Posts in Religion

On the issue of conversion

This morning I read disturbing news about an Afghan that converted to Christianity and now might be facing the death penalty for choosing a religion different from Islam.

A man could be sentenced to death after being charged with converting from Islam to Christianity, a crime under Afghanistan’s shariah laws, a judge said yesterday. The trial is thought to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan and highlights a struggle between religious conservatives and reformists over what shape Islam will take four years after the fall of the Taliban.

Abdul Rahman, 41, was arrested last month after his family accused him of becoming a Christian, Judge Ansarullah Mawlavezada told Associated Press. The accused was charged with rejecting Islam. During the one-day hearing on Thursday, the defendant allegedly confessed to converting to Christianity 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, Judge Mawlavezada said. Source: [The Guardian]

What’s really disturbing about all this, in my opinion, is that this is happening in the supposedly post-Taliban era. It is no secret that those that covert to Christianity in the Arab and the Muslim world get harassed, but to be threatened with death is really horrendous.

Sadly enough, Jordan is another country where converts to Christianity will not only be ostracized, but will be also harassed by the authorities. To be fair, anyone changing religion in Jordan, whether from Islam to Christianity or vise versa, faces social ostracization. The difference, though, is that in the case of converting to Christianity one can expect to spend some time behind bars as was the case with a Jordanian couple I blogged about last year.

Ask Samer and Abeer. Last September Jordanian security police connected to the country’s Mukhabarat, or intelligence agency, showed up at the couple’s home unannounced. They arrested Samer and detained him overnight. Samer’s crime: coming to faith in Jesus Christ 14 years ago. Originally a Muslim, Samer over the years since his conversion has been questioned several times by security police but never detained. This time, the police turned him over to the Islamic courts. The judges convicted Samer of apostasy. In a Nov. 23 decision the court decreed that his identification papers must be changed from "Muslim" to "no religion;" that he had forfeited any inheritance; that his marriage to Abeer is now illegal and therefore he is not entitled to custody of his son.

The US State Department 2005 report on religious freedom in Jordan also mentions this issue :

Members of unrecognized religious groups and converts from Islam face legal discrimination and bureaucratic difficulties in personal status cases. Converts from Islam additionally risk the loss of civil rights. There is no statute that expressly forbids proselytizing Muslims. However, Shari’a courts have the authority to prosecute proselytizers.

I’m fully aware that this topic is very controversial so I’m not going to say much besides reiterating what I said last year: In my humble, unbiased opinion I think that if Jordan intends to tread on a truly democratic path, then its citizens should be given the basic right of practicing a religion of their own choosing.

The Prophet cartoon row rolls on

Editor Muhammad al-Asadi Yemeni lawyers have called for a newspaper editor to be sentenced to death for showing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, his paper says. Muhammad al-Asadi was arrested after his publication, the Yemen Observer, showed the Danish cartoons in February. He denies the charges of offending Islam, under which he is being tried. The English-language newspaper has had its license to publish suspended, although its staff have continued to produce material on-line. Lawyers leading a civil case against publishers of the cartoons — in addition to the public case — cited precedents from Muslim history when the prophet was insulted by a woman and then praised her killer. Source: [BBC]

The death penalty! Geez! This is just out of control. There is an interview with him from jail right after his arrest that suggests he is at least somewhat prepared. Meanwhile, as expected, the cartoon row seems to have played an integral part in a new survey highlighting the growing negative image of Muslims and Arabs. Her are some excerpts from the Washington Post’s front page story:

As the war in Iraq grinds into its fourth year, a growing proportion of Americans are expressing unfavorable views of Islam, and a majority now say that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The poll found that nearly half of Americans — 46 percent — have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.

The survey comes at a time of increasing tension; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show little sign of ending, and members of Congress are seeking to block the Bush administration’s attempt to hire an Arab company to manage operations at six of the nation’s ports. Also, Americans are reading news of deadly protests by Muslims over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

As a school bus driver in Chicago, Gary McCord, 65, dealt with many children of Arab descent. "Some of the best families I’ve ever had were some of my Muslim families," he said in a follow-up interview. "They were so nice to me." He now works for a Palestinian Christian family, whose members he says are "really marvelous." But his good feelings do not extend to Islam. "I don’t mean to sound harsh or anything, but I don’t like what the Muslim people believe in, according to the Koran. Because I think they preach hate," he said. As for the controversial cartoons of Muhammad, he said Arabs seem hypersensitive about religion. "I think it’s been blown out of proportion," he said. Source: [Washington Post]

Challenges facing Arab-Christians gain international recognition

I read two articles this morning that examined the challenges facing Arab-Christians. Both pieces highlighted the fact that the affairs of Christians in the Middle East are finally gaining some international recognition. The first was The Economist article "Hail to the King," which detailed a meeting His Majesty King Abdullah had with Christian evangelicals in Washington, D.C.:

King Abdullah The king did his best to accentuate the positive in relations between Abraham’s quarrelsome children. After deploring the destruction of Christian churches in Iraq — "breaking with a 1,400-year-old tradition of Christian-Muslim friendship," as he put it, a tad optimistically — he briefed luminaries of the religious right on his efforts to develop Christian pilgrimage sites and look after Jordanian Christians.

It went down well. "We are saying to King Abdullah, we support you, we pray for you, we can learn a lot from you," says Richard Cizik, a vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals

The second was an editorial in today’s Washington Post by Robert Novak. The commentary examines the plight of Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank village of Aboud:

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., is taking an increased interest in the desperate plight of Christians in the Holy Land — to the point of politely and privately asking for help from George W. Bush. Immediately at stake is the West Bank village of Aboud, whose Christian roots go back two millennia, and which now is threatened by Israel’s security barrier.

"I am afraid that what is happening in the Holy Land is that we’re losing the presence of the Christian community," Cardinal McCarrick told me. As leader of his faith in the nation’s capital, he seeks friends on both sides of any political divide. Accordingly, the Cardinal told me the West Bank’s Christians are endangered by Palestinians (particularly since Hamas’ election victory). But there is no question for the Holy Land Christian Society, seeking to save their co-religionists, that water-hungry Jewish settlers benefit from the security wall.

While we are currently facing — at least according to some analysts — a cultural war between Islam and the West, I’m glad to see that despite being in the midst of this mayhem, the challenges currently facing Eastern Christians are not being neglected. Jordanian blogger Rami has an interesting commentary on the subject. Make sure to read his post.

New trend in the Arab world: Sectarian strife

Lebanese Islamists burn the Danish consulateThe most upsetting thing to me about this whole cartoon fiasco is how some fundamentalists in the Arab world have decided to react to the offensive cartoons – caricatures which were drawn by Europeans on a different continent — by venting their anger against their fellow Christian-Arabs!

While the controversy continues to snowball, some extremists have and continue to harass Christian Arabs in places like Iraq, the Palestinian territories, where gunmen distributed a pamphlet at the European Union Headquarters threatening to harm churches, and most recently Lebanon, where demonstrators there threw stones at houses and churches in the Christian neighborhood of Al-Ashrafyeh! My good reporter friend who was there to cover the protest informed me that sectarian tensions in the country are very high, with Christians terrified and ready to take up arms.

This is terribly alarming! Besides Lebanon, I cannot remember hearing about significant sectarian incidents while growing up in the Middle East. As a Christian-Arab, I never thought I would live to see the day when Christian-Arabs are looked at with suspicion by their fellow Arabs for acts perpetrated by Westerners in another part of the globe! But then again, while I was growing up, the world was a different place and extremism was never so prevalent, so omnipotent.

New Zealand paper republishes Prophet cartoons

A New Zealand newspaper has published controversial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The Dominion Post, a Fairfax-owned Wellington newspaper, published the cartoons today, saying its decision was in the interests of press freedom. "It’s important for our readers to see what the fuss is about and to make up their own minds. Ours is a secular society based on western ideals of tolerance and open debate, even if that may occasionally offend," said Tim Pankhurst, Dominion Post editor and Commonwealth Press Union chairman.

"We do not wish to be deliberately provocative but neither should we allow ourselves to be intimidated. If we allow Christianity and more particularly the Catholic Church and the Pope to be satirized, and we do, should Islam be treated differently?" he asked.

Source: [The age]

Ahh! Will this issue ever end? Enough! Both sides are taking it to extremes and simply taunting one another for what are surely ignoble ends! Stop the mayhem! Geez! Can’t we just all get along?

Meanwhile, the husband and I have aggregated a number of news items related to the cartoon controversy. They can be seen in one fell swoop here. One story of interest is the Newsweek interview with Jihad Al-Momani, the Jordanian editor who republished the infamous cartoons in Sheehan. Obviously, he gave the interview right before his arrest on Saturday. Apparently, last month’s campaign to end journalist imprisonment in Jordan has not been that fruitful.

Prophet caricatures: The ‘Big Pharaoh’ question

MuslimsEgyptian blogger Big Pharaoh is asking a question that has been haunting me for the past couple of days. He wonders:

"A question to my fellow Muslims and Arabs: isn’t this picture more of an insult to Islam than the silly J-Posten cartoons? And don’t you think it can easily be an inspiration for similar future cartoons? Just 2 innocent questions here."

With all due respect, I have to agree with Big Pharaoh here. While I still regard the cartoons as offensive — exhibiting a terrible stereotype of millions of Muslims out there — some of the reactions to the cartoons, including, let’s see — the storming and torching of embassies, throwing grenades onto the grounds of a French embassy and harassing European nationals, and more — have caused more harm to the image of Muslims and Arabs than the actual publication of the caricatures did. Anyway, like fellow Jordanian blogger Naseem, I’m ‘sick of the word cartoon.’ Let’s hope this is the last post I write about this particular topic.

Jordanian weekly ‘Sheehan’ publishes Prophet caricatures

The Jordanian weekly Sheehan has published three of the controversial caricatures (in Arabic) that depict the Prophet Mohammad. Accompanying the cartoons is an editorial from the paper’s editor-in-chief, Jihad al Moumani. You can read the whole story here (in Arabic) but here are some translated portions:

You Muslims of the world, act rational. Who insults Islam more: a foreigner who draws the prophet or a Muslim with an explosive belt killing himself at a wedding in Amman or a anywhere else? … Which act prompts the world to insult Islam and Muslims: cartoons or a real scene of the butchering of a hostage with a sword in front of a camera while accompanied by the chanting of Allah Akbar.

What’s going to happen now? Will people start boycotting Mansaf? Will Jihad Al-Moumani start receiving death threats? Will the government shut this paper down? This is a very bold move that may have grave consequences.

Meanwhile, intense discussions are currently raging over this issue on Mental Mayhem’s newswire. Frankly, I can’t keep track of all the comments at this point. As the discussion has grown it is becoming more heated between those for and against the cartoons. Some are really getting out of line. I’ll need to hire someone full-time just to monitor the debate and comments from both sides of the conflict! There are links to other related stories within these posts, but these are the hot topics receiving the most discussion right now:

UPDATE: As I’d expected, a few hours after the publication of the cartoons in the Jordanian weekly Sheehan, the owners said they had fired their editor and taken the issue off the stands. And, no surprise either, the government is threatening legal action.

UPDATE 2: The publisher of the newspaper Sheehan has made a statement: "The company was shocked that Sheehan republished the insulting caricatures and it strongly condemns such an irresponsible behavior." It vowed "severe measures against people whose implication is proven." The government also came out strongly against newspaper’s decision. "The government believes that the paper committed a grave mistake and demands an apology, while at the same time is considering legal action," said Government Spokesperson Nasser Judeh according to Jordan’s News Agency, Petra. In the mean time, Jihad Moumani apologized, expressing "deep regret" and saying he meant to show people how the cartoons were insulting. More details are available at The Jordan Times.

Is Danish cartoon controversy related to attacks on Iraqi churchs?

I came across this Elaph article (in Arabic) via Jameed indicating that some Iraqi sources are linking the latest attacks on churches in Iraq -– in which at least three people were killed and nine were wounded — to the current controversy involving the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten.

According to these sources, some Iraqi-Christian students at the University of Mosul were recently attacked by people upset by the publication of these caricatures in Denmark and Norway. These attacks came following the issuance of several fatwas that called for the expulsion of "the infidels and crusaders" for insulting the prophet. The Iraqi sources said it was likely that the coordinated church attacks that took place yesterday (Jan. 29) are linked with the recent anti-Christian campaign.

I’m not sure how credible this news is, as I’ve not seen mention of it anywhere else. But if it is accurate, then the world has absolutely gone crazy. What kind of a logic is this? People get upset at Danish cartoonists, so they decide to whack their fellow citizens! And who are these low-life individuals issuing fatwas that call for attacks on innocent civilians, ones who happen to belong to a religious minority. But then again, I guess I shouldn’t expect logic to pour forth from Iraq anytime soon.

It is no secret that the number of Christians in the Middle East is rapidly dwindling. According to this IRIN article, "about 150,000 Christians are believed to have left the country [Iraq] since the US occupation began in 2003." The number of Palestinian-Christians inside the Palestinian territories is also on the decrease, and I believe the same thing is happening in Egypt (please correct me if I’m wrong).

This is extremely bad news, as it would mean that, in the long run, the Mideast would lose the diversity that it has always enjoyed. I would ask clerics to issue a counter-fatwa urging believers to safeguard their Christian brethren who are amongst among the indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East who have suffered and fought hard to protect their nation.

Concern over Jordan’s parliamentary call for the punishment of Danish cartoonists

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the Jordanian parliament’s call yesterday for the punishment of the cartoonist that drew 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten on 30 September and were reprinted in the Norwegian publication Magazinet on 10 January.

"Islam forbids any representation of the Prophet and we realize that these cartoons may upset some people, but it is not acceptable for the parliament of a supposedly democratic country to call for the cartoonists to be punished," the press freedom organization said.

"Those who so desire may bring a complaint against the newspaper, but politicians should under no circumstances should call for direct reprisals against journalists," Reporters Without Borders continued. "The cartoonists have already received death threats and these new statements put them in further danger."

In a statement yesterday, the Jordanian parliament said the cartoons "constitute a cowardly and reprehensible crime" and urged the Norwegian and Danish authorities "to express their condemnation and disapproval of this hateful crime and to punish the perpetrators and instigators."

Source: [RSF]

I fully understand how these cartoons enraged believers, as their sole purpose seems clearly bent on stirring controversy and ridiculing some people’s beliefs. It’s clear people feel strongly about this, and rightly so. Actions hailed by one group as an "act of free speech" are condemned by the other as blasphemy. However, for Jordan’s parliament, condemnation is one thing (and here the most prudent thing for a legislative body), but calling for outright punishment is — like the RSF said — "not acceptable for the parliament of a supposedly democratic country."

I hope parliamentarians are not seeking inspiration from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, which called for the killing of Suleiman Rushdie over his controversial book The Satanic Verses! Moving from a body that gives voice to the people’s concerns to a congress bent on holy revenge is a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

King: Jerusalem is for Christians, Muslims, Jews

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II insisted on December 5 that Jerusalem must be an open city for Jews, Muslims and Christians during talks with Theophilos III, the new Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Holy City. "Jerusalem must be open to the followers of the three monotheistic religions," state-run Petra news agency quoted the king as saying. The Jordanian monarch also urged "Christian religious leaders to unite their efforts and speak in one voice to the West about the challenges that face the Christian Arab presence in Jerusalem", the agency said.

Source: [Middle East Times]

I personally have a great deal of admiration for His Majesty’s continual efforts to spread religious tolerance in the volatile Middle East. I will reiterate what I said in an previous post: In light of what many might be currently interpreting as a religious conflict, such initiatives are extremely essential to promote peace and deconstruct stereotypes.

UPDATE: On the same topic, there is a well-written commentary in the Daily Star entitled "A Palestinian Christian appeals for a shared Jerusalem." Here is one highlight:

We hold fast to our vision when someday, Christians, Muslims and Jews,
Israelis and Palestinians — all people — will be able to freely
celebrate our diverse but equally sacred feasts. We pray for a
religious awakening of justice and reconciliation that puts an end to
occupation and oppression, suicide bombings and drive-by shootings,
terrorism and counter-terrorism, targeted assassinations and incursions.

Source: [The Daily Star]