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December, 2018
Volume 44, Number 4
27 September 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In this photograph from 2014, Pope Francis greets Skender Brucaj, head of Albania’s Muslim community, during a meeting with leaders of other religions in Tirana, Albania. Last Friday, CNEWA took part in a full-day program which, among other things, explored the pope’s thoughts on religious freedom and the common good. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

For 90 years, CNEWA has been engaged in regions where conflict and war have aggravated poverty and destroyed basic human rights — including and often especially religious freedom — of people living in the regions. Painfully aware of the relationship between peace, justice and development and freedom of religion, CNEWA works to bring about the integral human development which Pope Francis sees as making people the “dignified agents of their own destiny.”

Last week, CNEWA was invited to share some insights on all this at New York’s Fordham University. “Pope Francis’ Call for Escaping Poverty: Practical Examples and New Proposals” was the topic of a full-day program sponsored by CAPP-USA and Fordham University. CAPP, which stands for Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice, is a lay-led papal organization composed of Catholic business, academic and professional leaders whose purpose is to promote the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

The conference was attended by leading economists, financiers and bankers who dealt with practical ways to respond to Pope Francis’ call to help the poor. Presentations were made to the gathering by Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State (who had to withdraw on short notice and had a priest present his paper), and Theodore McCarrick, as well as by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Apostolic Nuncio to the UN. Many CAPP members from Italy and Germany were present as participants and presenters.

As would be expected, a great deal of emphasis was placed on how one measures poverty, deals with alleviating it and then measures the effectiveness of programs. Scholars and economists spoke of the different metrics used in dealing with poverty and various ways to alleviate poverty. Both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN as well as Fordham University’s sevenfold Pope Francis Global Poverty Index were compared, contrasted and studied at length.

I was invited to speak on religious freedom as one of Pope Francis’ indicators. Pulling together two rather broad topics, I indicated that Pope Francis’ understanding of religious freedom, based as it is on Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, is not “denominationally limited.” Rather, Pope Francis sees religious freedom as “a fundamental human right” of all people and that questions intrinsic to one’s intimate essence...are questions of religions and...require religious freedom.”

Combining both realism and practicality, Pope Francis sees religious freedom as intimately related to the need for a peaceful society and for the achievement of the common good. Religious freedom, therefore, is characterized by two attitudes. The first is universal — one regards every man and woman, even those of different religious traditions “not as rivals, less still enemies, but rather as brothers and sisters.” The second attitude is practical — religious freedom also impels believers (and non-believers) to “work done in the service of the common good” with “concern for the whole of society without making distinctions....”

I noted that Pope Francis’ universal and practical understanding of religious freedom helps to bridge the sometimes differently understood concepts of “the common good,” used by the Catholic Church and “the universal destination of goods,” used by the UN. The two expressions/concepts, while not identical, are not contradictory and can, in fact, complement each other.

You can read the full text of my talk here.

24 August 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Morocco’s King Mohammad VI, shown in this image from 2011, last weekend condemned terrorism in the name of Islam. (photo: Azzouz Boukallouch/AFP/Getty Images)

On Saturday 20 August 2016 King Mohammad VI of Morocco joined a growing list of Muslim leaders to condemn what is often referred to as Islamic terrorism or extremism. The speech was delivered on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the Revolution of 20 August, in which Morocco gained its independence.

The King, a descendant of Muhammad, condemns those “who call for murder and aggression, those who excommunicated people without a legitimate reason” and accuses them of “lying to Allah and His messenger,” thereby earning a place in hell. The king also makes oblique reference to the 26 July murder of the Rev. Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France, stating “Killing a priest is forbidden by religion; murdering him inside a church is unforgivable madness.” Finally the king states, “As ignorance spreads in the name of religion, Muslims, Christians and Jews have to close ranks in order to tackle all forms of extremism, hatred and reclusiveness (sic).”

As one continues to hear “why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?,” King Mohammad VI adds his voice to a long list of Muslim leaders — many unheard in the West — who have condemned extremism and religious terrorism in the strongest terms. He joins the ranks of those courageous Muslims who have condemned what is being done in the name of God and Islam. Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustaza Bahari, two Muslim scholars, have published a list of 86 organization and individuals who have spoken out against ISIS, containing statements made by the Grand Muftis of Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the political leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Iran together with numerous Islamic universities, societies and individual scholars.

But perhaps the strongest reaction can be found in the form of an open letter to “Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’ and to the fighters and followers of the self-declared ‘Islamic State.’” Published on 19 September 2014, the letter uses the method of traditional Islamic jurisprudence to condemn ISIS. Meanwhile, setting a more constructive tone, the Declarations of Marrakesh (25-27 January 2016) and Erbil (2-4 June 2016) outline in detail how Muslims can and should live in a pluralistic world.

12 July 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis talks with Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, during a private meeting at the Vatican on 23 May. The Vatican and Sunni Islam’s leading institution of higher learning have begun looking for ways to restart formal dialogue.
(photo: CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters)

The news today that the Vatican plans to send a high-ranking official to Cairo, in hopes of restarting talks at a leading Sunni Muslim university, is important for a number of reasons.

First, this move marks a possible thaw in relations that had grown frosty. If nothing else, it also signals a symbolic gesture of conciliation and respect toward one of the oldest universities in the world, one which has always been a powerful voice in Sunni Islam.

It also indicates that restoring this relationship is a priority to Pope Francis. Recalling the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate last year, he indicated in his message for the World Day of Peace in January that Nostra Aetate was “emblematic of the new relationship of dialogue, solidarity and accompaniment which the Church sought to awaken within the human family.”

To understand the significance of this move, it helps to understand a little background.

After the Second Vatican Council, the Secretariat for non-Christians, which later become the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, exchanged visits and was engaged in dialogue with al-Azhar University.

However, on 20 January 2011 the Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar University broke off dialogue with the Vatican. The remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in his address at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 and his call in 2011 for the protection of Coptic Christians who were under attack in Egypt were not well received at al-Azhar.

The address in Regensburg was looked upon as offensive and the call to protect Coptic Christians was seen as interference in the internal affairs of Egypt during a particularly tumultuous time. As a result, contact and dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican were broken off.

But on 23 May 2016, Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Sheikh al-Azhar, made an official visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. The visit received broad media coverage and Pope Francis’ “dialogue of friendship” was evident.

Now, only a few weeks later, it appears that initial dialogue has born fruit, and it is quickly ripening.

It is a very happy and hopeful event.

20 June 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The symbols of the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, on the front of an Arab Jewish center in the northern port city of Haifa in Israel.
(photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

This past Saturday, the Archdiocese of New York and the American Bible Society invited CNEWA to take part in the New York Catholic Bible Summit — a remarkable gathering of biblical experts, academics, writers and theologians. It was attended by over 600 people, including the Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., (coincidentally, a member of CNEWA’s board) and Archbishop Octavio Ruis Arenas, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

I was privileged to give two seminars on “The Holy Lands Today,” a subject CNEWA knows intimately.

The brochure summed up the subject this way:

“The sacred scriptures of Jews, Christians and Islam... are held in deep reverence by more than a quarter of the world's population. At times, it is easy to believe that the lands of the Middle East are little more than Biblical places with modern conveniences. This can cause confusion and conflict... ‘Biblical geography’ can easily become sacred geopolitics with a potential for great conflict. The land called ‘holy’ by a quarter of the earth’s people is also a land of conflict, oppression and bloodshed.”

Few organizations are as familiar with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East than CNEWA. Across nine decades, this agency has worked to bring healing and hope to a land that too often suffers from turmoil and terror. Taking part in this summit was one way to share some of what we’ve discovered, and reflect on why this land is sacred to so many.

It was also an opportunity to affirm why the ongoing mission of Catholic Near East Welfare Association is so critically important — now, perhaps, more than ever.

16 June 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Muslim scholars and religious leaders gather in Erbil earlier this month to discuss how to deal with the situation in the Middle East. (photo:

The tragic situation in the Middle East has challenged Muslim thinkers and religious leaders to analyze the almost total breakdown of civil society, sectarian violence on a historically unprecedented scale and widespread human suffering the region has not seen for centuries.

What can be done?

In recent months, two gatherings of Muslims scholars have attempted to deal with the situation and to offer possible solutions. A very important conference took place earlier this month in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. It was held 2-4 June 2016 under the co-sponsorship of the Hikmah Center for Dialogue and Cooperation (Najaf, Iraq), the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) (Norway) and the Center for the Study of Islam and the Middle East (CSIME) (Washington, DC). As such, it was the second major recent attempt by Muslim scholars to deal with the situation in the Middle East.

The first attempt was a meeting of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. It took place in Marrakesh, Morocco, 25-27 January 2016. It was attended by Muslims from 120 Muslim majority countries from around the world. The Marrakesh conference dealt with the topic on a global scale and generally speaking from a Sunni perspective. The Marrakesh Declaration uses as its point of departure the so-called Constitution of Medina, which is an agreement the Prophet Muhammad made with the citizens of Medina delineating their rights and obligations when he came from Mecca and took over leadership of Medina. The Marrakesh Declaration challenges Muslim majority countries to: “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in the Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global change.”

The Erbil Declaration, however, is different in significant ways.First, it deals specifically with the situation in Iraq. Secondly, the document has been influenced by Shi’ite thought through the co-sponsorship of the Hikmah Center for Dialogue and Cooperation and also the CSIME. The presence of PRIO provides an non-Muslim perspective. The first thing that one notices is that the Erbil Declaration relies less on traditional Islamic categories and more on contemporary political theory. This is by no means to imply that the Erbil Declaration is a break with traditional Islamic thinking but rather that it is a contribution to its development.

Several very important concepts form the framework of the Erbil Declaration: citizenship, civil society and government, which is “responsive to all its citizens equally and regardless of their religious or ethnic identities.”

Dr. Ahmad Iravani, the president of CSIME, delivered a paper at the forum entitled “Inclusive Citizenship amid Cultural and Religious Diversity.” In the paper Dr. Iravani makes several important points. First, he states that “power-sharing through both direct electoral participation and civil society involvement is an absolutely integral part of building a social and political trust.” Religion is seen as having played and continuing to play an important — though not exclusive — role in civil society. Iravani notes that “...civil society engagement should be utilized to promote social harmony and religious pluralism within Iraq and demand a government that is responsive to all citizens....”

Recognizing that the notion of citizenship cannot simply be translated from a Western context into Iraq, Iravani notes: “Building a harmonious social compact that includes all Iraqi citizens is achievable perhaps only through the notion of citizenship. Although a modern concept...without it [citizenship], and given the diversity and recent conflicts and insecurity in Iraq, it would be very difficult to build a harmonious social order based on trust and mutual state-society responsibility.”

The Erbil Declaration then makes concrete applications of these principles:

  1. That the solution for Iraq is to enhance the status of citizenship, so all have equal rights and duties under the rule of law.
  2. That the well-ordered state should protect and guarantee for all Iraqis the fundamental freedoms of belief and expression.
  3. That authentic reconciliation should be promoted among the Iraqi people ensure the enhancement of mutual trust.
  4. That religious, educational, and media institutions should actively support inclusive citizenship, co-existence, and respect for others.
  5. That religious leaders should educate their congregations to respect our humanity and to reject all forms of extremism, hatred, and the use of terror.
  6. That after completely liberating the land of Iraq from Daesh, the Iraqi government should implement procedures for the establishment of peace and to prevent negative consequences from arising, such as cycles of revenge and sectarianism.
  7. That cultural institutions, civil society organizations, and universities should channel their energies towards the eradication of everything that would be detrimental to citizenship.
  8. That the capacities of young people should be given much attention, and support should be given to activities that ensure them with a life in dignity and an education that protects them from extremism.
  9. That the role of women as half of society should be reflected in their status as citizens, and they should have a substantive role in the development of society.

Given the situation in Iraq and elsewhere, the principles of the Erbil Declaration provide a clear, practical and contemporary framework for rebuilding societies that have been destroyed. Although specifically proposed for Iraq, the principles can be far more widely applied.

You can download the full text of the Erbil Declaration here.

15 June 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The title of the 1970 film, “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came,” has recently morphed into the question “what if they called a Great and Holy Synod and nobody came?”

Since 1961, there has been talk among the 14 autocephalous (or independent) Orthodox churches, comprising some 300 million people, about the possibility and necessity of a meeting — a Pan-Orthodox Council or, more formally, a Great and Holy Synod. The obstacles to convening a synod of the Orthodox churches have been many and sometimes great. But, finally, after decades of negotiating and tumultuous change in the lands of most of these churches, a synod was planned for June 2016. The original venue was scheduled to be in Istanbul, the seat of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, but that was unacceptable to the patriarch of Moscow of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Instead, the synod is to take place in Crete from 19 to 26 June.

The idea of a synod of all the Orthodox churches began in 1961 with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. While the ecumenical patriarch is recognized as the “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion of churches, he has no authority over those churches that are fully independent. Consequently, issues of leadership surface, raised especially by those Orthodox churches backed by powerful civil governments.

While synods of bishops generally govern each of the independent Orthodox churches, meeting at least annually, the Orthodox world has little experience with general councils: Occasional synods and councils, with varying degrees of participation and canonical recognition among the churches, stretch back to Nicaea in the year 787, when the last of the universally recognized ecumenical councils was convoked by the emperor of the Romans.

The proposed Great and Holy Synod has been compared in the media — especially in the West — with the Catholic Church’s Vatican II. In actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Should the synod take place, each of the 14 churches will be a full and equal member — there is no emperor or pope to convene and preside. And no single individual will approve the decrees of the synod; they are accepted or rejected by unanimous consensus.

A gathering of Orthodox leaders — a Synaxis of Prelates — met in January 2016 and set six issues on the synodal agenda: ecumenism, marriage, fasting, autonomy of churches, the diaspora and mission. But there is little unanimity on any of the topics. Ecumenism is a major issue of contention. Some Orthodox churches do not consider any other Christian body to be a valid church. These churches do not recognize the baptism or other sacraments of other Christians. Marriage between an Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian, even if the non-Orthodox individual is a baptized Christian, is forbidden. Other Orthodox churches are more open in their acceptance. At present there is clearly no consensus.

Deep theological issues, however, are not the only obstacles to the synod. There are conflicts among several of the Orthodox churches. Almost all of the objections can and are articulated in theological terms, making dialogue and compromise more difficult.

At present, five of the 14 autocephalous churches — Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Georgia — have indicated they will not attend. The patriarch of Antioch has broken communion with the patriarch of Jerusalem, who has appointed a bishop in Qatar, traditionally the territory of the patriarch of Antioch. Thus the Orthodox Church of Antioch, one of the first patriarchates and the third most in importance, will not participate in the synod. The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria has decided not to attend the synod because, among other things, it was not happy with the seating arrangements.

For an outsider this is a tragedy. The world has changed since Athenagoras first proposed a pan-Orthodox synod. One of the greatest strengths of Orthodoxy has been its ability to enculturate and adapt to the culture where it lives. While that is still of great value in the homelands of Orthodoxy, it proves an anomaly in the diaspora. More and more Orthodox Christians are living in the “New World,” which is culturally, linguistically and philosophically very different from the homelands of these churches. Almost every Orthodox Church is represented, for example, in North America. Very often they have little to do with other Orthodox churches in their area — despite being in full communion. As they lose contact with the ancient homeland, they run the risk of becoming ghettoized in the new world, isolated from the home church and also isolated from each other.

It is an open question whether the Great and Holy Synod will take place and, if it does, whether it will have any impact on Orthodoxy in particular and Christianity in general. It is not an open question whether the Great and Holy Synod is necessary. It is very necessary if Orthodoxy is to remain an integral part of the modern, globalized world.

Tags: Ecumenism Christian Unity Orthodox

25 April 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

CNEWA’s President Msgr. John Kozar visits with two Iraqis during his trip to Kurdistan earlier this month. Last weekend, he shared some of his experiences from that trip with clergy in the
Diocese of Providence. (photo: CNEWA)

Msgr. John E. Kozar, President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) was invited to be the keynote speaker at a Convocation and Priests’ Study Day for the priests of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, on 18 April 2016. I was fortunate to accompany him on this short trip.

The topic of the Study Day was the current situation of Christians in the Middle East. With over 150 priests, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and two other bishops in attendance, Msgr. Kozar spoke about his recent trip to Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan. Accompanied by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, monsignor led a pastoral visit to the many different projects that CNEWA supports for the over 120,000 Christians who fled the onslaught of ISIS in August 2104.

It was Msgr. Kozar’s second trip to Erbil. He spoke of the tremendous needs of the displaced people in the region. He told the assembled priests of how CNEWA works with the local church to build up the societal and human infrastructure of the camps where the displaced Iraqis are housed. Although there have been noticeable improvements in their lives — many no longer live in tents and have educational and health care opportunities available — the longer they are away from the homes, the greater is their despair.

Monsignor reported on one the more creative projects which CNEWA supports: namely, two mobile clinics which can bring medical care to those who are at a distance from Erbil and unable to access the more permanent clinics which have been set up. He also spoke warmly of a visit to a village where he was welcomed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well as Yazidis.

The presentation was followed by a lively exchange of questions and comments. Many of the participants said that they found the Study Day very helpful in informing them about a critical topic that is important to their ministries.

28 January 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Muslim leaders gather in Marrakesh, Morocco to discuss the rights of religious minorities
in Muslim countries. (photo: Twitter)

Some three hundred Muslim scholars met this past week in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the invitation of King Mohammed VI to discuss the situation of (religious) minorities in “Muslim Majority Communities.” The kings of Morocco and Jordan are well known for their efforts to promote respect for human right in Muslim countries.

The religious leaders and scholars gathered in Marrakesh issued a “Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities.” The English form of the Declaration is an “Executive Summary” and is shorter than the Arabic text. (You can read it here.)

The Executive Summary — claiming its theoretical and theological base on the “Constitution/Charter of Medina” (622) in which the Prophet Muhammad guaranteed the rights of non-Muslims in Medina — speaks of “principles of constitutional contractual citizenship.” The group calls for cooperation built on “A Common Word between Us and You,” an extremely important “letter” of a wide variety of Muslims to Christians around the world which was published 13 October 2007. Signed by over 120 Muslim leaders, that letter called for overcoming conflicts and promoting better cooperation between Muslims and Christians. The Marrakesh Declaration concretely calls for Muslim countries to “go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups...”

Perhaps more importantly — and providing the real challenge — the Declaration calls for Muslim scholars the world over to “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups.” This is significant because Christian leaders in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring have been stressing the importance of citizenship, which is a relatively new concept in Islamic Law.

The Declaration merits closer study of the original Arabic text. It would also be important to see the list of signers, if such exists.

Nevertheless, especially in the context of “A Common Word between Us and You,” even the Executive Summary of Marrakesh Decaration is an important development in the attempts of Muslims to respond to the crisis of extremism in Islam. One can only hope that those who ask “Why aren’t they speaking out again terrorism?” will have the opportunity to read this text.

25 January 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Deir Mar Elias, shown here in an image from 2005, was destroyed last week by ISIS. It was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. (photo: Wikipedia)

Reports of the destruction of Deir Mar Elia, a sixth century monastery in Iraq, surfaced around the world this past week. The responses ranged from outrage and shock to the numbing realization that ISIS destroyed a piece of history again.

One of the marks of genius of the Islamic culture has been its ability to appropriate what was good, useful and beautiful from cultures that it had conquered.

The entire Middle East has developed one civilization on top of another for more than 5,000 years. The two most recent and familiar are Christianity and Islam, which are the major elements in a centuries-old synthesis that ISIS is now threatening with extinction in the Middle East in a way that can only be described as nihilistic.

While geography may not be very interesting for many, it is fascinating. Maps can be like an archaeological excavation with layer upon layer of history waiting to be revealed. Maps of the Middle East are particularly interesting as human civilizations have such a deep footprint. Place names often indicate things that have been long forgotten. The Arabic word qal‘at, for example, appears in many place names. It means “fortress” and the name can remain long after every trace of a fortress has disappeared.

Another place name often found is the Arabic word dayr. In English this may appear as dayr or deir. Thus, we find Al Dayr in Iraq and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and there are many others. The word is important because it means “monastery.”

Before the arrival of Islam, and for some time afterward, Christianity was the major religious and cultural force in Mesopotamia. Different forms of the Syriac tongue formed the language of worship, literature — especially poems and hymns — theology and philosophy of the Mesopotamian church.

Removed but not necessarily isolated from the theological controversies that plagued Christianity in the Greek and Latin speaking worlds, Syriac-speaking Christian monks created a huge body of literature. Their monasteries were great centers of learning where many Greek philosophical texts were translated and preserved.

The Muslim conquerors in Mesopotamia and Syria in the seventh century took over a highly developed civilization that had deep roots in Christianity. Over the centuries, and for a variety of reasons, the Christian population diminished and the Muslim population grew. Significant and at times influential Christian minorities existed in Mesopotamia until the second half of the nineteenth century when the Christian population began to plummet.

With the exception of Lebanon, the contemporary Middle East is overwhelmingly Islamic. Here Islamic means more than “Muslim.” While it is true that the vast majority of Middle Easterners follow the religion of Islam and are Muslims, their literature, art, architecture, music — although often different from one Muslim country to another — are profoundly influenced by Islam. In fact the “dominant culture” in the Middle East has been so influenced and transformed by Islam over the centuries that it is very easy to overlook the deep Christian roots in the region.

There is something nihilistic in almost every totalitarian movement, be it secular or religious. It may be because totalitarianism, regardless how overwhelming and violent, is basically brittle and fragile. Totalitarianism has an almost universal fear of history and art, both of which show that things can be and have been different.

Nazism’s attempt to recreate the history of the “German Nation” as the Third Reich, Stalin’s purges of artists, the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the killing fields of Pot Pol in Cambodia, the personality cult of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and the wanton destruction wreaked by ISIS in the Middle East are all attempts to erase the past.

While ISIS is more complicated than many analysts believe, it is clearly nihilist in its methods and ideology, which is unusual in Islamic history. ISIS is driven to destroy all vestiges of the past, such as the destruction of Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum and the Hellenistic remains of Palmyra. While there are some reports of ancient artifacts being sold rather than destroyed, the end result is the same — the elimination of history. In the case of ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman art, “theological” reasons can be manufactured; ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of “smashing idols.”

But any “theological justification” just does not ring true. The same attack on the past that is carried on by ISIS against the ancient worlds is also being made against Christianity and even other Muslims who, by the standards of the Qur‘an (ostensibly the sacred text of ISIS) are not idolaters. Churches and monasteries, even ancient Islamic shrines such as the Tomb of Jonas in Mosul, are being destroyed.

In the past, one religion often took over an important monument of another. The Umayyads took over the Church of John the Baptist in Damascus (seventh century), the Ottoman Turks took over Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Christian Reconquistadores in Spain took over the great mosque in Cordoba (both 15th century). In each case, the conquering religion changed and adapted the structure to its own faith’s theology and practice. However, none of the monuments were destroyed. There is a difference between religious imperialism and nihilism.

The recent discovery of the destruction of the Monastery of Mar Elia in Iraq is one of many instances of churches and Christian institutions being destroyed by ISIS. Coupled with the brutal killings of Muslim dissidents, Christians and other religious minorities, the international community is faced here with both cultural and ethnic-religious genocide. While nihilistic regimes have a history of ultimate self-destruction, the evil that can be accomplished by them is beyond belief. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the destruction of a sixth century monastery, which was basically a ruin, may not seem important in the “grand scheme” of things. It is however, something that cannot be overlooked when mass destruction — the ultimate nihilistic goal — is increasingly easy to accomplish.

4 January 2016
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Iranian and Turkish demonstrators hold pictures of executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr as they protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, on 3 January 2016.
(photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

The year 2015 was filled with violence and bloodshed in the Middle East. The New Year does not promise much better. On 2 January, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed at least 47 people in a single day. Even for a place like Saudi Arabia — where, unlike most other places in the world, executions have been increasing — 47 executions in one day is extraordinary.

Mass executions are always signs of danger ahead, but the fact that Sheikh Nimr Baqir al Nimr was one of those killed is particularly ominous. Sheikh al Nimr was a Shiite religious leader who lived in Al Awamiyyah in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Al Awamiyyah is home to a significant Shiite minority and it is near Bahrain, where Saudi troops have successfully helped the Sunni regime put down demonstrations of its majority, though disenfranchised, Shiite population.

Sheikh al Nimr was a leader of Shiite protest movements in the area that called for equal rights for Shiites in a Saudi Arabia ruled by Sunnis of the Wahhabi movement. While harsh in his critique of both Sunni and Shiite rulers, and while indicating that Shiites might secede from Saudi Arabia, Sheikh al Nimr during protests in 2011-2012 called for “the roar of the word” and not violence.

His death, therefore, has caused outrage in the Shiite world and has resulted in Saudi Arabia breaking diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, predicted divine retribution for the execution.

Once again people are asking about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The divide began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. From the outset Muslims disagreed — often violently — as to who should succeed him. Those who believed the successor (Arabic khalifa, Caliph) should be chosen by an election are Sunnis; those who believed it should be one of the direct descendants of the prophet are Shiites.

While the two groups hold a great deal in common — e.g. the creed, daily prayers, alms giving, fasting and Ramadan and the Hajj to Mecca — the outlook of each has increasingly diverged.

Shiite Muslims revere the imams, the descendants of the prophet. Different groups of Shiites revere different numbers of imams — mostly seven or twelve — but the largest group by far forms “Twelver Islam,” the official religion of Iran. Centuries of persecution have promoted a deep sense of martyrdom in Shiite Islam. Most Shiites believe that all of the imams were somehow murdered by their enemies and revere their burial places along with those of other holy people. This is tantamount to apostasy for Sunni Muslims, especially the Wahhabi. Shiite Islam has developed deep mystical and philosophical roots. The religious structure of Shiite Islam with people holding titles such as Grand Ayatollah, Ayatollah, Hujjatulislam, etc., reflects a long tradition of theological and philosophical learning.

Sunnis, on the other hand, tend to be more austere in their approach to Islam. While there are four schools of jurisprudence and centers of learning such as Al Azhar in Egypt, the structure is much looser and there is really little or no hierarchy. Thinkers such as Al Ghazali (1058-1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) still exert a powerful influence over many Sunnis. While these thinkers could in no way be considered anti-intellectual, they were very much against speculative religious thought. In the 20th century, the thought of Ibn Taymiyya has enjoyed a revival on several different but related fronts. The official form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, called Wahhabi by many and Salafi by most Saudis, relies heavily on Ibn Taymiyya and the Hanbali School of Islam.

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian member of the Islamic Brotherhood, further developed — some would say deformed — and radicalized some of the Salafi and neo-Hanbali strains that had been developing in Saudi Arabia, which was nevertheless often strongly opposed to Qutb. ISIS carries the trajectory of these developments even further — some would say, to their logical conclusions.

Competition between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been continuous throughout history, with Sunni Muslims usually having the upper hand. Sunni empires have struggled with Shiite empires over the centuries, without significantly changing the ratio of approximately 85 percent Sunnis to 15 percent Shiites in the world.

As Sunnis and Shiites developed in different directions, the 20th century witnessed several important events. Ibn Saud (1875-1953), a fervent Wahhabi Sunni, took over Arabia after World War I and renamed it Saudi Arabia — the only country in the world named after a family. With the discovery of huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia became incredibly wealthy and influential. Saudi Arabia used its resources to propagate its particular brand of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world.

Iran, on the other hand, was a powerful center of Shiite Islam. Under the shah and his government’s close ties to the British and the United States, Iran seemed to be moving toward a Western-oriented modernization. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, however, set Iran on a radically different course. The now Islamic Republic of Iran also sought to spread its self-described revolutionary form of Islam to other parts of the Islamic world. Conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia moved beyond the theological to include the geo-political.

As in most religious conflicts, outsiders can rarely grasp the issues involved or even see the differences between the two groups. Thus for the non-Muslim the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are difficult to see (Muslims have similar problems with Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans). However, for Muslims those differences are deep, very real and also connected with differing political agenda.

Recently there has been some hope that all the parties in the Middle East might work together, at least temporarily, to end the unprecedented chaos and destruction. Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved in discussions with other world powers about possible solutions in the region. Whether the execution of Sheik al Nimr will bring that incipient détente to an end is not yet clear.

One thing, however, is for certain: the death of Sheikh al Nimr will not help the progress towards peace and stability in the Middle East.

Tags: Middle East Muslim Islam Sunni Shiite

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