Â Obama’s ‘Respect’ for Islam is a One-Way Street,
writes Â DANIEL HENNINGER/WALL STREET JOURNAL
Â Â Â Islamists of the world unite to destroy civilization & democracy…
Mr. Obama should make formalized tolerance of Christian sects in the Middle East the basis for arriving at what he called “common ground” with Islam.Â
Today is Holy Thursday for Christians and the start of Passover for Jews. This week was an opportune time for President Barack Obama to visit Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, which has been both a Byzantine church and Islamic mosque. In Turkey he spoke of seeking engagement with Islam based on “mutual respect.”
The subject of this column is the status of minority faith groups, mostly Christian, living inside Islamic countries. That status is poor. In some cases it verges on extinction, after centuries of coexistence with Islam. So it is useful to review what Mr. Obama said of his goals for living with Islam:
“I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. . . .
“We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith. . . . Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them.”
This is an eloquent description of ecumenical civility. In reality, the experience of Arab Christians living now amid majority Islamic populations is often repression, arrest, imprisonment and death.
Coptic Christians in Egypt have been singled out for discrimination and persecution. Muslim rioters often burn or vandalize their churches and shops.
In Turkey, the Syriac Orthodox Church (its 3,000 members speak Aramaic, the language of Christ) is battling with Turkish authorities over the lands around the Mor Gabriel monastery, built in 397.
Pakistan’s recent peace deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley puts at risk the 500 Christians still trying to live there. Many fled after Islamic extremists bombed a girls’ school late last year. Pakistan has never let them buy land to build a church.
In 1995, the Saudis were allowed to build a mosque in Rome near the Vatican, but never reciprocated with a Christian church in their country. Saudi Arabia even forbids private worship at home for some one million Christian migrant workers.
In Iraq, the situation for small religious minorities has become dire. Reports emerge regularly of mortal danger there for groups that date to antiquity — Chaldean-Assyrians, the Yazidis and Sabean Mandaeans, who revere John the Baptist. Last fall the Chaldean-Assyrian archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and murdered. Some Iraqi Christians believe the new government won’t protect them, and talk of moving into a “homeland” enclave in Nineveh. Penn State Prof. Philip Jenkins, author of “The Lost History of Christianity,” calls the Iraq situation “a classic example of a church that is killed over time.”
In short, the “respect” Mr. Obama promised to give Islam is going only in one direction. And he knows that.
Candidate Obama last fall sent a letter to Condoleezza Rice expressing “my concern about the safety and well-being of Iraq’s Christian and other non-Muslim religious minorities.” He asked what steps the U.S. was taking to protect “these communities of religious freedom.” Candidate Obama said he wanted these groups represented in Iraq’s governing institutions. Does President Obama believe these things?
A Bush official who worked on this problem in Iraq told me there is a school of thought that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki understands that these ancient groups are Iraq’s “connective tissue,” and that weaving them formally into the system could be a basis for binding together his fractured nation. If these harmless peoples can’t coexist, who can?
Mr. Obama’s designated ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, has been criticized for subordinating human-rights issues with North Korea. That would be a mistake in the Middle East. The willingness of Islamic governments to formally protect these small Christian groups should be a litmus test of their bona fides on larger political issues.
If Islam won’t let its leaders give basic rights to a handful of ancient Christians, there is no hope for what Mr. Obama proposed this week in Turkey. What his special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, wishes to achieve with Israel and its neighbors will also fail, again.
An established network of smart people exists to help Mr. Obama here, starting with the Vatican of Pope Benedict XVI and its diplomatic outreach efforts to senior Islamic clerics. The widely connected Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, Andrew White, also happens to be director of the little-known Religious Sectarian project for the U.S. Department of Defense. There are many others.
Mr. Obama should make formalized tolerance of Christian sects in the Middle East the basis for arriving at what he called “common ground” with Islam. As will be noted in churches in the rest of the world this weekend, that “common ground” was first walked in the Middle East 2,000 years ago.
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