Public expressions of tension between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East are rarely reported in the Arab media. Christians are in the minority throughout the Arab world. As the minority, Arab Christians fear that a public confrontation withthe majority will only worsen their situation. The Muslims attempt to avoid open hostility with the Christians to evade Western ire for intimidating the Christian minority. The Arab media shares this approach out of national loyalty and to avoid displaying such internal rifts to the outside world.
These tensions, however, occasionally spill over into the media. The ongoing controversy over the plot of land adjacent to the Church ofthe Enunciation in Nazareth is one example. This plot was slated by the municipality to become a park for theChristian millennium celebration, but the Muslims claim that it is an ancient Waqf [religious endowment] land andseized it by force in 1997. Several months ago the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Vatican custodian in Jerusalem threatened to close all the churchesin the Holy Land in protest of the Muslim seizure of this land. This was the first time that the Christians admitted publicly that the dispute is of a religious nature. Recently, another cycle of religiousconflict has become public. This time the confrontation is directly related to the status of Christians under Islamic law and the Muslim perception of this status.
Non-Muslim Rights under Islamic Law
According to theShari'ah [Islamic law] the status ofmonotheistic non-Muslims [primarily Christians and Jews] is that of Dhimmis. Their lives and property are protected, but their status is inferior to that of Muslims. They mustpay a poll tax and they do not enjoy equal rights with Muslims. This system, which was imposed by Islam in the 7th century, was considered tolerant for its time. The application of this system today would collide with modern liberal notions of equality.
Palestinian Authority [PA] Undersecretary for Awqaf [Religious Endowment], SheikYussef Salamah, represented the PA at a May 1999 "Inter‑Cultural Conference, "held in Tehran. Salamah praised the 7th century system of Ahl Al-Dhimma,under which monotheistic non-Muslims are inferior to Muslims, as the proper paradigm for relations between Muslims and Christians today. "Islam," he argued,"respected people of [other] religions and did not hurt them."
The Christians reject this Muslim notion. At a June1999 symposium in Ramallah titled "Islamic‑Christian Relations in Palestine," Christian leader,Father Marun Lahham said, "contemporary Palestinian Christians reject the system of Ahl Al‑Dhimma." He added "The frequent Muslim declarations that Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [a religious endowment] and that Jerusalem is [an] Islamic [city] trouble Christians."
The Sheik and the Archbishop
In June 1999 in the Arab village of Tur'an in the Galilee, a reconciliation ceremony was held between Christian and Muslim families that had been engaged in a violent feud for two years. The ceremony, attendedby religious leaders from both communities, became a scene of public dispute.
At the ceremony, Islamic Movement of Israel Vice-Chairman,Sheik Kamal Khatib recalled the encounter between the Prophet Muhammad and the Christian kingdom of Najran [a Christian kingdom in northern Yemen inpre-Islamic times] while calling for "tolerance, friendship, and mutual respect." He cited Muslim tradition, according to which, the Christians of Najran who were invited to the Prophet Muhammad's mosque were deeply moved by the verses of the Koran and burst into tears.
The Catholic Archbishop of the Galilee, Butrus Al-Mu'alem, was angered by Sheik Khatib's speech because the Christians of Najran became Dhimmis, under Muslim rule. Archbishop Al-Mu'alem rejected Sheik Khatib's reference tothe status of Christians in the 7th century under Islam. He stressed the deep Christian roots in Palestine, stating Christians in the Holy Land are not "residues, foreigners, or beggars of mercy."
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Archbishop Al-Mu'alem dismissed the 7thcentury stories of Christians submitting to Muslims: "I do not want to return to Al-Najran and Al-Najashi [Christian king of Habash, now Ethiopia, who, in Islamic tradition, was one of six rulers who converted to Islam in 628.] I do not want a return to Caliph Omar [second successor to the Prophet Muhammad, in whose time Jerusalem was conquered by Islam] and Sophronius, [Patriarch of Jerusalem who signed the submission pact.] It is strange to me that there remains such backwardness in our society; while humans have already reached space, the stars, and the moon... there are still those who amuse themselves with fossilized notions."
A week after theceremony, in the Islamic Movement weekly, Sheik Khatib responded to Archbishop Al-Mu'alem's comments.
Sheik Khatib asks: "Why doesn't the revered Archbishop wantto go back to Najran...? Why doesn't he want to return to Al-Najashi, the Christian who converted to Islam? Why doesn't he want to hear that the Patriarch of Jerusalem surrendered the keys to the city to Omar ibn Al-Khattab? It seems the revered Archbishop is bothered or grieved by it, and so he sees these as fossilized notions and events that occurred in the past and should not be repeated today…"
Archbishop Al-Mu'alem stated: "I want to be clear that we are the Christians of this land and not uninvited intruders. We were Arabs before the appearance of Islam, we are still Arabs, and we will continue to be Arabs. We were the first to congratulate [the Muslims] who came in the days of the Caliph Omar. I send you back to history."
Sheik Khatib responded: "Revered Archbishop, is it a day of struggle or a day of reconciliation…? If anyone else had said those things we may have forgiven him, but coming from you - there can be no forgiveness. What do you mean when you say you were here before the appearance ofI slam? It means that Islam is a foreign phenomenon here. …You should know that for us Islam is not only the religion of the Prophet Muhammad, but also the religion of Moses, Jesus, and Abraham [who according to the The Koran are considered prophets of Islam]... Second, is it not true that the Arabs of this land joined Islam [willingly], or do you insist that the companions of the Prophet who came here… forced Islam [on the Christians]?"
Archbishop Al-Mu'alem said that the Christian attitude towards Muslims is too forgiving, because Christianity demands forgiveness towards enemies: "Our problem is with our Messiah [Jesus]. Our Messiah said to us: 'love your enemies, and bless those who curse you... '"
Sheik Khatib responded: "What should one understand from the Archbishop's curses? Doesn't he mean that without instructions from the Messiah himself to exercise forgiveness, the Archbishop would have treated the 'enemies' differently…?"
Sheik Khatib concluded: "Revered Archbishop, your words were improper... Therefore, I reject this style and call on concerned Christian brothers to give you some advice and explain to you the importance of your position... Remember you are only at the beginning of your service in this region and it would be wise if you adopted other manners."
The Debate Broadens
A week later, the Islamic Movement weekly took the confrontation with the Christians a stepfurther by publishing a communiqué on behalf of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The communiqué included a protest against the Archbishop Al-Mu'alem's statements.
The communiqué read: "[We the Muslims] conquered Egypt and Al-Sham [Greater Syria], where Christians lived. To this day, they enjoy freedom of faith and religious practice. History does not recall [even] one case where [Islam] forced a non-Muslim to convert to Islam. This is why the majority in India are non-Muslim, though Muslims ruled India for generations…"
On the otherhand, Islam suffered abominable crimes in the Crusades, in the time of the missionary onslaughts, the deportation of Muslims from Spain, "Western Imperialism," and Communism. "Such terrible things," the communiqué reads: "were not committed by Islam, because the Koran says: 'There is no coercion in the [Muslim] Religion.'...Our tradition says: 'Allah forbade you from entering the homes of the 'People of the Book' [Jews and Christians] without permission, and He [forbade you from] beating their women, and eating their cows, if only they pay [the poll tax] set for them.' …Their homes, properties, money, and the honor of their women are protected, and the Muslim is not allowed to harm them. This is how we understand the relations between us and the Christians and the 'People of the Book' - the honor of any man is protected as long as he performs his duty..."
The communiqué criticized recent statements by Christian clergymen that "cannot be tolerated and that greatly jeopardize the future relations between Muslims and Christians." The Muslim communiqué concluded: "The Christian clergymen, our partners to the history, to the present, and to the future, must prevent statements that do not help to restore unity to [the Arab Palestinian] people in this country. They do not help in restoring the good relations that it took Islam 14 centuries to build... "
Also in this issue of the Islamic Movement's weekly, Sheik Khatib, criticized the way Christians celebrate Christmas. Addressing the Prophet Muhammad, he wrote,"…on the birthday of your brother Jesus... the fools who claim to be of relation to him [the Christians], celebrate by committing deeds that he [Jesus] himself denounced, loathed, and forbade [like] drinking wine, playing games ofchance, cursing, and screaming. They think that by doing so, they become closer to Him. Oh, how wretched they have become..."