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Every Sunday - 9am Divine Liturgy in English (fully or mostly) at the Holy Family Cathedral

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Friday, 21 March 2014

We Depend On The Christians Of The Middle East - Roger Scruton at Forbes.Com

19 March 2014

On February 24th of this year, a group of Egyptian workers in Libya was rounded up by an Islamist gang. It is normal for Egyptian Copts to bear witness to their faith, with a cross tattooed on their wrist. Those workers who were tattooed with a cross were taken apart and shot. Nobody has been brought to justice for this crime. The Egyptian government has lodged no complaint, and the Libyan government (if that is not too polite a description) has made no comment. For many people living in the Middle East, crimes against Christians are what we must now expect.

When, in the first flush of enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, our politicians welcomed the move towards democracy, it became rapidly clear that they had no understanding either of Islamic law, or of the kinds of government that have been erected on the back of it. The shar‘iah – the Holy Law that has been extracted down the centuries from the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet – is a law for the government of Muslims. It offers protection to ‘people of the Book’ (i.e. Christians and Jews), but not an equal status before the law. And it is based on a strictly religious code of conduct, enforced by penalties that even its staunchest defenders are on the whole embarrassed to advocate.

The first result of the Arab Spring was to encourage the Muslim clergy to call for the imposition of the shar‘iah, in place of the various systems of secular law inherited from British and French colonial administrations, and from the Ottoman reformers in the 19th century. The Moslem Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, has made no bones about this aim. And its most influential leader, Sayyid Qutb, denounced the whole idea of the secular state as a kind of blasphemy, an attempt to usurp the will of God by passing laws that have a merely human authority. All valid law, for Qutb, issues from the mind of God, through his principal messenger, Muhammad.

Qutb was executed by President Nasser, who came to power in a military coup. And ever since then the Moslem Brotherhood and the Army have played against each other. Thus we should not be surprised that the posters recently waved by Morsi’s supporters do not advocate democracy or human rights. They say ‘All of us are with the shar‘iah.’ The army says: no, only some of us are. And the ten per cent of Egyptians who are Christians – the Copts – agree with the army.

The original schools of Islamic jurisprudence, which arose in the wake of the Prophet’s reign in Medina, permitted jurists to adapt the law to the changing needs of society, by a process of reflection known as ijtihâd, or effort. But this seems to have been brought to an end during the eighth century of our era, when it was maintained by the then dominant theological school that all important matters had been settled and that the ‘gate of ijtihâd is closed’. Hence today, when the clerics take over, law is referred back to precepts designed for the government of a long since vanished community.

Jurists have great difficulty in adapting such a law to the life of modern people. Moreover, precisely because the shar’iah has not adapted, nobody really knows what it says. Does it tell us to stone adulterers to death? Some say yes, some say no. Does it tell us that investing money at interest is in every case forbidden? Some say yes, some say no. When God makes the laws, the laws become as mysterious as God is. When we make the laws, and make them for our purposes, we can be certain what they mean. The only question then is ‘who are we?’ What way of defining ourselves reconciles democratic elections with real opposition and individual rights? That, to my mind, is the most important question facing the West today. And it is a question to which the Islamists give the wrong answer – the answer that sets them in conflict with the modern world.

It is for this reason that the fate of the Middle Eastern Christians is of such importance to us in the West. We have learned that, when we legislate for the whole community, we must put religion to one side. We do this because we are heirs to the Christian idea of secular government, enshrined in Christ’s commandment to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’, in other words to privatize religion and to live by a man-made rule of law.

In the Middle East the Christian communities have remained loyal to that ideal. When the states of Lebanon and Syria were carved out of the ruined Ottoman Empire Empire at the end of the First World War they contained large numbers of Christians – in Lebanon probably a majority. But in both cases the Christians advocated national and secular government, with a division of offices between the various sects. The shi‘ites accepted this at the time, since – having been judged heretical by the Ottomans and therefore outside the law – they were happy to live under a secular jurisdiction and to share it with their Druze and Christian neighbours.

Since then the social equilibrium of the Levant has been undermined, first by the totalitarian methods of the Ba‘ath Party under the Assad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and secondly by Hezbollah, the Iranian backed shi‘ite force that has effectively destroyed the Lebanese constitution. When law and order break down Christians, who have done most to uphold the idea of secular government, are the first to pay the price. Nowhere in the Middle East are they granted equal rights or true protection by the Islamist factions and even in Egypt, where the army, to its credit, is advocating equality before the law, the Copts find themselves constantly under attack, their churches torched, their children kidnapped, and their property destroyed.

We in the West must not turn our back on these Christian communities, since their fate, in the long run, is our fate. Only if Islam is compelled to respect the rights and freedoms of the Christians on its doorstep will it learn to respect the rights and freedoms of the rest of us. If it does not acquire this habit of respect it will continue to chafe against the modern world, endorsing acts of terrorism like the bombing of the Boston Marathon or the horrific murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in a London street.

How then should we respond to the persecution of the Middle Eastern Christians? We must surely make a point of withdrawing recognition from regimes that offer no protection to their Christian minorities – and that includes Saudi Arabia and several of the Gulf States, as well as Libya. It is surely unacceptable that Muslims settle in the West and demand the right to practice their religion, to proselytise on behalf of it, to build mosques and madrasahs, and in every way to take advantage of the religious freedoms that our society upholds, while forbidding Christians who live in their country to do the same. Likewise we should be demanding of the Egyptian government that it openly accept that a large number of Egyptians are Christians, and that they are citizens of equal standing to their Muslim neighbours.

We should remember that, on the whole, Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side in Syria and the neighbouring Lebanon. The fragmentation of those countries along confessional lines is not the least of the many tragic outcomes of the successive civil wars, the latest precipitated by the Arab Spring. In any final settlement we must insist on religious freedom and secular law as the sine qua non of Western support. If we give up on religious freedom we shall be sending to the Islamists a message that is ultimately dangerous to ourselves. We shall be telling them that our freedoms matter less to us than peace, at whatever price they might one day be able to dictate to us.

Read online here at

We Depend On The Christians Of The Middle East

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