As Pope Francis prepares for his historic first mission to the Holy Land, attacks on Christian sites in the Middle East have reached disturbing proportions.
The recent vandalism by Jewish extremists of Christian institutions in Israel and the anti-Christian bombing and shooting attacks that have taken place in countries across the Arab and Muslim world are growing exponentially. These include: the defacing of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem with graffiti and death threats and a spate of such attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt last year, as well as in other Muslim countries including Sudan, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. These heinous acts targeting Christians and their sacred landmarks are creating a hostile/ Christophobic environment for Christians throughout the Middle East.
While acknowledging the seriousness of the issue of anti-Christian violence, the two of us believe that a clear distinction should be made between those countries which have acknowledged the problem and vowed to overcome it, such as Israel and Egypt, and other countries in the Muslim world where moral indifference has led to deafening silence.
In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly condemned these “price-tag” attacks, calling the violence “outrageous” and pledging to use the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to capture those responsible.
“This is a central goal for us because [the attacks] go against our meaning and our values” Netanyahu said. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni recommended that these attacks be classified and prosecuted as acts of terrorism.
In Egypt, Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi condemned the acts of aggression on Coptic Christian churches saying the violence was a “callous and criminal act,” and vowed perpetrators would be brought to justice. Sheikh Ahmed Tayeb, the top cleric at Al-Azhar University, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, condemned such attacks as “a criminal act that runs contrary to both religion and morals.”
In short, the leaders of Israel and Egypt deserve credit for speaking out in the face of such lurking disaster and by vowing to stop the violent attacks. Egypt and Israel are setting a positive example for many other countries where religious extremism threatens the fabric of society. Needless to say, it is imperative for the Israeli and Egyptian governments to follow up their positive statements by catching the culprits and meting out punishments commensurate with the seriousness of these despicable and heinous crimes.
Muslim and Jewish international groups are doing important work to stand up to such intolerance against Christians. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) which in 2012 co-sponsored the groundbreaking International Conference on Citizenship and Minorities in the Muslim World in Tunis, and has been working ever since with Muslim leaders worldwide to establish consensus on Islamic standards and protocols for the advancement of religious freedom, particularly for religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. The American Jewish Committee has condemned the vandalism of Christian holy sites “as not only an attack on Christianity but also an assault on the noble values of Judaism.”
Finally, amid their justified anger at recent attacks on their brethren in the Middle East, Christians in Europe, North America and elsewhere around the world should remember that attacks on mosques and synagogues in Christian majority countries are an all-too- frequent occurrence and that high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism exist in many Western countries.
Now is the time for the moderate majorities of all three Abrahamic religions to confront the extremists in our respective faiths, speak out in support of freedom of religion, and prevent further attacks on people of faith and houses of worship.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Imam Shamsi Ali is President of the Nusantara Foundation and chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Asean Muslim Federation of North America.
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