Religion: From Bridges to Checkpoints?

15/06/2015 11:03 BST | Updated 14/06/2016 10:59 BST

Over the past couple of weeks, a small number of events made me realise that religion - some call it religiosity too - is playing once more an active role not only in our private lives but also in our public ones. Gone for now I think are the years when God and Caesar always inhabited different compartments. Today, we often come across stories of persecution, discrimination, forced conversions and marriages or even beheadings in the name of religion. Conversely, we also hear of stories that edify the spiritual and use it as a bastion against all ills. Religion - not always synonymous with faith though - is much more present today in our headlines and consciousness if not always in our lives.

The first event that drew my attention was a meeting in Damascus last week assembling Orthodox and Catholic Church hierarchs in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in order to discuss the challenges facing their Arab Christian communities in this increasingly uncontrollable region. I am quite aware of the ordeals challenging many of those communities let alone of their refugee plights. But I still hope that those churches would realise that Christians cannot be part of an alliance of minorities as if they are outsiders to the region but rather as an integral fabric of the societies in which they live today despite the perils and abuses staring them in the face on most days.

The other incident was a new article published by Dr Muhammad Amarah in the Al-Azhar magazine. Entitled 'Why am I a Muslim?', the writer who is deemed to hail from either a Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist background concluded that the answer is because Christianity is a failed religion - diyana fashila in Arabic. I do not personally have a problem with people who do not believe or who are loyal to their own faiths, but I take exception when people attack another religion with claims that are objectionable. Not only is this not the time to ramp up tensions even further between faith communities with such conclusions, it concerns me also that it was published in an official magazine belonging to the Al-Azhar Al-Sharif in Egypt that has often been considered the foremost centre for Sunni Muslims. Regardless of the ongoing debate on whether the curricula of Al-Azhar should be updated across its many institutions, does this article indicate that Al-Azhar subscribes to this viewpoint whilst at the same time promoting interreligious dialogue?

Besides, might I suggest that the author look at what some forms of Islam are doing in the name of faith: is Daesh / ISIL the example of a successful religion in the opinion of the author?

But amidst those two issues, and as often happens in life, there were also some good news.

For one, there was a Society Sunday event celebrated at the Methodist Central Hall in London. Supported and broadcast by Premier Radio, this event (in which I too had a role) was meant to celebrate the birthday of HM the Queen as well as the work of elected public officials. But one key focus was to prove that religion can play a positive role in society and does not have to be disruptive and negative - or at best marginal. The contributors to this event highlighted the positive role of religion as a bridge-builder, not as a stumbling block or checkpoint, despite all its human excesses.

I was also delighted to learn that a new Catholic Church had been inaugurated in Mussafah, in the southwest of Abu Dhabi not far from Maqta, as a gift from the Emirati rulers to their Catholic communities in the country. How refreshing it is to see such pragmatism and generosity in the face of increasing narrow-mindedness and myopia across the MENA.

Finally, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom was awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours' list. I would not have included this in my blog today were it not that the Order was given to Bishop Angaelos for his relentless work in the field of religious persecution. It is indeed an honour that also underlines the need to combat together all forms of extremism no matter the source, perpetrator, instigator or ideology.

In the West, we often lack the sense of religion as an integral cultural component in our lives. So it is hard to fathom what makes other communities tick in their own homelands. No matter, what is important is to underline - as Society Sunday did last week - that religion is first and foremost a personal contract between believers and their Almighty. But if it is meant to impact the public domain - as I believe it should if I were to heed to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount - then it should become a bridge-builder that helps draw people together rather that a checkpoint keeping them apart.

Alas, do we not have a long way to go if we truly wish to achieve such an outcome?