x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A 'salam', a wedding and a lesson in religious tolerance

I have seen the plight of the Middle East's Christian population first hand. Over the years, I have watched Arab Christians come under threat in conflict zones such as Iraq, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon.

I spoke to him in Polish and told him that I grew up in Saudi Arabia. He smiled and said: "Salam alaykum." That was His Holiness, Pope John Paul II. When he switched to Arabic, he bridged with words two worlds that have not always understood or tolerated each other. That single greeting also won over my Muslim friends. They had come with me to shake the hand of a man they had grown up seeing on TV. I too had grown up seeing him, or rather images of him, everywhere in our house in Poland. There was one particularly cherished photograph of His Holiness standing next to a well-dressed young girl - my mother.

John Paul II fought for greater understanding between the faiths. A new Pope has sought to pick up where his predecessor left off. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the plight of Christians in this region, who are usually ignored, if not persecuted, during a recent trip to Cyprus. Sadly, the trip and his message were overshadowed by the murder of a bishop in Turkey. I have seen the plight of the Middle East's Christian population first hand. Over the years, I have watched Arab Christians come under threat in conflict zones such as Iraq, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon.

On the Arab side of my family, Christian relatives left Lebanon during the civil war and settled in France. The war is over, yet they only come back for visits. Sadly, they feel safer and more at home in France. When they come back, they get boxed into a stereotype the second they open their mouths. "We can succeed outside the Middle East as we are not judged on our faith, but on our work." That is what several of my family members say when they decide to move to more tolerant countries like Canada.

Even within my family, the religious divides were not always easily bridged. It was a gradual process of acceptance and tolerance between the Christian, Muslims and other religions introduced through marriage or even conversion. It was and remains a struggle. Weddings in particular seem to trigger reminders of the divisions that exist even within the same religion. Sunnis, Shiites and even the Sufis have begun debating events that took place over a thousand years ago. Of course, given that it is ancient history and faith is, well, faith, there are no winners in that debate.

The Christian family members sat quietly watching us fight. I wondered then that if this small group of Muslims could not get along, then how were we going to get along with other religions? My grandmother as usual came to the rescue and silenced everyone with a simple reminder: "We are all family; and all religions, regardless of how and who they worship, stress the importance of family." I have a mixed religious background, and have gone on all types of religious pilgrimages. All of them are the same at its foundation. But I know that it is not always easy to remember or accept that we are one human race regardless of faith, colour or location.

When I was in Mecca, covering the Haj, I was told a story by a Saudi religious historian. The Prophet Mohammed had found a painting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary inside the Kaaba. He blurred their faces in accordance with Islamic tradition, but left the painting inside unharmed. Of course, I wanted proof. I wanted to see the painting with my own eyes. But it apparently was lost when the Kaaba caught fire, decades, if not hundreds of years ago.

But there are many other examples of the Prophet urging his followers to be tolerant of others, particularly the "people of the Book". In the same way, there are examples of great Muslim leaders allowing the followers of other religions to live in peace and worship freely. As the Muslim scholar Bukhari related in a hadith, the Prophet warned: "He who harms a non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim state, I am his adversary, and I shall be his adversary on the Day of Judgment."

rghazal@thenational.ae