The months of July and August (2013) saw terrible violence befall Christians in both Egypt and Syria. It remains to be seen, but Christianity may exterminated from two of its oldest historical homelands within the next several years. The situation for Christians in the Middle East is well past crisis, and is now very dangerous. I have written on this subject before.
The big news over the last several weeks is the many attacks on Egypt’s Christian communities. Several outlets reported that violence by supporters of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi Isa al-Ayyat left dozens of Christian churches and Coptic-owned businesses and properties burnt. Fears of widespread sectarian strife seem to be growing among Egypt’s Christian minority.
The violence against Egypt’s Christians reminds us of the important symbolism of the Prophet Muhammad’s letter to the Christian monks at St. Catherine Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in 628 A.D.
In his letter, Muhammad championed universal peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims. Not only did he outline how Muslims should treat Christians, but Muhammad also touched upon human rights, including freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, and the right to protection in war.
St. Catherine’s is the oldest continuously functioning monastery in the Christian world having been built between 548 and 565 A.D. I visited there as recently as 2010 and can attest that is a special and holy place. The monastery is also the site of the biblical Burning Bush which continues to grow within its walls. St. Catherine’s contains a priceless library of some of the earliest Christian writings as well as iconography that predates the iconoclasm which divided the Christian world in the 700’s and the Muslim conquest of Eqypt that followed.
It is easy to forget that the Middle East is the historical heartland of Christianity and today’s Muslim lands were once Christian lands. Significant Christian minorities continued to exist in almost every country of the Middle East well into the 20th Century.
St. Catherine’s welcomes pilgrims from all over the world, and the monks have preserved Muhammad’s letter which is sealed in a representation of the prophet’s own hand. The Muslim populations of Eqypt have respected their prophet’s command, and for centuries they have generally left St. Catherine’s in peace.
Here is an approximate English translation of the letter:
This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who profess Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily the servants, the helpers, my followers, and I defend them, because Christians are my citizens, and, by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are you to remove their judges from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they’re my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it can’t take place without her approval. No one is to prevent her from visiting her church to pray. You shall respect their churches. You shall neither prevent them from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey this covenant until the Last Day (end of the world).
The attacks by some Egyptian Muslims on their fellow Egyptian Christian citizens is to be condemned, for the simple fact that the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, would have condemned any violence towards Christians. This applies equally to the situation in Syria as well. One can question whether the Muslims responsible for attacks on their Christian neighbors can be true Muslims with the integrity and legitimacy that the name conveys.
May God protect all the Christians of the Middle East, and may He soften the hearts of their Muslim neighbors who know not what they do.
(From the Gospel of St. Luke)
When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” +++