Religious Freedom In Islam

by Metropolitan Christodoulos of Demetrias (now Archbishop of Athens and all Greece)

The question of religious freedom has become an issue of major importance at the end of the 20th century as it is regarded as the cornerstone of individual human rights. Indeed, wherever people are not free to believe in the God of their choice, practise their religion without hindrance or worship God freely, this is tantamount to a flagrant infringement of the principles of all civilized states and constitutions making life unbearable. The examples of Albania and of other countries of Europe and the Balkans which were, until recently, under the sway of state socialism are a constant reminder of the dreadful conditions under which millions of Christians were condemned to live without the right to freedom of worship which is universal, self-evident and inalienable.

Today, however, I intend to dwell on the phenomenon of Islam which is expanding at a rapid pace throughout Europe where it is taking advantage of the constitutional protection afforded to religious freedom, while in those countries where it has power, i.e. in the Islamic states, it denies this freedom to the followers of other religions and mercilessly punishes followers of Christianity. My theme this year is the relation between Islam and religious freedom. First of all, however, since today is the feast of Saint Denis the Areopagite, jurist and the first Athenian Christian, I wish you health and spiritual and physical endurance and strength to face up to your towering responsibilities and carry out your huge, delicate and responsible mission with honour in our democratic society.

At the outset, I should state that Islam is not a purely religious society but rather a mixture of political, social and economic elements. It is a society which has its own principles and codes of conduct which rejects anything and everything that is alien to its laws. This rigidity leads to a form of exclusiveness that is hostile to the concept of tolerance. Every non-Muslim is not destined merely for hell, but must be eradicated and removed from the face of the earth for being a non-believer. The choice left to him is either to convert, or face the danger of being eliminated. The same fate awaits any Muslim who dares to become a convert to another religion. Apostasy is punishable by death, especially in Islamic countries, i.e. countries where the state is theocratic, which do not consider citizens who belong to another religion as equal to Muslims.

This view certainly provokes strong reaction on the part of certain Islamic scholars who maintain that the lack of tolerance referred to here does not stem from the structure of Islam itself, nor the Koran, but is mainly the coincidental result of political factors and Arab nationalism which exploits religion for its own ends. Indeed, it is often written that the behaviour of governments and people within the Muslim world simply cannot be explained by reference to any structural aspect of Islamic dogmatism or phrase from the Koran. Here, as elsewhere, the universal and stable aspects of the constant dynamic of human rights are in operation.(1)

However, this explanation neither solves or illuminates the problem, but merely places the weight of responsibility-which nevertheless exists- elsewhere because Islam and fundamentalism are synonymous and difficult to separate. "The difference between an ordinary Muslim and a fundamentalist is not based on piety, and even less on different world attitudes, but rather on a somewhat different interpretation of the law (the Shari'a)." (2) Here we have another explanation which is attributed to a different interpretation of Islamic law.

The same explanation is given for the misinterpretation of the term "Djihad" which means holy war because, according to Roger Garaudy, the phrase Djihad, which appears in the Koran and which in Arabic means "striving", has the primary meaning of individual striving to suppress passions and egoism and is used solely for defensive purposes. In any event, the conclusion one reaches from reading the Koran is that Djihad refers to the defense of the faith and not its expansion.(3)

Despite this, the same philosopher accepts that Islam quite frequently repudiates its principles (Garaudy: Why I became a Muslim).(4)

However, the problem which remains basically in theory, is essentially the following question: "Is Islam a rigid religion or not?". The answer to this question is not to be sought in the variety of interpretations of the Koran, whether they be well-intentioned or misleading, nor in the ignorance which we Christians usually have about what Islam is or is not, coupled with our underestimation of its spirituality and culture. Indeed, nobody can deny the spirituality and moral values of Islam nor the cultural contribution it has made at different periods throughout world history. Any prejudices which may exist must be left behind. Nevertheless, the truth must remain intact and unadulterated. However, what does this have to do with our subject?

At this point, we cannot fail to be aware of the resentment which the Arab world has for the West. The tormenting of their wounded pride is often the reason for their anti-western and anti-Christian sentiments which are conveniently bred in the people by dictators to maintain themselves in long-term power.

How does this fit in with events in Saudi Arabia, for example, which is clearly an Islamic State with a traditional power structure deriving from religion and which has excellent relations with the West? In this country, which is the home of Mecca and Medina, the practice of any religion other than Islam and the entry into the mosques by any non-Islamic cleric or clergyman is punishable by death. It is true that Arab nationalism was based and is based on Islam. The modernisation of the Muslims has been taking place with great difficulty the last two centuries. This process of modernization originates from the West and is coming up against the violent and often instigated anti-western stance of the Arab peoples.

Let us now turn to the Koran. This is a book, the only book in Islam which is all-embracing: subjugation to the wish of Allah (=Islam) as far as and including subjugation to any leader. It is an austere, concise, often unclear and internally contradictory book. The difference between this and the books of other religions is that it is the one and only book. This book contains all the comments and remarks that Mohammed made from 613 AD to 632 AD which were collected during his life.

Islamic law is based on the Shari'a, in other words Islamic cannon law is based, on the one hand, on the Koran, and, on the other hand, on the Hadith (the words actually spoken by Mohammed which were memorized and later written down). There is a huge number of Hadith because many spurious sayings have been added without any steps to verify them. Because of doubts concerning their authenticity, numerous scholars set about codifying the Hadith resulting in the Sunna which contains 7000 sayings. These works lay down rules which even today define everyday life, the political choices, the world view and the attitude of every Muslim towards other religions.

In his book entitled "The Arabs", Peter Mansfield writes that "the paradox of Islam as a social system is that it is at one and the same time the most democratic and the most authoritarian form of religion. It is democratic because it does not have an institutionalized ecclesiastical hierarchy which intervenes between God and the faithful. ..." Theoretically, every male Muslim is an individual priest for himself and his family and it is this which facilitates authoritarianism and oppression. In practice, the sayings of the Koran hold sway over the "infidels", i.e. those who do not accept the faith of Islam and these sayings are unambiguous and not open to misinterpretation. In what follows I shall give a few of these sayings which are characteristic because they condemn to unrelenting persecution and ultimate destruction anyone who does not submit to the will of God. The only way to save one's life is to convert.

The Koran states:
"And this is a proclamation from Allah and His Messenger to the people on the day of the Greater Pilgrimage, that Allah is clear of the idolaters, ans so is His Messenger. So if you repent, it will be better for you; but if you turn away, then know that you cannot frustrate the plan of Allah. And give tidings of a painful punishment to those who disbelieve." (Sura 9, verset 3)
"Excepting those of the idolaters with whom you have entered into a treaty and who have not subsequently failed you in anything nor aided anyone against you. So, fulfil to these the treaty you have made with them till their term. Surely, Allah loves those who are righteous." (Sura 9, verset 4)
"How can there be a treaty of these idolaters with Allah and His Messenger, except those with whom you entered into a treaty at the Sacred Mosque? So, as long as they stand true to you, stand true to them. Surely, Allah loves those who are righteous." (Sura 9, verset 7)
"How can it be when, if they prevail against you, they would not observe any tie of relationship or covenant in respect of you? They would please you with their mouths, while their hearts refuse and most of them are perfidious." (Sura 9, verset 8)
"They barter the signs of Allah for a paltry price and turn men away from his way. Evil indeed is that which they do." (Sura 9, verset 9)
"They observe not any tie of relationship or covenant in respect of anyone who trtust them. And it is they who are transgressors." (Sura 9, verset 10)
"But, if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then they are your brethren in faith. And We explain the Signs for a people who have knowledge." (Sura 9, verset 11)
"And if they break their oaths after their covenant, and attack your religion, then fight these leaders of disbelief- surely, they have no regard for their oaths - that they may desist." (Sura 9, verset 12)
"Will you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, and who plotted to turn out the Messenger, and who were the first to commence hostilities against you? Do you fear them? Nay, Allah is more worthy that you should fear Him, if you are believers." (Sura 9, verset 13)
"Fight them, that Allah may punish them at your hands, and humiliate them, and help you to victory over them, and relieve the minds of a people who believe." (Sura 9, verset 14).
"0 ye who believe! surely, the idolaters are unclean. So they shall not approach the Sacred Mosque . . . " (Sura 9, verset 28)
"0 Prophet, strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites. And be severe to them. Their abode is hell and an evil destination it is." (Sura 9, verset 73)
"Surely, Allah has purchased of the believers their persons and their property in return for the Garden they shall have; they fight in the cause of Allah, and they slay and are slain - a promise that He has made incumbent upon Himself in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Quran. And who is more faithful to his promise than Allah? Rejoice, then, in your bargain which you have made with Him; and that it is which is the supreme triumph." (Sura 9, verset 111)
"And when you meet in regular battle those who disbelieve, smite their necks; and, when you have overcome them, bind fast the fetters - then afterwards either release them as a favour or by taking ransom - until the war lays down its burdens. That is the ordinance. And if Allah had so pleased, He could have punished them Himself, but He has willed that He may try some of you by others. And those who are killed in the way of Allah, He will never render their works vain." (Sura 47, verset 4)
"And if those who disbelieve should fight you, they would certainly turn their backs; then they would find neither protector nor helper." (Sura 48, verset 22)
"Such is the law of Allah that has been in operation before; and thou shalt not find any change in the law of Allah" (Sura 48, verset 23)

Regardless of any interpretations based on politico-social circumstances and interests the commandment of the Koran is clear: the believer has an obligation to fight to the death against the infidel. No concept of freedom can possibly coexist with such an aphorism. This is particularly demonstrated today by the tragic circumstances of the Christian populations that make up small religious minorities in Islamic countries. They are faced with unrelenting fanaticism and prejudice to the point where these unfortunate people are migrating en masse to other countries where they hope to find some tolerance and compassion.

I shall give a few irrefutable facts which prove that Christians do not have any liberties in those countries where the Fundamentalists are in power. In Pakistan, for example, where 97% of the population is Muslim, Christians expressed great concern a few months ago at the Pakistani Government's proposal to introduce the Shari'a, i.e. Islamic law, to settle civil and criminal disputes in the courts. Christians consider that this measure is clearly directed against the country's religious minorities as stated by the Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops and the Protestant Council of Churches of Pakistan. If the whole legal system of the country is influenced by Islamic law, then the Christians have no hope of survival.(5) Events have shown that these fears were justified as the authorities announced that any individual which disrespects or defames Mohammed would be condemned to death in accordance with the laws of the Sharia. Other prohibitions are bound to follow.

The Koran considers Christians enemies of Islam who must be exterminated. Here is a characteristic extract from Sura 9.
"And the Jews say, Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say, the Messiah is the son of Allah; that is what they say with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before them. Allah's curse be on them! How are they turned away! (Sura 9, verset 30)
"They have taken their learned men and their monks for lords beside Allah. And so have they taken the Messiah, son of Mary. And they were not commanded but to worship the One God. There is no God but He. Too Holy is He for what they associate with him!" (Sura 9, verset 31).
"And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat, then leave their way free. Surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful." (Sura 9, verset 5)
"And if anyone of the idolaters ask protection of thee, grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah; then convey him to his place of security. That is because they' are a people who have no knowledge." (Sura 9, verset 6)

In Indonesia, an Islamic court condemned to five years' imprisonment the journalist Arsouento Atmoviloto because he blasphemed Mohammed. The journalist's "blasphemous act" consisted of publishing a poll according to which Mohammed was ranked in llth place among historical figures. This was not his only "crime", he was originally a Muslim who converted to be a Christian. This is a "crime" that fanatical Muslims can never forgive. (6)

Following the Gulf War, war broke out against Christians in Iraq. The Muslims in the region are now seeking revenge and many Christians have been forced to flee while others have been killed. The Patriarch of Chaldea in Iraq stated that "the whole world had been moved by the tragedy of the Kurds, but nobody had mentioned the five camps of refugees in Syria and Turkey where 15,000 Christians had taken refuge in flight from their homes in Iraq."(7)

In addition to these harsh measures which are spreading throughout all Islamic countries, the Christian population of Europe is now aware of the threat from the violent surge of fundamentalists whose numbers are steadily on the increase. Islamic fundamentalism is spreading unhindered through many Christian countries without even the slightest opposition. In Medina, the King of Saudi Arabia inaugurated a publishing house which aims to disseminate seven million copies of the Koran every year throughout the Muslim world. The annual cost of running this centre will be US$ 150 million. Recent evidence shows that fanaticism and Islamic fundamentalism is spreading in a threatening manner and fundamentalist political parties are growing impressively in strength even in secular countries like Turkey. In Turkey today 40% of university entrants come from religious seminaries. More than 230 new religious schools are opening every year and 1500 mosques are being built every year. There are already 200 publishers publishing 100 monthly periodicals and four daily newspapers of Islamic persuasion. In England, an Islamic party has been established with the aim of leading the country towards Islamic values: justice, love and (...) religious freedom. By the end of 1992, it hopes to have 250,000 members.

The threat posed by Islam is not imagined. Its challenge is a reality born out of bitter experience. There is no religious freedom in countries where Islam holds sway, whilst Islam itself is treated with tolerance and accommodated in the civilized world.

The problem of the relationship between Islam and freedom extends to its relationship with democracy. None of the Islamic countries in the Middle and Near East that took part in the Gulf War have a democratic regime. Why is this? Perhaps Arabs are allergic to democracy? Or perhaps Islam is a hindrance to democracy? The historical reasons underpinning the monarchies in Islamic countries do not provide serious grounds for maintaining these monarchies in position today.

To us Europeans Islam may appear as a religion based on fanaticism, fate and arbitrariness. These aspects over the centuries have taken on a definite form which gave Christians the bitter experience of persecution which at least today appear to belong to an irrevocably bygone age. Are Islam and human rights incompatible entities? Sexual equality is unimaginable in Islam. Democracy cannot coexist with this.

Some-time ago, a distinguished Turkish political personality stated that Turkey will enter EEC and will bring, through its workers Islam into the center of Christianity, something that was never able to achieve by the force of arms. This statement went almost unnoticed in Europe and only a very few people gave it any attention. However, this is indicative of the spirit which it echoes. When Islamic fanaticism has reached our countries, it could be then perhaps too late for us.

What then needs to be done? In my opinion, it is time for us to wake up to the dangers threatening us. Only the short-sighted are unable to see this threat and only those who are thoughtless can fail to be aware of the extent of this danger. Europe must awake to the fact that it is threatened by the East. The measures that have begun to be taken by European Governments to limit the number of Muslims that have poured into Europe are well-known. The maintenance of the Christian character of Europe must be the concern of all Europeans. Worldwide opinion should also be mobilized to condemn in all international organizations the persecutions which Christians are currently subject to in Islamic countries and exert pressure on the states to which the persecuted Christians belong and on the Christian churches to implement, on a mutual basis, the principles of religious freedom in all its senses.

Either Muslims must respect the religious freedom of Christians in their countries, or they must cease to benefit from the right to freely propagate their ideals which the West willingly provides for them.

This proposal will certainly disturb those who fervently support constitutional freedoms without demanding any degree of reciprocity. However, let them put forward another solution to ensure that tolerance and religious freedom is guaranteed for Christians in Islamic countries.

I am concerned at developments because I see, on the one hand, the reluctance of the West to support and call for measures to be taken on behalf of Christians under threat in the East and, on the other hand, the determination of the Muslims who are ready to pounce on our tradition in order to change it and, eventually, as they hope, replace it. Let us not forget that under the sole guiding influence of the Koran, the aim of Islam is to establish political domination through a theocratic state along the lines of that referred to by the Prophet in the year 622 AD.

The comparative imbalance is striking. On the one hand, a civilized society with its constitutions, its political achievements, the principles and rights of citizenship. On the other hand, nations who are bred on fanaticism and bigotry. Is this a mistaken policy that will lead to further fateful mistakes?

Twenty years ago, at the initiative of the Vatican, the Islamic-Christian dialogue was set up and this still takes place on a regular basis. At the same time, the Orthodox church also has many unofficial and official meetings with Muslims in a mutual attempt to achieve rapprochement and solve differences.

Following the Gulf War, relations between Christians and Muslims have entered a particularly interesting phase. The Pope, in repeated references to Islam, has sought common ground with Christianity to provide the basis for measures which must be taken so that religious freedom can be introduced. There can, of course, be no discussion about rapprochement over dogma which the Muslims would be first to refuse categorically. If they agree to sit around the negotiating table, it is because they seek to derive benefits for their fellow Muslims who live in Europe and this is something they are managing to do to a large extent. Consequently, the aim of the meeting is to have measures taken at a practical level to improve the situation for Christians who are suffering. Christians in Europe have reached the point of even handing over their own churches to Muslims who do not have a church of their own so that they can practise their religion, while in the East persecutions continue. What the end result will be nobody knows. There are legal, political and religious aspects to this matter.

The civilized world cannot accept for much longer the flagrant violation of basic human rights perpetrated by Muslims. Greece, which is in the front line of Europe facing the Islamic East, has every reason to prepare to defend itself and protect its children who, having lived for years in Muslim countries, suddenly saw everything give way under their feet, saw their rights fade away and called into question.

It wasn't always Islam that persecuted us and treated us unjustly. However, it was always the spirit of Islam which inspired the measures against us and it is now time, not only for us, but for all mankind, to stop religious persecution and reestablish peace and harmony throughout the world.

We are on the verge of the third millenium and the world has grown tired of religious wars. We need peace and hope. Religion and its benefits together with love, justice and freedom need to be proclaimed and guaranteed throughout the world. Only then will their existence be justified and firmly established in the conscience of all mankind.

(1) E. Rodinson: The contemporary world of Islam. In "TO VIMA" (Greek Sunday newspaper) 14.7.91
(2) Islam, the Volcano. In "Thessalikes Epiloges" issue 53, p. 19-20
(3) In "TO VIMA" 10.2.91
(4) Greek bulletin "Christianiki" 25.4.1991, p.10
(5) See Greek bulletin "Information" Apri1 1991
(6) "Information" June-July 1991
(7) "Katholiki" 23.7.1991 (newspaper of the Greek Catholics)