The issue of religious minorities in Muslim countries causes controversy.

Senior Sunni relgious leaders in the Muslim world have clashed over the role of Christian communities in Muslim countries. Mehmet Görmez, Head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, has sharply criticized Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh of Saudi Arabia, for comments the latter made during a meeting with a delegation from the Kuwait-based Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, in response to a query about Shariah law concerning the construction of churches in Muslim countries.

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti reportedly called for the destruction of all churches in the Gulf. In March Al Sheikh issued a fatwa saying that further church building should be banned and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed.

In an interview he gave to the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman on April 14, Görmez stated that “Non-Muslim communities living in Muslim areas are entrusted to Muslims, and no Muslim has the right nor the authority to betray those entrusted to them.” He stressed that efforts should be made to eradicate firmly held hatred resulting from Islamophobia and racism. Noting that humanity is being confronted with a new situation, Görmez said: “All over the world, Muslims have started to live together with members of other civilizations. That’s why we need to rediscover our long-standing culture of living together.” Blasting the Grand Mufti’s words, the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate said, “Such a statement has nothing to do with Islam’s fundamental sources, with the agreements the Prophet Muhammad signed with non-Muslim groups.” He added that such a statement is unacceptable, completely lacking any validity in Islam, and could be described as contrary to the fundamental principles of the Prophet.

Görmez drew attention to the remark’s shaky religious basis, saying, “To be able to pronounce such a judgment, one needs to put aside the liberties the Quran provides regarding religious beliefs, the rights it bestows on practitioners of other religions and all the practices of the Prophet.” According to Görmez, when a church, synagogue or any other place of worship is subject to an act of wrongdoing, Muslims should feel as uncomfortable as they do when confronted with racist remarks written on the walls of mosques. “This is just the responsibility our belief entrusts to us,” he commented.

He also demonstrated the baselessness of the fatwa, quoting the Prophet who had declared: “Those who persecute non-Muslims living under the authority of Muslims persecute me. And who persecutes me, persecutes Allah.” In Ottoman times, a similar attitude was evident. The agreements Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror concluded with the Christians in Galata and Bosnia were of this nature. During the reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II, the head clergyman of the Maronite Church in Lebanon sent a request asking for 10,000 gold coins, which he said they needed to establish a theological school in Rome. When informed of the request, the Sultan wanted the amount to be allocated as requested, even though the Ottoman Empire was struggling for its own existence at the time. “Our history is full of examples of this kind,” noted Görmez.

In his interview with Todays Zaman the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate complained that extreme interpretations of Islam have made themselves felt in the West, causing Islam to be misunderstood. He is also worried that some have been fostering clashes between cultures and a hostile language is forming. “Some try to start a fire by way of clashes between cultures. The fire is already going in some places,” Görmez said, noting that the responsibility of the institution he represents and of everybody is to do their best to eradicate deep-seated hatred.

Expressing his thoughts on the Halki Theological School in Heybeliada, İstanbul, which has been closed since 1971, Görmez said, “I believe it doesn’t befit the grandiosity of the civilization we built on this territory for Orthodox citizens to have to send their children to Greece or for Armenian citizens to have to go to Armenia to be educated as clergymen.” Noting that he wouldn’t think it proper to base matters pertaining to religion, religious education or human rights on the issue of reciprocity, he added, “The issue of Halki Theological School should be settled by also taking into consideration of the opinions of the minority representatives.”

The controversial views of the senior Saudi cleric do not find resonance even in other Gulf countries. This week it was announced that the UAE government had given permission for an Orthodox Church to be build in Al Ain. According to the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National the Indian Orthodox church’s foundation stone will be laid on April 20 and the facility, including church and parsonage, is expected to be completed by December 15. The church was allocated a plot of land in 2010 by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and approvals for the project were granted this year.

source: LINKS Analysis with Todays Zaman and The National

photo: The Head of the Religious Affairs Directorate in Turkey, Mehmet Gormez (picture courtesy of Todays Zaman)