x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Muslim leaders to address sectarianism at capital forum

The Muslim world's parliamentary chiefs will defend the rights of Christian minorities and denounce sectarianism at a summit in Abu Dhabi next week.

ABU DHABI // The chiefs of Muslim parliaments will gather in the capital early next week as the Islamic world grapples with a rise in sectarian tension and political turmoil, and formulates how it should respond.

Parliamentary leaders will defend the rights of Christian minorities in the Muslim world, a call that has gained added urgency after a recent attack on a church in Alexandria that claimed the lives of 21 Coptic Christians and injured scores more.

"We have to treat everyone as regular citizens with rights, and the right to choose their religion without interference," said Abdulaziz al Ghurair, the speaker of the Federal National Council.

"We are against terrorism," he said, adding that Muslim countries must also reject "sectarianism in conflicts between citizens".

Al Qa'eda has pledged to attack Christian communities throughout the Middle East.

Muslim leaders from 51 countries will gather for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Abu Dhabi from Sunday to Wednesday, along with international observers from the Arab League and International Parliamentary Union. The speakers of parliament are expected to approve the creation of a committee to resolve disputes between Muslim nations, a measure that Iran has previously opposed.

The OIC has identified 242 minor and major conflicts between Muslim countries, one of which is the Islamic Republic's occupation of three UAE islands.

Iran has repeatedly rejected calls for international arbitration or direct negotiations on the matter.

One proposal under consideration is the establishment of an Islamic court to arbitrate between Muslim nations.

The speakers will also identify ways to press for Muslim opposition to measures that lead to greater Israeli influence in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their future capital.

"[We should] go to every continent to gather support and our decisions must be heard everywhere," said Mr al Ghurair.

Parliamentary diplomacy could play a role in promoting Palestinian interests by making the position of Muslims around the world known to an international audience, he said, including the Palestinian Authority's efforts to seek international recognition without negotiating with Israel.

Israel's failure to extend a partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, in addition to East Jerusalem, led to the collapse of direct negotiations last year.

Muslim parliaments also want to present a unified front on Sudan. Mr al Ghurair said the intention was not to try to influence the outcome of the referendum, which is taking place this week, but to promote a "calm", regardless of whether the south secedes.

But some Islamic scholars are sceptical that the high-level meetings will result in any tangible benefits for the Muslim world.

"The Islamic world is at its weakest point in history, said Dr Ahmed al Kubaisi, a professor of Sharia studies at UAE University. "It is an easy target for all governments in the world because everyone has a benefit in the Islamic world, and they are taking it."

He said the Muslim world did not really have the power to make any changes in their own affairs. But at least leaders could "diagnose" some of the problems.

Dr al Kubaisi said sectarian tensions should be discussed more openly.

"Decades ago in countries like Egypt, Morocco and Yemen, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peace and worked with one another harmoniously," said Dr Khaled AbdelAlim, an Islamic preacher who has his own Islamic television show.

"So what happened now?"