Islam divided over Pope's call to respect religious freedom

Islam divided over Pope's call to respect religious freedom

Babette Francis

An intermittent civil war has raged since the death of Mohammed between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam because of disputes about who was his legitimate successor.

Recently these quarrels have been overlaid in both branches by divisions between moderate-liberal Muslims and radical-extremists. These differences were evident following the 1 January attack on the Orthodox Coptic Church of the Saints in Alexandria, Egypt, which killed 23 and wounded more than 100, and the assassination of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, Pakistan, on 4 January.

In Frankfurt religious and political leaders of Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Protestant faiths gathered for a memorial service for the victims in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Bishop Anba Damian, head of Orthodox Copts in Germany, welcomed the message of Benedict XVI which, he said, "eased much pain."

Benedict's call

Pope Benedict's first comment was on 9 January while greeting a group of Italian parliamentarians who attended the midday Angelus to show solidarity with Egyptian Copts. His statement next day noted the persecution of Christians in Iraq, after which he added: "In Egypt, too, in Alexandria, terrorism brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church. This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for protection of religious minorities."

Bishop Damian summed up the position of Christians in Egypt: "To wish to be a Christian is not a criminal act. We merely wish to live as equal citizens, sharing all the same rights and duties." The prelate urged Muslim leaders in mosques to preach so that people would go home with peace in their hearts and not anger.

The bishop said the solidarity of the interreligious leaders in Germany and other countries, and the presence of Aiman Mayzek, Chairman, Central Muslim Council in Germany, at the service, was for his church members "balm on their open wounds." Mayzek condemned the attack, noting that "acts of terror and atrocities will not erase what Copts have given to Muslims in the way of peace and shelter. The attackers will not succeed in driving a wedge between Christians and Muslims."

His statement contrasts with the decision by the Islamic University of Al-Azhar, Cairo, the highest institution of Sunni Islam, to freeze dialogue with the Vatican. The dialogue dates back to the 1990s, its positive progress undoubtedly due to the then Imam, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, who died on 10 March 2010.

His successor, Imam Mohamed Ahmed al-Tayyeb, criticised Benedict for expressing solidarity with Coptic Christians, accusing him of "interference" in the internal affairs of Egypt.

Critics of the Vatican have sought to blame the "Christian and Western" Pope in order to stoke the frustrations of Muslims towards the (so-called) Christian West. Al-Azhar has latched on to this trend.

In Pakistan, Salman Taseer, Governor of Pakistan, was assassinated by his bodyguard because of his support for Asia Bibi, a Christian farm labourer charged with blasphemy and facing the death penalty. The Pope's call to Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy law exposed the country's divisions.

Radical leaders and Islamic movements incited crowds, accusing Benedict XVI of plunging "the entire world into a deadly war." The Pakistani Government has ruled out any amendments to the blasphemy law, yet other political and civil society groups as well as Muslim legal experts have described Benedict's speech as "positive", appreciating his call for religious freedom.

In Lahore, however, Jamaat-e-Islami leaders led protests against Benedict XVI for his speech. The party's secretary general, Liaquat Baloch, dubbed the pontiff's demand as "insane and a plot to threaten Pakistan's Christian minority's security." He said protests against scrapping the blasphemy law would continue until the parliamentary committee dealing with the issue was disbanded and the amendment to the bill, tabled by Pakistan People's Party (PPP) member, Sherry Rehman, was dropped.

Baloch added that Salman Taseer's killer, Mumtaz Qadri, enjoyed the backing of "the entire nation" and that "proud and honourable" lawyers would secure his release.

Moderate Muslims

However, moderate Muslim groups and leaders have praised the Pope for his speech, calling it a sign of hope. "I appreciate the Pope's thoughts. It is the need of the time to take a stand and promote religious freedom. I also back the Pope's call to repeal the blasphemy laws since they have only been used for settling personal rivalries," said Mullah Mehfooz Ahmed.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the ruling PPP, also spoke against Salman Taseer's murder and the progressive Islamisation of Pakistan, saying those celebrating the governor's murder are the "real blasphemers." And the son of former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), and current President, Ali Zardari, slammed violence committed in the name of Islam and called for the protection of the country's minorities.

Msgr Rufin Anthony, Bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, told AsiaNews that the "government is clearly under pressure from the religious parties" and has done "a u-turn on チ... amendments to the blasphemy law. There is a clear difference of opinion among the members of the PPP."

The only certainty according to Muslim intellectual Babar Ayaz is that "no democracy is complete if it is not secular." Like the Pope, he believes that full religious freedom is necessary because no one can "impose their thinking ... on others."

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