04/06/2017, 11.13
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Al Azhar and the rights of Christians in the Islamic world

by Luca Galantini

A few weeks ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt, the most influential Sunni university has defended equal rights for Christians and Muslims. But in the Arab-Islamic world, religious minorities suffer. All Constitutions impose restrictions: prohibition of community gatherings; to change one's religion; to assume high government office. Marginalization is leading to the flight of Christians from the Middle East.


Milan (AsiaNews) - The recognition of the full equality of rights to all citizens, regardless of faith, is certainly one of the most evocative and bolder proposals to emerge from the Al Azhar University congress held in Cairo last month.

The Muslim and Christian academic, political and cultural personalities involved in the initiative of Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb courageously raised two issues that still create more than a little discomfort in the Arab and Islamic political and institutional world: the State secularity and full equality of rights of persons according to their nationality.

These issues, which are extremely important for the development of a culture of peace and mutual respect of human persons, will almost certainly be subject to further development, especially in light of the forthcoming trip of Pope Francis to Egypt, where he will also visit Al Azhar.

According to the treaties and agreements of the major international organizations, the UN in the first place, the proper implementation of the status of citizenship, presupposes that every citizen, by the mere fact of belonging to a particular state, cannot be discriminated against in the enjoyment of their rights on religious, ethnic, linguistic grounds and so on. The principle of citizenship is therefore based on respect for freedom of thought and conscience, of which religion is one of the fundamental manifestations, as pointed out by the Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, who spoke to the Egyptian conference.

If you look at the regulatory policy framework that defines citizenship status in the constitutions of the Arab and Islamic world, we observe that there is discrimination to freedom of thought and religion, to the point that faiths other than Islam are defined as a minority, that is, "different" communities who are not entitled to equal treatment, but are recognized according to a state of "dhimmitude", therefore at best tolerated.

The same Maronite Patriarch said that the term "religious minority" should disappear and be replaced by the recognition of equal dignity between the faiths.

The conception of citizenship in the constitutions of Arab States is explicitly tied to the Islamic religion in which they qualify their national identity. This means that the citizens of the Christian faith, being considered minority, are subject to restrictions, limitations and differential treatment in the fundamental rights.

Map of violations

With the exception of Syria and Lebanon, for example, in almost all other states the prohibition for Christians to teach the Arabic language remain as it is the sacred language of the texts of the Islamic faith; restrictions on personal freedom, so as a Muslim citizen may marry a non-Muslim woman the contrary is not allowed; The children of mixed religious couples must also be raised according to the Muslim faith.

Again: the Constitution in Iraq while acknowledging respect for religious freedom, article 2 expressly provides that no law may be enacted if it contradicts the founding principles of Islam, in order to ensure the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi population.

Such discrimination against religious minorities are even recognized in the Arab League Charter of Human Rights article. 25 of the, where it ruled that the fundamental rights of citizens belonging to minority groups - such as the practice of the precepts of the religion they belong - can be exercised in a public place in common with the other members of the minority.

Even Tunisia, while in an atmosphere of openness and secular reforms following the Arab Spring, provides in article 38 of the Constitution that only a Muslim citizen can be president of the republic.

In Egypt this definition of minorities had become a worrying issue for the Coptic Christian community, following the approval of fundamentalist Constitution of 2012 in the wake of the political success of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Today, the Constitution of 2014 promoted by the government of General al-Sisi shows a turnaround because, while it confirms shari'a as the primary source of legislation, it reduces the influence of Islam in public life State. Thanks to the launch of a new law governing the construction of Christian churches in Egypt in the most liberal manner, the previous decree that allowed the government to prevent, block or delay these buildings indefinitely on the grounds that constituted a danger to state security was eliminated.

Of all the countries where Islamic law is the dominant element, Morocco is certainly one that more than any other has made a historic step. The Ulema Council has recently recognized the full right of every Moroccan citizen to abandon the Islamic faith without incurring the offense of apostasy, which carried a prison sentence of up to three years. Especially considering that they are still very many Islamic and Arab states that apply the death penalty to those who convert to religions other than Islam in the name of Sharia: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Mauritania , Pakistan, Qatar and others.

The same Lebanon, a country where the religious pluralism of the 18 officially recognized faiths must be respected in government and public institutions level, focused on the political necessity of defining the national identity of the state from membership regardless of religious faith to ensure the more peaceful coexistence between the various components.

The legal political context of the Arab Islamic world is so inconsistent that any attempt at reconstructing civil society in the name of religious pluralism and equal rights among citizens should be firmly supported, while not giving in to easy enthusiasm and illusions, and the Al Azhar initiative should certainly be interpreted as such.

The Atlas of Global Christianity is estimated that the percentage of Christians in Arab lands today amounts to about 6%, compared with 25% of 100 years ago: without a path of mutual recognition of equal rights among citizens, the fate of Christian communities is in grave jeopardy.

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