Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fr. Georges Massouh on Religious Freedom

The original can be found here. For more background on the issues under discussion, go here.

Religious Consciousness is a Necessity for Advancement

Wafa, Camellia, Marianne… names which circulate in the Egyptian, Arab and world media. These are names of women, some of them priests’ wives, about whom word has spread that they converted to Islam after having left Christianity. There are conflicting accounts between those who say that these women chose Islam of their own free will and those who say that they were forced to convert to Islam after having been kidnapped and compelled to abandon their original religion. Both sides arm themselves with videos which support their views and both sides claim that part of the other side’s video was filmed under pressure and threats.

The issue of these women has started to threaten civil strife without limits. The competing demonstrations and protests which are motivated by a re-awakening of religious partisanships have become general in churches and mosques. Some are accusing the Egyptian state of bias because they took the women and gave them over to the church, which kept them out of sight or because it failed to search for them women and to find them. Some go so far as to say that the church detained these women in monasteries, prevented any contact with them, and forced them to return to Christianity.

In this regard, the Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gomaa points to allegations that the Coptic Church detained Camellia Shehata Zakher, wife of the priest Taddaus Sim’an, pastor of the Church of St. George in Deir Mawas after she announced her conversion to Islam, and he affirms that it is under no circumstances permitted to detain anyone who announces their conversion to Islam. Mufti Gomaa said, “If a person converts to Islam, it is not permitted for anyone to compel him to leave Islam and if the person who entered Islam desires to return to his prior religion, then he cannot be prevented from this either.”

We cannot help but to respond positively to Mufti Gomaa’s words about a person’s freedom to espouse the belief that he adopts as his path in this life and the next, and especially when he calls for discussing the subject “objectively and without provocation” while rejecting at the same time “for this provocation to happen on Egyptian territory in such a savage manner”. Our support for the Mufti increases if it is true that Camellia, who has appeared on some internet sites wearing a veil, went to al-Azhar to announce her conversion to Islam in the company of one of the sheikhs, before being seized and handed over to the church where she was kept out of sight.

Despite our affirmation of freedom of belief for every person born of a woman, pure and simple, we wonder about the extent of the respect for this freedom in our Arab societies. The mufti himself continues his discussion by affirming that “Islam permits freedom of religion” with evidence from to verses of the Quran, “let him who desires, believe, and let him who desires, not believe” and “there is no compulsion in religion” and that the account of one who disbelieves is with God on the Day of Resurrection. He points to the non-existence of any text or verse in the Quran which “calls for forcing a person to adopt a specific belief.” So if “Egypt is an Islamic state according to the text of the constitution,” according to Mufti Gomaa’s words, and if Islam does not force anyone to adopt a specific belief, then why is it permitted for one group of Egyptians, the non-Muslims, to change their religious affiliation while Muslims are prevented from this?

Naturally, we are not expecting a response to this question. The response is well known and has been repeated to the point of tedium. We are not calling here for a change in some aspects of Islamic jurisprudence, though we hope for the appearance of great jurists who will develop rules keeping with the times and their challenges. The current state of things, then, shows that there is a discrepancy between the written text and its application on the ground. If the mufti’s words contradict the legal reality in Egypt, and the legal realities of other Arab and Islamic states, which prohibits Muslims from changing their religion, then why does he not ask in the name of Islam for these laws to be rectified so they will grant any Egyptian who desires it the freedom to change his religion?

The issue here is not limited to the failure to establish civil society in the Arab countries where laws are based on the principle of citizenship and where there is true equality between the sons of a single country in rights and responsibilities, “they have what we have and they are obligated to do what we are obligated to do” according to the famous saying. The issue is first of all in the failure of religious institutions to contribute, through preaching and teaching, to bringing their adherents to a deep-rooted and unshakable realization that personal freedom, according to the foundational texts, is holy and is not subject to ambiguity. Our societies will not advance until work is completed to spread religious consciousness into all segments of society. The other alternative is for our countries to continue to witness from time to time other Wafa’s, Camellias, Mariannes , and perhaps even more ferocious social strife.

Fr. Georges Massouh is Professor of Islamic Studies at Balamand University.

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