National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

Christians, Muslims fear Iraq war’s religious impact

Religion News Service

People in Baghdad may have danced in the streets over the fall of Saddam Hussein, but here in another corner of the Middle East, Muslim and Christian Palestinians are reacting very differently to the rapid course of the U.S. victory over Iraq.

Many Muslims still see the invasion as an illicit move by the Christian world against Islam, while Christians fear that the war’s outcome will, over the long term, threaten the security and stability of Christian communities throughout the Middle East.

“The results are very surprising. People here are confused,” said Adnan Husseini, a senior official in the Islamic Trust administration that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. “In the media we have seen that they are happy for a few hours, but when they look at this more deeply, I think their thoughts will change. It will take them tens of years for them to restore their country and their future.

“People feel that under the title of a fight against terrorism, this is a war against Islam. Rather than trying to understand us, the West is trying to exert its power over us.”

President Bush’s continued use of religious terminology to describe the conflict in Iraq has contributed to that sense that the war is a confrontation between the Islamic East and the Judeo-Christian West, said Mustapha Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic thought at Al Kuds University.

“At an appearance at a military camp in Florida, he used the term ‘day of judgment’ in reference to Saddam Hussein,” remarked Abu Sway. “In the same speech, he talked about peace through power, which is another biblical reference. Language like that, along with his reference once earlier to Crusades, really has a bad effect on people.

“Certainly no one thinks that the war is being waged to liberate the Iraqi people from dictators. They think it is being done for the sake of oil, and also for the sake of Israel.”

The fact that Iraq’s population is 60 percent Shiite Muslim will pose a dilemma for the United States if it seeks to promote a genuinely representative form of government, he said.

Iraqi Shiite religious centers like Najaf and Karbala represent the centers of Shiite history and tradition, and the places to which leading Shiite families and scholars trace their origins all the way back to the family of the Prophet Mohammed.

“So if you are talking about real democracy, Iraq will become a Shiite government, and I am not sure that the U.S. will go for that.”

Following Sept. 11, many religious leaders in the Muslim world began to support religious dialogue for the first time ever, Sway said. Mainstream religious leaders began to understand the need to explain Islam to the West. But the recent war in Iraq may set back some of those efforts.

“Even in Saudi Arabia, there had been a clear effort in this direction. Many scholars became involved, there were many conferences,” Sway said. “The war will not bring an end to dialogue. But definitely it is a setback.”

That is precisely what concerns many local churches of the region, where the continued survival of tiny Christian communities in a sea of Islam depends on Muslim-Christian goodwill and dialogue.

The Iraqi situation provided ample grist for many Easter sermons. The Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land, describes the Iraqi war as a symbolic “stone” standing before Jesus’ tomb.

“It is huge and heavy,” Younan said in the published text of his sermon. “It is creating a big divide between cultures. Some say, ‘This is a religious mission to liberate Iraq.’ Others say, ‘It is a religious task to fight the invaders.’ It seems that some like to read the war as a fight among religions. What will happen with Christian-Muslim relations that we have built?”

At the height of the war, the Greek Orthodox official in charge of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Archimandrite Panaritos, declared Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Minister Jack Straw, would be denied entrance to the Church of the Nativity “from now until eternity.”

Given the sense of vulnerability felt in the Holy Land by Christian religious minorities, who often find themselves sandwiched between far more militant Jews and Muslims, the antiwar position articulated by Pope John Paul II was a received as source of satisfaction and relief.

“Everybody appreciated the stand and the position of the pope,” said Ramzi Zananiri, head of the International Council of Churches, a local ecumenical body. “Similarly, the grand mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Tantawi, was very clear when he made a very strong statement saying that this is not a religious war between Christians and Muslims.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: