The tragic bombing of Coptic churches and the callous murder of scores of Christians in Egypt, is yet another reminder of the throes endured by Christian communities in the Middle East at the hands of ISIS.
The arrival of Easter Week is perhaps a ripe moment for Christians and Muslims to foster social unity and political solidarity, especially in the face of the gruesome terror that is ISIS. Their bombing campaigns against Christians is a crude distortion of Islamic theology and a radical departure from historical precedent. I wish to shed light on two pertinent, but sometimes forgotten, issues. First, I draw attention to the prominence of Jesus Christ in the Muslim tradition; second, I note the centrality of Christian communities in the Middle East, past and present.
In Muslim theological discourses, Jesus Christ, the foundational figure of Christianity, is prophesised to stand in the face of oppression, tyranny, injustice, and inequality, along with the Mahdi, the promised Muslim messiah.
Jesus is a highly revered figure in the Islamic tradition. Throughout the centuries in many passages, in the religious writings of Muslims, Jesus Christ is often identified as the perfect ascetic, the epitome of moderation, and the exemplar of modesty. Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and one of Islam's spiritual masters and theological geniuses, remembers Jesus Christ in the following words:
"He rested his head on stone, he wore prickly clothing, he ate the coarsest of meals, and he endured hunger, always."
The religious significance of Jesus in Islam should be sufficient reason for Christians around the world to rest assured that their enemy is not Islam but the voices of bigotry and purveyors of divisiveness.
In my native country Iraq, Christianity has historical roots that predate Islam by centuries. In the first century AD its teachings reached there, thanks to Thomas the Apostle and Mar Addair. Assyria in northern Iraq became the pillar of Eastern Christian learning while al-Hirah, near the modern-day seminary-city of Najaf, became an important diocese. Syriac, the liturgical language of Eastern Christianity, was spoken in Iraq as early as the first century and continues to be the language of religious ceremonies in parts of northern Iraq. In the early centuries of Islam, Arabic-speaking Christian writers from Iraq were chiefly responsible for introducing Muslims to the Greek culture, after works on philosophy and science were translated from Syriac into Arabic.
It was these works that help emerging Muslim theologians and jurists to better understand their respective scriptures. And in the centuries that followed, the Muslims returned the favour. Arabic Islamic writings on an array of learned topics were translated into Latin by Christian scholars, eager to benefit from their religious counterparts.
The Middle East housed the earliest communities of Christians, such as those in Jerusalem, Antioch (modern-day Turkey) and Alexandria (modern-day Egypt). In fact, it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus, known first as the Nazarenes, took the title of Christians. Let us not forget that Jesus, after all, was a native of the region.
The dynamic cultural, intellectual and social cohesion that existed between Christians and Muslims in the past has much to teach us in the present. Our Christian and Muslim ancestors lived side by side, studied together, learned from each other, and showed great respect and reverence from the others' religious traditions. Iraqi Christian monasteries and churches such as the Mar Behnam (built in the fourth century), Dayra d'Mar Oraha (built in the sixth century), Rabban Hormizd (founded in the seventh century), and Dair Mar Elia (founded in the sixth century) remained intact, unharmed, and active under centuries of Muslim-rule.
Why weren't these places of worship in the Middle East destroyed prior to the advent of ISIS? The answer is simple: Muslims of the past kept true to the explicit commands of Prophet Muhammad who reminded us that the church and the mosque were both considered sanctuaries where the name of God is remembered:
"No bishop is to be removed from his diocese, nor any monk from his monastery... No house belonging to churches or synagogues is to be demolished." [Source: The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World]
This belief remains true today.
Having been born in southern Iraq in the city of Basrah, my great grandmother's closest friend and neighbor was an Iraqi Christian.Our families have remained in friendship over four generations; our grandmothers who both lost their husbands early in life, came together for Christmas, Easter, Ramadan and Eid, this for them was normative - they both had been strongly observant and sometimes stubborn within their own traditions, but their shared culture, and values, bonded them.
Last Sunday, as I received news of the tragic events in Egypt, friends in Iraq shared with me videos of public display of Iraqi Christians participating in mass services and beautiful displays of processions in which branches of palms are carried on the streets and around churches that still contained signs of fires and destruction caused by ISIS in newly liberated towns.
In Iraq, we are now witnessing a silent majority of all Iraqis: Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis and other faiths and belief systems who are united in their efforts to liberate towns, cities and villages from Daesh and are renewing the spirit of unity and coexistence that will conquer the ideologies of hate and bigotry.
Last year I travelled with my contemporaries to the Middle East. I led a delegation of British Imams to Iraq where we visited villages and towns liberated from ISIS. We met with faith representatives from the richly diverse religious and ethnic tapestry that is Iraq. We stood together with locals and declared in unison that the very existence of ISIS is a betrayal of the prophetic teachings, and we vowed together to uphold our unity in the face of attempts by ISIS to divide us as religious communities. We stood together united by our beliefs and in defiance against terrorism.
I look forward to the day that my contemporaries from others faith traditions accompany me to Iraq, to witness our shared heritage, culture, and faith traditions - that have shaped the resolve of the Iraq people to remain united.
With Easter celebrations coinciding with Passover in the Jewish tradition, I am proud to work with British faith communities through the Faiths Forum for London in building resilience and living in peaceful co-existence. We stand firmly with our brothers of all faiths. We are proudly echoing the example set by our forefathers, around the world, to respect and celebrate one another's tradition of worship.