by Habeeb Salloum

Is Islam a terrorist religion? I would say after the terrible carnage in New York and Washington and the immediate association by the media of Islam to terrorism, most people in the North America will make that connection. However, this ghastly event should not blind us to the fact that basic Islam, has historically been a very tolerant religion.

The fanaticism of Ben Laden is the creation of U.S foreign policy, a fact that many people in the West do not realize or if they do, are silent. During the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA trained Ben Laden and thousands of other Muslim fanatics, many who had not been able to topple their own governments, to fight Communism. They were then armed with the best of weapons and were able to defeat the Russian in Afghanistan, but in the aftermath, managed to destroy Afghanistan as well.

A good number of these now truly fanatical fighters returned to their home countries, like Algeria, Egypt and Yemen, and tried - and are still trying - to topple their own governments. However, these, who have come to be known as "Afghan Arabs", and their converts are very few in number. The vast overwhelming number of Muslims are like those who welcomed Pope John Paul II to Syria. Hospitable, compassionate and tolerant, they have very little hatred in their hearts. During the past century, the mass of suffering the West has inflicted on Muslims, especially the Arabs, has given them reason to hate. Yet, only a few have developed blind hatred - the vast majority are like those the Pope found when visiting Syria.

In May 2001, barefoot as all other pilgrims who enter a Muslim house of worship, Pope John Paul II walked through Damascus's Umayyad Mosque. It is the first time in history that a Pope has set foot in a Muslim house of worship. For this, he chose an ideal country in which to visit a mosque. The Syrians are truly proud of the equality the country offers its many varied sects and religions.

No doubt the Pope's main interest was, not only a dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but to visit the chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist housed in the prayer room inside the splendid Umayyad mosque. The Muslims, who also venerate Saint John the Baptist, one of the prophets mentioned in the Koran under the name Yahya, have preserved his tomb inside the mosque from the time that the structure was built.

The Pontiff entered the courtyard of the mosque accompanied by the Syrian Greek-Melkite Archbishop Isidore Battikha and a series of other Christian leaders to meet the Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, Syria's most senior cleric, and other Muslim religious leaders. Together, the Pope and Grand Mufti were expected to hold a joint prayer. However, because of religious sensitivities in some of the countries in the Muslim world this was cancelled. Yet, it is the first time ever that a leader of the Catholic Church has set foot in an Islamic house of worship.

During this extraordinary event, the Pope emphasized the historic coexistence between the world's two great monotheistic religions in a country that has been a model for religious tolerance throughout history. The meeting of the Christian and Muslim leaders inside the Mosque that day, shown on world-wide television, emphasized the fact that Syria is considered to be one of the most accepting countries in the world when it comes to the coexistence of religions.

Sheikh Salah Kuftaro, son of the Grand Mufti of Syria, and a recent participant at the UN's World Millennium Peace Conference announced last year in the "Sunday's Hour of Power" broadcast, hosted by Rev. Robert Schuller and carried by some 200 stations in the United States, that the entire population of Syria - seventeen million people - could be considered Christians. He explained: "Unless we Muslims believe in the sacredness of the message of Jesus Christ in it's genuine core in the way that it was revealed from God, we would not be considered as Muslims."

He went on to articulate further. "We do not discriminate between a Muslim and a Christian. The Prophet Muhammad says about the people of the Holy Book that our rights are their rights and our duties and their duties are the same. He didn't say Muslims only, or the Christians, or the Jews. All creatures are God's dependents. None of you is a believer unless he loves for his brother fellow human that which he loves for himself. This is our doctrine."

Sheikh Salah Kuftaro's words are not just platitudes. In today's Syria, there is a harmonious cohabitation of more then 20 sects, factions, churches, groups, and religions. The Antiochian Orthodox Church, formerly the Greek Orthodox Church of Syria, represents about half of the 1 to 2 million Syrian Christians. It is the main Christian sect remaining from the 300 years of Christian Syria and the 400 years when Christians under Muslim rule formed the majority of the inhabitants.

Besides the Orthodox, there are a myriad of Christian sects from Jacobites and Latin Catholics to Protestants and countless others. They live mostly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, forming a little less than 10 percent of the population, but they exercise an influence much out of proportion to their numbers.

The country's innumerable churches, convents, monasteries and shrines have come through the ages remarkably unscathed. Christian religious edifices have existed in peace for hundreds of years next door to mosques. The great Convent of Saydnaya 37 km (23 mi) north of Damascus is venerated by both Christians and Muslims and the historic churches of Maloula, an Aramaic speaking town 60 km (37 mi) from Damascus, have flourished throughout the Muslim centuries.

With this strong Christian connection to Syria, it s no wonder that the Pope was more than pleased with his historic journey to that country. He, like many in Syria, believe that Christian history still lives in this ancient Biblical land. To people all over the globe, who watched the event on television, as the Pope was chaperoned inside the splendid Umayyad Mosque by the Grand Mufti of Syria and the Greek-Melkite Archbishop of Syria, the country's religious tolerance became much better known and no doubt appreciated.

A Christian Pope and a Muslim Grand Mufti visiting together the Tomb of Saint John the Baptist - sacred to both Christians and Muslims - truly emphasized and made more obvious the religious tolerance in Syria.

Let us remember that a handful of terrorists who have ripped havoc in the U.S.A. do not represent the 1.2 billion Muslims of this world. When we see people that "look like" Arabs or Muslims in this country, let us not forget that from the inception of Islam to the present these people have been tolerant of other religions. Ask the Pope after his visit to Damascus!
Habeeb Salloum is a writer living in Ontario, Canada.


Home Page | Al-Hewar Center | Calendar | Magazines | Subscriptions | Feedback | Advertising About Us
Copyright 2001 Al-Hewar Center, Inc. All rights reserved.

For more information, please
contact Al-Hewar via e-mail