.

Hizbullah (the “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) is a Shi'a Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon. It is headed by Hassan Nasrallah.

Earlier this year, an assessment from the US director of National Intelligence removed it from its list of terror threats to the US, although it remains classified by the US as a terrorist organisation.

Hizbullah was formed by Shia clerics and funded by Iran following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and was primarily formed to offer resistance to the Israeli occupation. Its leaders were followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, and its forces were trained and organised by Iranian Revolutionary Guards with support from the Syrian government.

Hizbullah holds seats in the Lebanese government (11 out of 30 cabinet seats), runs radio and television stations, and programmes for social development. We could call it a “state within a state,” and its paramilitary wing is more powerful than the Lebanese Army. It has become embroiled in in the Syrian civil war and is helping President Assad and the Syrian government.

The Syrian conflict has helped to revive ISIS, which provided support to one of its members, Abu Mohammed al-Jaulani, to form a group in Syria after the 2011 uprising. In April 2013, the group’s current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, under the name of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

However, the merger was rejected by Jabhat al-Nusra and most of its foreign jihadists then defected to Isis. Since then, Isis has been at war with Syrian rebels to impose itself as a state that accepts no other group acting in rebel-held areas unless they pledge allegiance to it. On 29 June 2014, on the first day of Ramadan, Isis announced that al-Baghdadi was “elected” by the Shura Council as a caliph for all Muslims, and it changed its name to the Islamic State.

The avalanche of ISIS is powerful and I imagine that worse is yet to come. Beyond these military and practical factors, it is important to view the Isis phenomenon as part of two wider trends within Sunni Islam that will make Isis a long-term ideological menace, even if it is reined in militarily.

What is motivating ISIS?

A recent map by the Economist showing areas controlled by ISIS at the end of last year

The rise of Isis should be seen in the context of the Sunni sense of alienation that is common, particularly in the region from Lebanon to Yemen and from Egypt to Iran. Sunnis throughout this part of the region behave as a minority: insecure and under siege, with no defenders.

ISIS emerges out of this desperate situation its seizure of Sunni provinces in Iraq was widely celebrated. There is concern among some governments in the region that Isis has sympathisers within the religious establishment.

Before he died earlier this year, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia criticised the “silence and laziness” of the ulema or body of Muslim scholars, in speaking out against Isis extremism. His public scolding of the senior ulema was unprecedented.

A second trend that makes ISIS a more perilous phenomenon is the neglected ideological shakeup of Sunni Islam’s traditional Salafism. This has been taking place more noticeably since the Arab Spring, when Salafis became increasingly politicised.

Salafism was traditionally inward-looking and loyal to the political establishment. Salafists, religiously speaking, hold extremist views, but also tend to hold pragmatic political positions. Jihadists, who are heavily influenced by Salafi ideas but equally influenced by political Islam, started polarising the Salafi landscape and steadily, if slowly, eroding traditional Salafism.

ISIS is not a disease. It is a symptom – of a political vacuum, a sense of rejection among Sunnis, and an ideological shakeup within Salafism. It is important to emphasise, however, that there are grounds for optimism. While the strength and appeal of ISIS should not be underestimated, its rise has triggered a unique debate in the region.

Since ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq, in particular, the Arabic media have produced reports about the nature of the group and the source of its ideology. Mohammed Habash, a cleric from Syria, blames the rise of ISIS on mosque imams, saying: “ISIS did not arrive from Mars; it is a natural product of our retrograde discourse.”

A Saudi commentator, Ibrahim al-Shaalan, tweeted that ISIS is “but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum. If the curriculum is sound, then Isis is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”

The factors that led to the rise of ISIS are still not addressed, while ISIS has not even reached its potential. It is still steadily advancing in Syria, although the rebels still outnumber ISIS and communities in some areas are deeply angered by random killings by ISIS.

After Iraqi forces chose a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to replace Nouri al-Maliki, the new government’s priority has been to work with Sunni tribes to fight ISIS.

The takeover by ISIS of Sunni areas bordering the Kurdish region has pushed the Kurds to annex oil-rich Kirkuk and move closer to independence from Iraq. ISIS controls many villages near Turkey’s borders with Iraq and may control key border crossings, posing profound challenges for Turkish authorities.

The ethnic groups of the Middle East

The ethnic groups in the Middle East

The most important colour on this map of Middle Eastern ethnic groups is yellow: the Arabs are the majority group in almost every Middle East country, including the North African countries not shown here.

The exceptions are mostly-Jewish Israel in pink, mostly-Turkish Turkey in green, mostly-Persian Iran in orange, and a heavily diverse Afghanistan.

The Kurds are spread throughout the Middle East and have no nation-state of their own

The Kurds have no country of their own but have a significant presence in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They have long lived as a disadvantaged minority in several parts of the Middle East s, and have long struggled for a nation of their own. Iraqi Kurds now have autonomous self-rule in Iraq’s north.

So, there is remarkable ethnic diversity from Turkey to Afghanistan, but much of the rest of the Middle East is dominated by ethnic Arabs.

Islam in the Middle East:

Islam accounts for the largest single religious grouping in the Middle East. About 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East.

Islam is monotheistic believing in the one God – the word Allah in Arabic simply translates into English as “the God.” The sacred scripture of Muslims is the Qur'an.

Muslims believe Islam is an extension, continuity or fulfilment of Judaism and Christianity. They believe Muhammad is the final prophet of God, in a long chain of prophets, from Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses through to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

The majority of Muslims are Sunni, followed by Shi'a.

There are smaller sects who have varying degrees of affinity or separation with the mainstreams of Islam. The Alawites, who include the minority ruling class in Syria are regarded as part of mainstream Shia Islam. The Ahamdi Muslims or Ahmadiyya, but many Muslims count them outside the fold of Islam, and the Saudis refuse many of those groups permission to take part in the haj to Mecca. The Druze are normally seen as being outside Islam.

Sufi Islam is a mystical approach within mainstream Sunni Islam, but often appeals to Shia Muslims.

Sunni and Shi'a Islam:

A map illustrating the Sunni and Shi'a divisions in the region

A major source of conflict in the Muslim world is the division between the two main branches of Islam: the Sunni and Shi'a branches. This conflict is expressed in much of the present violence in Yemen, southern Iraq, some of the eastern Gulf states and, further afield, in Pakistan.

Since then, other differences have arisen in practices, beliefs and culture, giving rise to further conflicts between the two communities.

The story of Islam’s division between Sunni and Shia started with the death of Muhammed in 632. There was a power struggle over who would succeed him in ruling the Islamic Caliphate, with most Muslims wanting to elect the next leader but some arguing that power should go by divine birth-right to Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali. The pro-Ali faction was known as the “Partisans of Ali,” or Shi'atu Ali in Arabic, hence Shia. “Sunni” roughly translates as “tradition.”

Ali’s eventual succession sparked a civil war, which he and his partisans lost. The Shia held on to the idea that Ali was the rightful successor, and grew into an entirely separate branch of Islam. Today about 10 to 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Shia – they are the majority only in Iran and Iraq – while most Muslims are Sunni.

Today, that religious division is again a political one as well: it is a struggle for regional influence between Shia political powers, led by Iran, against Sunni political powers, led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle looks like a regional cold war, with proxy battles in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

Sunni Islam:

A mosque and the Mevlevi tekke in Konya in central Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam and dominates most countries in the Middle East.

Within Sunni Islam, the most vocal group politically is the Salafist or Salafi movement. It is often seen as being synonymous with Wahhabism, although Salafists regard the term “Wahhabi” as derogatory.

Some commentators describe Salafism as a hybrid of Wahhabism and other post-1960s movement. Salafism is associated with literalist, strict and puritanical expressions of Islam that reject religious innovation and with the Salafi Jihadis who espouse offensive jihad against those they deem to be enemies of Islam as a legitimate expression of Islam.

It is believed by many that Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement in the world.

In legal matters, Salafis are divided between those who, in the name of independent legal judgment (ijtihad) reject strict adherence (taqlid) to the four schools of law (madhahib) and others who remain faithful to these.

Salafi scholars from Saudi Arabia or influenced from Saudi Arabia are generally bound by Hanbali fiqh and advocate following an Imam rather than understanding scripture oneself.

Salafist jihadists groups include al-Qaeda and the now defunct Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Shia Islam:

Shia Muslims make up the largest Muslim populations in Iraq (60 to 65%), Iran (90 to 96%), Lebanon (25 to 35%), and Bahrain (75-80%), and they also include the Zaydi in Yemen (55%).

Shia Muslims are scattered throughout the rest of the Middle East, with minority Shia populations in Turkey as the Alevi sect (20-25%), in Saudi Arabia (10-15%), and in Syria (15%).

Although these two traditions agree on the fundamental beliefs of Islam and the teachings of the Qur'an, they disagree about who would lead the Muslim community after the death of their Prophet Muhammad.

Appendix A: Christianity in the Middle East:

A church in a provincial town in the Nile Valley in Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Of course, Christianity also traces its origins to the Middle East, and it was the major religions in the region until the Arab Muslim conquests in the second half of the 7th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Christians were 20% of the population of the Middle East. Today, 100 years later, Christians have dwindled to a mere 5% of the population in the Middle East. It is estimated that at the present rate, the Middle East’s 12 million Christians will drop in numbers to 6 million by the year 2020.

The decline of Christians in the Middle East is due to a number of factors, including:

● Lower birth rates compared with their Muslim neighbours;

●Extensive emigration;

●Ethnic and religious persecution;

● Political turmoil – remember that Christian Palestinians face the same oppression as their Muslim compatriots on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

1, Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq

Iraq’s Christians can justly claim they are a Biblical people: they trace their origins to the first Pentecost and the early missionary activities of the Apostles, especially Thomas. The early church in the region developed rapidly so that by the 4th century there was a thriving church in Mesopotamia that was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch. At one time, the see at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad, was the most important Christian centre outside the Roman or Byzantine Empire.

After the church in Mesopotamia declared its independence, the other Eastern Orthodox churches accused it of the Nestorian heresy, which it has always denied. Despite its isolation and accusations of heresy, the Assyrian Church of the East, as it became known, was a vigorous missionary church, sending missionaries to the Far East who reached Tibet, China and Mongolia centuries before the voyages of Marco Polo.

The Assyrian church survived the invasions by Muslims and the horrors of the Crusades. Although numbers dwindled through wars, persecutions and massacres, these Christians maintained their unity until the arrival of Latin missionaries, intent on suppressing Nestorianism and bringing about union with Rome. These efforts eventually caused a major rift in the 16th century, and the main churches have remained divided for almost 500 years.

Today Iraq is the only Middle East country in which the largest church of the Christian minority is in communion with Rome. The Chaldean Church is a uniate church, dating back to 1552. That church survived further splits in 1672, 1681, and the 1790s and again in 1830, and remains a vital force in the Christian world of the Middle East.

Despite these divisions, the Assyrian Church of the East survived, although there have been further internal divisions, rival patriarchs, massacres at the hands of both Kurds and Turks, and grave disappointment at the failure of the West to recognise Assyrian claims to nationhood after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Apart from the Chaldeans and Assyrians, Iraq’s Christian minority includes the Syrian Orthodox Church; the Syrian Catholics and Greek Catholics or Melkites, who are both in communion with Rome; the Armenian Apostolic Church, which remembers genocide and massacre at the hands of the Turks, beginning 100 years ago in 1915; and a tiny Greek Orthodox community. There is also a tiny Anglican presence in Baghdad.

In recent generations, there has been a steady migration from the traditional Christian towns and villages in northern Iraq, so that the majority of Christians now live in Baghdad. All the churches report the number of Christians in Iraq is shrinking dramatically and drastically as many leave the country. Those who remain fear the way extremists can drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians.

Archbishop Justin Welby with Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic Patriarch, in Cairo last June

2, The Coptic Orthodox Church:

The largest Christian group in the Middle East is the originally Egyptian speaking, but now Arabic-speaking Egyptian community of Copts, who number 6 to 11 million people, although Coptic sources put the figure is closer to 12 to 16 million. Copts live mainly in Egypt, although there are tiny communities also in Israel, Cyprus and Jordan.

3, The Greek Orthodox churches:

The four principal, historic Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church are identified with cities now in the Muslim Middle East: Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

The Church of Alexandria is tiny in Egypt (250,000-300,000), when compared with the Coptic Orthodox Church. But, paradoxically, because this Patriarchate extends to all of Africa, it is the fastest-growing Church in Africa.

The Church of Sinai is a separate church with its own archbishop and abbot.

Antioch is now in Turkey, and the Patriarchate has long removed to Damascus. The Church of Antioch has about 1.25 million members scattered throughout the Middle East, mainly in Syria (10% of the population), Lebanon and south-east Turkey, and a total world membership of about 4.3 million.

Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, who is a director of the Institute for Orthodox Studies in Cambridge, where I have studied, is with his people in Damascus at the centre of civil war. Metropolitan Paul (Yazigi) of Aleppo, a visiting lecturer at IOCS, is, along with the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, being held hostage and at the mercy of rebel forces.

The Church of Jerusalem has about 200,000 members, mainly in Palestine, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Jordan. Some Palestinian Christian families say they can trace their ancestry to the earliest Christians of the Holy Land.

Geographically speaking, the biggest Greek Orthodox community in the Middle Eastern region lives in Cyprus, which is the only Christian majority state in the Middle East, although Cyprus is part of the European Union.

4, Maronites:

The Arabic-speaking Lebanese Maronites are found mainly in Lebanon. They take their name from the Syriac Christian Saint Maron, whose followers migrated to the area of Mount Lebanon from Antioch, establishing the nucleus of the Maronite Church.

My most recent figures, from 2007, suggest there are about 930,000 Maronites in Lebanon, where they make up to 22% of the population. In all, Maronites account for 1.1 to 1.2 million Christians across the Middle East. Although they speak Arabic, many claim that they are not Arabic but descended from Phoenician and Canaanite people, the descendants of the Syro-Phoenician woman in the Gospel, or her kith and kin.

They maintain some Orthodox-like styles of liturgy, and they have married clergy, but they are one of the many Middle East Churches in full communion with Rome yet retaining their independent ecclesiastical structures, governance and traditions.

5, The Melkites or Greek Catholics:

The Melkite Christians or Greek Catholics include about almost 1 million Christians in the Middle East, and 1.6 million worldwide. Like the Maronites, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is in full communion with Rome but maintains its autonomy and traditions, its Byzantine liturgy, and has married priests.

They are found mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, and they have been in with Rome since 1724. The Patriarchate is based in Damascus.

6, Syriac Christians:

There are 2 to 3 million Syriac Christians. They too would say they are not Arab in their ethnic or linguistic background.

The Syriac Christians include the indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrians of Iraq, south- east Turkey, north-east Syria and north-west Iran. The say the language they speak is the closest language to the Aramaic spoken by Christ.

They have suffered ethnic and religious persecution over the last few centuries. The Assyrian Genocide forced many of them to flee to the west or to group together in concentrated areas in north Iraq and north Syria. In Iraq, the number of indigenous Assyrians has from perhaps as many as 1.4 million before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to 800,000 or perhaps even just 500,000 today.

Currently, the largest community of Syriac Christians in the Middle East lives in Syria … but for how long? Until the present conflict broke out, they numbered between 880,000 and 1.1 million. They include Neo-Aramaic speaking Assyrians and Arabic-speaking Christians whose original language was the almost extinct Western Aramaic.

7, The Armenians:

There are large communities of Armenians Christians in many parts of the Middle East, where they number around half a million people, with their largest community in Iran (200,000 to 300,000 people).

In addition, there are Armenian communities in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, with an Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. It is difficult to know the numbers of Armenians who still live in Turkey.

8, Other Christian groups:

In the Gulf states, Bahrain has 1,000 Christian citizens, while Kuwait has 400 native Christian citizens, as well as 450,000 Christian foreign residents. In all, there are several million Christian foreign workers in the Gulf area, mostly from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Appendix B: Other religious groupings in the Middle East:

1, Judaism:

Judaism in the Middle East exists mostly in Israel, but a few other countries in the Middle East have significant Jewish populations, including Turkey.

Israel’s population is 75.3% Jewish, with the remainder made up of Muslims (20.6%), Christians, Druze, Bahá'í and other minorities (4.1%).

2, The Samaritans:

The Samaritans are close, historically, to Judaism, and there is a large Samaritan community in Israel. The Samaritan communities in Egypt and Syria collapsed by the late 19th century. Today, the number of Samaritans is estimated at about 800.

3, The Bahá'í Community:

Bahá'í numbers have been considerable in the past in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Turkey, and there are about 6 to 8 million Bahá'ís around the world. The international Bahá'í headquarters are on the northern slope of Mount Carmel at Haifa, Israel.

They were founded in Iran in 1863 by Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad of Shiraz, who is revered as the ‘Bab’ or “the Gate,” but the revered figure is an Iranian named Mírzá Husayn ’Alí Núrí, later titled Bahá'u'lláh or “Glory of God.”

4, The Druze:

The Druze faith is a monotheistic religion found in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Their numbers range from 100,000 in Israel, to 700,000 in Syria. This faith has developed from Isma'ilite teachings originating in Shia Islam, but Druze teaching incorporates Jewish, Christian, Iranian and other elements.

They prohibit conversion to their religion – you have to be born Druze, you cannot sign up. Many of their beliefs and practices are secret not only from outsiders but even from many members, so that only an elite group, the uqqal (“knowers”) are fully aware of Druze beliefs and practices.

5, The Yazīdī:

The Yazidis, who are found in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, came to international notice last summer when they became the target of a particularly brutal attack on them collectively by ‘Islamic State.’

Their religion combines Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish and Nestorian Christian elements along with elements of mystic Shia and Sufi beliefs and practices. They maintain complete segregation from the rest of the population. They number fewer than 100,000. Their respect for a divine messenger they known as Malak Ṭāʾūs (“Peacock Angel”) has led to them being labelled devil worshippers by ISIS and other Islamic extremists.

6, The Mandaeans:

There are between 60,000 and 70,000 Mandaeans worldwide, and their heartland in the Middle East is in Iraq and Iran. They claim they are the spiritual descendants of the original disciples of the John the Baptist and they reject both Christ and Muhammad as prophets, although they revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enoch and Noah.

Like many of these small religious minorities in the Middle East, they do not allow conversion.

7, Zoroastrianism:

Zoroastrianism is found in central Iran, where there are an estimated 20,000 Zoroastrians. They follow one of the oldest monotheistic religions, dating back 3,500 years ago. Indeed, this was one of the most powerful religions in the world for about 1,000 years.

Today, however, it has only 190,000 followers worldwide. There are two deities: Azhura Mazda, who fights for a person’s goodness, and Ahriman, who fights for a person’s evil. It is ultimately up to the individual to decide which deity they will follow.

The principal sacred scripture of Zoroastrians is the Avesta.

8, Other religious minorities:

In addition, there are many Hindus and Buddhists in Arab states, due mainly to the migration of Indians and other Asians to the oil-rich states around the Gulf. There are Hindu temples in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman.

Sikhs too have a tiny presence in the Middle East, mainly in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran. Most of them are Punjabi-speaking Indian expatriates.

Appendix C: religion in the Middle East country-by-country:

1, Iraq:

In Iraq, 97% of the people are Muslims: Shiite 60% to 65%, Sunni 32% to 37%. The other 3% are mainly Christians. There is major tension between the majority Shia and minority Sunni Muslims.

Many of the churches in Iraq today continue to use Syriac, a language close to the Aramaic spoken by Christ. Indeed, Iraq is a biblical land and that there is a strong and vibrant Christian community there today.

Many Muslims were shocked by the overt secularism of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist party, while prominent politicians in his cabinet included Tariq Aziz, who was a member of Iraq’s largest Christian community, the Chaldeans, and both Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Sunni Muslims have formed the urban middle class, and in the past exercised influence and power beyond their numbers in urban, economic, social and political life.

The Jews of Iraq were once an important community, culturally and socially, but their numbers have dwindled dramatically in recent generations. The Baha’is have a long history in Iraq, first fleeing persecution in Iran, where they were accused of blasphemy and heresy. Two minorities almost unique to Iraq are the followers of the Yazidi and Mandaean religions.

Religious groups in Lebanon, by Sergey Kondrashov (Licensed under CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

2, Lebanon:

Lebanon has the most unique religious mixture in the Middle East, with consequences that are enshrined the country’s constitutional politics.

Lebanon had a Christian majority in the first half of the 20th century. Today, the majority of Lebanese people are Muslim (57.5%), but in the Lebanese ways of counting this includes not only the Sunni and Shi'a population, but also the Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite and Nusayri people.

Christians are 41.5% of the population, and include the Maronites, Melkites, Assyrians, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Assyrian Orthodox, Chaldeans, Copts and some Protestant. In addition, about 1% are Jews.

Lebanon has a confessional political system. So, regardless of political parties, the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’ite, and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.

In addition, the Army General and the Bank Governor must be Christians too, and 50% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for Christian deputies.

3, Egypt:

The population breakdown in Egypt is 90% Muslim, mostly Sunni Muslims; 9% Coptic Christians; and 1% other Christians.

Of course, there is much tension between Muslims and Copts, with Copts feeling they suffer because of legal and administrative discrimination and that they are under-protected from religious hate-crimes.

The other current religious tension in Egypt is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt. Before the recent coup, the previous government that came to office in the election after the Arab Spring sought to introduce Sharia law in Egypt.

4, Syria:

Christians and Muslims in Syria

In Syria, 70% of the people are Sunni Muslims, 12% Alawite (including President Assad and his family), 5% Druze, and other Islamic derived groups, and 10% Christians. It is said there are some tiny Jewish communities in Damascus, al-Qamishli, and Aleppo.

The religious diversity within Syria is a significant factor in the Syrian civil war. That war began as about internal politics but has become in some ways a religious proxy war between Sunni and Shia – with Christian groups forced alongside the Shia and Alawite minority that currently holds power.

5, Iran:

The demographic make-up of Iran today

Iran is the only Middle East country that was never conquered by a European power, although it came pretty close to that in the 1900s, when it lost much territory to Russia. After that, Russia and Britain divided Iran's north and south into “zones of influence.” This remains a point of major national resentment in Iran today.

Persians form the largest ethnic group in Iran but the larger ethnic minorities include Arabs in the south, Kurds in the west, and Azeris in the north.

The population of Iran is Shi'a 89%, Sunni 9%, Zoroastrian 2%, and smaller Jewish, Christian and Bah'ai minorities.

6, Yemen:

As you might expect, Yemen is overwhelmingly Muslim, although there are smaller numbers of Christians, Jews and Hindus. But the present violence is the working out of a major historical conflict between the Shia majority in the North and the Sunni majority in the south.

7, Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia is allegedly 100% Muslim, and it is illegal there to practice any religion other than Islam. There is tension between the Sunni and the Shia populations, although the Shia Islam has never been a threat and represents a small proportion of the population. Sunni Islamists present a larger threat to the government and they often dissent through violence targeted at government, Western or non-Muslims and Shiites.

Some estimates suggest that 7% of Saudis are non-Muslim, although they are divided between Christians, who have ancient roots there, and the Hindus and Buddhists who are mostly migrant workers.

8, Israel:

Israel’s religious population (2003) is: Jews 77%, Muslims 16%, Christians 2%, Druze 2%. The majority of Palestinians are Muslim and the majority of current Israeli citizens are Jewish. Jews, Christians and Muslims all lay particular claims to Jerusalem as their own holy city.

9, Jordan:

In Jordan, the religious distribution is: Muslim (mostly Sunni) 92%, Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox) 6%, and others 2%.

10, Turkey:

The population of Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim (99.8%), and at that mostly Sunni. For decades, Turkey was dominated by the military, with a unique brand of Kemalist secularism. Under President Erdogan, religious freedom has become a greater part of the agenda, with a growing religious resurgence and laws prohibiting the hijab in schools and public places are no longer in force.

The Christian population of Turkey is estimated at more than 160,000, including 80,000 Armenians, 35,000 Roman Catholics, 21,000 ethnic Assyrians (in the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church), up to 22,000 Orthodox (3,000-4,000 Greek Orthodox, 10,000-18,000 Antiochian Orthodox) and small numbers of Bulgarians, Georgians, Anglicans and Protestants. In addition, there is a tiny Jewish community.


In TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi,’ one of the Wise Men says after his return from Bethlehem to Babylon, is left wondering:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a talk at the annual Global Vision Day organised by the Methodist Missionary Society (Ireland) and the Dublin District of the Methodist Church in Ireland in Dundrum Methodist Church, Dublin, on 25 April 2015.

From the ‘Methodist Notes’
in ‘The Irish Times’

Dundrum Methodist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The ‘Methodist notes’ in ‘The Irish Times’ today [24 April 2015] include the following paragraph:

Members of our churches in the Dublin District are meeting today in the Dundrum church for the annual Global Vision Day. Rev Patrick Comerford will be speaking about Christian minorities in the Middle East. Ruth Cooke will tell about the work of the international Justice Mission seeking justice for victims of slavery, exploitation and oppression. Tim Dunwoody will explain the new partnership that is being developed between the Methodist Churches in Ireland and in Upper Myanmar (Burma). There are also special programmes for children.

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.