By Martin Accad
I am writing this post from Washington, D.C. I am in the middle of a 1-week trip. My travel companion is Sheikh Muhammad Abou Zaid, President of the Sunni Religious Court of the city of Saida in South Lebanon. The central piece of our visit is the National Prayer Breakfast. But our hosts, World Vision, D.C., have organized a number of other meetings and visits with members of congress and other people of influence in the city. In the world of discord and conflict we live in, our duet is a bit of a parable for people we have been meeting with: a Muslim cleric, judge and academic, traveling in the company of a Christian theologian and academic. Of course the significance of our presence together is merely symbolic. From a Lebanese perspective at least, it is not exceptional. Both he and I have many other friendships with members of other religions, and our sort of relationship is not unusual in the context of Lebanon as well as elsewhere. But even if not exceptional, it is sometimes good to remember how important such relationships are.
We are all at a loss about Syria. How did a movement, so hopeful as to once have been called the “Arab Spring,” slip into such a dark and miserable abyss as what we are currently witnessing in Syria? How did a struggle for freedom from absolutist power turn into a bloody conflict between multiple claims to absolutist power, sometimes in the name of absolutist forms of Islam, intolerant of religious diversity, even if Islamic? It would not do justice to the conflict in Syria to call it a “religious conflict.” After all, jihadi Muslims have been the last to join the battleground. They are certainly not the “cause” of the conflict, and both their sudden emergence and agenda are questionable, and frankly suspiciously aligned with the Syrian regime’s agenda. But that’s not the topic of the present post. All I want to do here is to reflect on the growing fear of Islam and Muslims that the present Syrian conflict has been provoking among Christians, both in Syria, in the rest of the region, and to some extent in the rest of the world.
As Arab Christians, we have been suffering from a “minority complex” for centuries. It has paralyzed our ability to launch creative initiatives and nearly neutralized our capacity to be a part of our respective nations’ stories. How can an Arab Christian be a part of his or her country’s future when they feel like a stranger, a guest (what a shameful use of the word), largely unwelcome in the lands that their ancestors have inhabited since the beginning of memory? The last thing we need to be told is that we need “protection.” Protection from what? From whom? Strangers, guests, refugees without a support network need protection. Vulnerable groups in our societies, such as children or the sick need protection. In times of war, anyone not carrying a weapon needs protection. But it is frankly offensive to single out Christians of the Middle East as needing protection, especially from their own Muslim neighbors. The other side of the coin is that when violent jihadi Muslims begin to operate in a certain area, then all inhabitants of that area need protection: Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, and Alawites; Kurds, Armenians and Syriacs; women, men, children and youth. When hell breaks loose, people of all categories need to stand up together in solidarity, and they all need international solidarity and protection. Falling for the fallacious argument of the Syrian regime that we have the choice between them or worse than them makes us as Christians of the Middle East twice victims, once of the violent extremists, and another time of the international community that robs us of the right to play a significant role in the future of our nations.
In the current mood, my presence in the company of Sheikh Muhammad in meetings with influential leaders is a powerful symbol. Our friendship re-humanizes us, and that is something that no one can take away from us. So when the document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” states in Principle 12 that “Christians should continue to build relationships of respect and trust with people of different religions so as to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good,” it is not mere theory and high ideal. And the reconciling principle of relationship can also be expanded beyond the interreligious sphere into the intercultural one. I know for a fact that my friendship with Sheikh Muhammad Abou Zaid has transformed, not only my understanding of Islam, but also of myself and of God. I know from my conversations with him that it has done the same for him. He also tells me – and I know I am not breaching his confidence by writing this – that the current trip, which is his first visit to the United States, has been transforming profoundly his understanding of the West and of America in a very positive sense.
Is this all surprising? Why should it be? There is profound theology behind Principle 12. The life of Jesus was the most radical revelation of God’s relational character. The God who encounters us in Jesus is not one to reveal himself by sending us an email or a “tweet.” I do not pretend to resolve this mystery, but surely there is profound significance in that God chooses to reconcile us to himself by entering into a personal relationship with us. There is much for us to learn and to put into practice as peoples of different religions and different cultures and hemispheres. There is no more powerful manifestation of the Church’s “witness” for us to practice in the world today than to engage in genuine loving relationship with people who would define themselves as different from us. It is the key to reconciliation and the key to happiness.
For further discussion of the “Christian Witness” document, join us at ABTS on February 11 at 7 pm, where you will hear from some of the key authors of the document, followed by reflections from Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, and Muslim theologians.