Muslim message for Christians of Nazareth

“And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.”
This stark message, in Arabic and English, greets Christian pilgrims and tourists from all over the world when they ascend to Nazareth’s famous Church of the Annunciation, which is believed to mark the place where the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.  
I took this picture of the banner (with the Church of the Annunciation at the right) in late June during a visit to Nazareth, and I was reminded of it when I read the recent column of Jerusalem Post contributor Ray Hanania who wrote about a Jordanian initiative to convince Christians in the Middle East not to abandon the region where their faith originated.
Hanania notes that “the percentage of Christians among the populations of the Middle East has fallen from 20 percent 100 years ago to about 5% today.”
In his view, “threats from extremists, Jewish and Muslim, who target Christians for their moderate views,” constitute the “biggest threat to the Arab Christian minority.”
Hanania also deplores the weakness of Christian support groups, arguing that “over the past two decades, with the rise of Jewish nationalism in Israel and Islamist politics in the Arab world, Christian organizations have been pushed aside.”
I think Hanania is right to point out that the Christian exodus from the Middle East is unfortunately a widely neglected issue, but I would argue that one reason for this neglect is demonstrated by Hanania himself when he insists on implying a completely disingenuous equivalency between Jewish and Muslim extremists and Jewish nationalism and Islamist politics.
As Hanania knows full well, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has done relatively well in the past six decades, growing from 34,000 in 1948 to some 160,000 today. Quoting a US Department of State report, Giulio Meotti noted in an article aptly entitled “Mideast without Christians” that “the number of Christians in Turkey declined from two million to 85,000; in Lebanon they have gone from 55% to 35% of the population; in Syria, from half the population they have been reduced to 4%; in Jordan, from 18% to 2%. In Iraq, they will be exterminated.”
All too obviously, neither Jewish extremists nor Jewish nationalism are to blame for these developments, which are due to Islamism and the Muslim supremacism that is also reflected in the banner that I photographed in Nazareth. As long as the root cause of a problem is hushed up, it’s hard to tackle the problem effectively.
Inevitably, some well-meaning people will wonder if the banner in Nazareth and its message should perhaps be attributed to some fringe group that is in no way representative of mainstream Muslim beliefs.
If this was the case, I wouldn’t be writing about it. First, it should be noted that the banner was already up in time for this year’s Easter holiday, as documented in a blog post of Elder of Ziyon in April.
The post also links to a story about a previous banner that was displayed in the same place for Christmas 2008. According to a report from the Catholic News Service, “the northern faction of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement changes it [i.e. the banner] every so often with different passages from the Quran.” Nazareth residents and officials apparently feel that as long as these banners do not incite violence, it is better not to react to the provocation that is clearly intended.
No doubt a prudent attitude – and no doubt that if there were comparable banners asserting claims of Christian supremacy near prominent Muslim holy places like the Al Aqsa mosque, any violence that might ensue would be blamed on those who put up the banner.
But let’s have a closer look at the message that is currently displayed in Nazareth: “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.” The banner claims that this is a quote from the Quran, which is confirmed by a website dedicated to explaining Islam to non-Muslims in multiple languages.
Among the many other websites that feature this quote, one goes under the motto “Gain Peace … through islam” [sic], and it breezily asserts that Islam is “the final culmination and fulfillment of the same basic truth that ALLAH (God) revealed through all His prophets to every people;” this also means that “all prophets [specifically Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and Jesus] were indeed MUSLIMS because they were true submitters to the will of ALLAH, the Creator.” [Capitals in the original.]
The group GainPeace describes itself as “a non-profit organization whose main goal is to educate the general public about Islam and to clarify many misconceptions they may hold” – and anyone so inclined can also consult the group’s website in order to clear up any “misconceptions” about Jesus.
Again, this group can hardly be considered a fringe group, since it claims to work “under the umbrella of the Islamic Circle of North America,” which was established in the late 1960s and describes itself as a “leading grassroots organization in the American Muslim community,” though the Anti-Defamation League accuses the group of collaborating in events that promote antisemitism and extremism.
Given the fact that the message of Islamic supremacism that is so provocatively displayed in Nazareth is also extensively featured on mainstream English-language Muslim websites, it is perhaps time to question if it is really so prudent to ignore this message in order to keep up a façade of coexistence. Indeed, a recent Pew survey unsurprisingly found that “Muslim and Western publics continue to see relations between them as generally bad;” rather predictably, the Pew survey also claims that “both sides [are] holding negative stereotypes of the other.”
But it is not a “negative stereotype” to believe that Muslim supremacism is prevalent, because this is an easily documented fact. And even Pew is forced to acknowledge that “as in the past, Muslims express more unfavorable opinions about Christians than Americans or Europeans express about Muslims.” And needless to say, there is “uniformly low” regard for Jews among Muslims.
On the other hand, many Muslims feel “that Americans and Europeans are hostile toward Muslims,” and those who regard relations with the West as bad “overwhelmingly blame the West” – and among Americans and Europeans “significant numbers” actually accept the blame.
Many of the Americans and Europeans that are so eager to take the blame for bad relations with the Muslim world may be secular progressives who don’t care much about religion, and few of them may be aware of the prevalent claim of Islamic supremacy that is reflected in the banner in Nazareth.
But as long as such claims remain part of mainstream Muslim beliefs, Western efforts to improve relations with Muslims will never quite satisfy those who nurture a lingering sense of grievance because Jews and Christians reject the notion that Islam somehow invalidated their faiths and turned their prophets retroactively into Muslims.