Nabil BeitinjanehInternational Consultant
In the 18th century, the town of Sür (Tyre in Lebanon) did not have a single Christian living in it. Jirjis Mishaqa (a Greek Catholic businessman) was persuaded by its two ruling Mutawäli sheikhs to move to the area with his family. When the Christians there had grown in numbers, work was begun on the church of St. Thomas the Apostle.
Noting that there was no mosque for the local Shi’ite Muslim community, Jirjis Mishaqa thought it would be a good thing to build a mosque for the Muslims with his own funds. It was begun simultaneously with the building of the church. When he was called in by the Vizier of Sayda he said:
“I see Muslims coming to Sür, merchants, transients and wandering dervishes, for whom there is no place of shelter or gathering for prayer. Indeed the lack of a mosque in the city is a matter that attracts criticism of its inhabitants abroad. The Creator does not permit such negligence”
The vizier was delighted with the response and asked Jirjis to share in the good work by leaving the minaret to be built from his own money.
My ancestor took a subtle approach towards a charged situation which could have degenerated easily. Being part of a minority in a city in which the majority (Shi’ite) were also a minority under the rule of the (Sunni) Turkish Empire, his creative solution diffused potential tensions. This chronicle is found in the book “Murder, Mayhem, Plunder and Pillage. The Story of the Lebanon in the 18th and 19th century by Mikhael Mishaqa” introduces well the delicate balance required when it comes to articles of faith.
Now let’s fast forward to today. Rivers of ink and electrons continue to be generated as a result of the controversy around the Ground Zero Muslim community center. The emotional protests and counter protests which at times have turned grotesque still do not compare with the blood of legions of believers of different faiths that continues to be spilled around the world. All the same, the emotions surrounding Ground Zero (and other similar incidents) reflect a decrease in tolerance relative to the freedom of religion.
I believe that we are in a tenebrous period relative to the western perception of Arabs in general and Muslims in particular. Dark clouds are moving over the precarious area of inter-faith coexistence globally and many people are sheltering under the false umbrella of generalizations and misinformation. On top of an increased (and in my mind unnecessary and dangerous) polarization of the issue of faith and practice on the ground, we are seeing that the extremists are the ones who are benefiting. Unfortunately, this is also affecting negatively the Christians of the Middle East who continue to live as minorities in their countries of origin. Specific communities in different countries have difficult challenges and constraints imposed on them. There is a constant erosion in their numbers and many Christian communities are disappearing after being part of the society fabric of the Middle East for many centuries.
As such, I decided to write this short piece to highlight that the Christians of the Middle East are being affected by the increased polarization and to shine the spotlight on some of the areas we can focus on in order to dispel the darkness.
Addressing fear through action
Going to primary school in Libya created a dilemma for the principal who asked my parents what to do for religious education given that I was the only Christian in my class. My parents had the foresight to let me be tutored in the tenets of Islam as any other student to allow for a better integration and to further my own education.
Once, I was asked by the principal if I would be gracious enough to recite the Ave Maria and Our Father prayers to the class. I started with the Ave Maria and, along the way; I faltered realizing the gap between both religions. The principal used my pause to state to the class that our Christian brothers have different beliefs that should be respected and then he explained the differences in how we define God and the Virgin based on what I recited. He then encouraged me to continue. His excellent approach to this sensitive matter remained with me to this day. It is my belief that respect for the other and their beliefs should be instilled at an early age. Many people do not understand the subtleties of their own religion and even less those of the others.
In each country we find incredibly opened minded people that live their faith and work closely with their counterparts from other religions and from society. In Syria, we find Father Zehlaoui who manages Joqat al Farah (the Choir of Joy) which has both Christian and Muslim members, Fr. Paolo from the Monastery of Mar Mousa who holds interfaith discussions and the mufti of Damascus who has Christians as members of his staff. The work of these people should be further recognized and encouraged as only through dialogue and working together does true understanding happen.
Regrettably, the news in general focuses on the negative which tends to discount the positive news of interfaith cooperation and good actions by members of different communities. Thus the establishment of a multi-rite and multi-denominational church in Dubai is long forgotten about and the generosity of Canadians who opened their churches and community centers for the Taraweih prayers in Ramadan is already history. Reversing this reality takes serious time and effort as many of the positive activities are done at a grass root level with a minimum of publicity.
We have to live with each other
As a family, we used to go to mass in Libya on a regular basis in the 70s. Many Christian families would meet in a large room which served as a church in the nuns’ official residence. These Italian nuns lived in Libya to provide support to local hospitals.
Contrasting this simple worship place with some of the elaborate structures that are proposed makes you wonder about their purpose especially when they do not fit into the adjacent urban design. Not withstanding the cost of maintaining the facilities over time which put a long term strain on the community. In Quebec, a large number of churches were build during a specific period of it history. Over time, due to changes in society, attendance at the churches has dropped and many churches have been sold and reconverted to other purposes such as condominiums.
The community of faith should make decisions on how best to invest their money and demand accountability and transparency from their leaders on the spending. Understanding alternatives to investment in buildings (such as investing in people development) should be encouraged. Furthermore, if a community of faith decides to build a house of worship, they should be able to do it with their funds locally as they will have to maintain it in perpetuity.
Beware the tyranny of the majority
When the Swiss put the issue of minaret building to a referendum, 57% of the population opposed it and this opposition position became law. Given that it is easier to manipulate a group than individuals (with simple slogans, symbols, irrational patriotism and fear of the other), government and community leaders need to walk a fine line and know when to weigh in on issues to ensure that the minorities within in their societies have their rights protected.
The extremists do not represent the majority
On the other hand, every act done by extremists is amplified by the media and certain leaders of the other camp leading the local population through the full gamut of emotions from apprehension to fear to phobia to outright xenophobia.
When it comes to extremists, Terry Jones, the leader of an obscure religious community of 50 people, was able to inflame the passions of millions around the globe with his International burn the Koran day. This led to condemnations by many world leaders including Obama, Petraeus, Merkel, the Canadian government and many religious leaders. The incident demonstrated to the world how a few extremists (and a media looking for a sensational story) could paint the majority of Christians as Islam haters exposing countless others to danger. At the same time, it provided the west with a mirror to gain insight on how the mainstream is distorted as a result of the actions of extremists. Hopefully, it will result in the revisiting of the assumptions people have vis-à-vis the other religions. Condemnation by opinion leaders and joint religious activities, such as inviting the other side during festivities should become the norm to deal with extremism.
There is a lot of wisdom in one of Obama’s speech of August 14th, 2010 in which he stated:
Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose -– including the right to believe in no religion at all.
Maintaining a secular society in which each person is free to practice their faith should be our goal. A person should be evaluated on their capabilities and contribution not their religion or caste. We have to break out of the negative self reinforcing patterns of mutual misunderstanding and treat others the way we would want to be treated. This involves reaching out to the others to work out grievances and to build mutual understanding.
The Christians of the Middle East are well positioned to bridge the growing gap between the west and Islam. At the same time, we have to be aware of their plight in different countries given the multiple identities they assume and the tumultuous period we currently live in. We should use the mirror more effectively to create a positive dynamic allowing all minorities to live up to their full potential wherever they live.
Nabil Beitinjaneh is a multilingual international consultant with more than 20 years of experience spanning both the corporate and entrepreneurial world. He has extensive experience in business and strategy development, project management, systems and process engineering, people management and change management. He has an Executive Masters in Business Administration coupled with an Engineering degree in Electrical Engineering (computers).
Nabil is involved in leadership, strategy and organizational development through events, training, writing and his service with non-profit and Non Governmental Organizations. He has lived in North America, Asia and Africa and is experienced with intercultural negotiations and bridging geographies. He currently resides in Montreal, Canada.