The debate over building churches and mosques has escalated recently in several hot spots around the world. Yet this problem is actually as early as the emergence of Islam itself. Based on strict slamic shari’a laws, it is totally forbidden to build a church in “Jazeerat al Arab” which is the Arab peninsula, known today as Saudi Arabia. Any attempts to gather any Christian group to pray are criminalized by law.
The difficulties extend throughout the Middle East. In Cairo, the capital of Egypt, there is strong law hindering the building of churches. To build or even restore a church in Egypt, it is required to have permission from the president of the republic or the governor, which is a very difficult procedure. Egyptian Christians who try to restore any small estate, or even simply a wall attached to a church building,, face violent attacks by people from the surrounding neighborhood. In an incident at Abu Fana Monastery in 2008, three monks were kidnapped and tortured and one Muslim was killed in clashes sparked by building an extension to the monastery wall.
Meanwhile, building mosques in Egypt is very easy and doesn’t need any special licence. Actually, building a mosque will receive support from the ministry of Awqaf (Islamic endowments) by providing water and electricity for free,, on top of other incentives. offered to the builder. Consequently, Cairo which was called in history books, the city of the 1000 minarets, is now, the city of 100,000 minarets!
In the United States, government officials killed the deals to relocate the only church destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. That is, St. Nicolas Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan. The church was completely destroyed under the remains of one of the fallen World Trade Center buildings.
After eight years of trying to build the church again, the negotiations between the Archbishopric of the Greek Orthodox Church of America and the Port Authority reached a dead end. The authorities claimed they want to establish a bomb-proof vehicle platform in the same place, offering to build the church somewhere else far from the original place. The Church upheld the right of having its building in the very same place due to the value of the historic church in this location. The government accepted to relocate the church in the middle of the parking lot, which is not plausible. This struggle has been eclipsed by the controversy over the proposed building of an Islamic institution and mosque, two blocks from the tragic site of the fallen buildings.
These struggles in the Middle East and America can be contrasted to the situation in Europe., Muslim Diaspora communities in Europe freely building mosques and Islamic institutions, and even establish Islamic Sharia courts within their own communities. In cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester, Islamic courts judge between Muslims in personal status issues, instead of using the British law. In Egypt the government has been unable to promulgate a unified law on religious buildings because of the concern to keep the “Islamic face” of Egypt, Yet in England, where the queen is the head of the national church, Islamic law is being applied. As a result, the United Kingdom is facing cultural challenges. For example, Nadia Eweida, a British airways worker and ironically of Egyptian origin, was placed on unpaid leave when she refused either to cover the tiny cross necklace she wore. In the same company Muslim workers are not prevented from wearing the hijab and Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans. I remember in my recent visit to England, an official in Heathrow airport was wearing short trousers and a long beard, according the strictest Sunni Islamic customs.
This cultural discrimination against Christianity in Europe, and particularly in England, became recognized by public figures. The Telegraph newspaper reported that: “No one has been killed or tortured, Rowan Williams and Richard Harries remind us; no one could seriously claim that their lot compares with that of Christians in Iran or Nigeria. But finally even the clergy and the BBC acknowledge that Christians are a target of abuse from a relativist culture that thinks to distinguish between wicked and good is to be judgmental, and to believe in the One True Faith is to be smugly superior. Unless, that is, you are a Muslim and maybe a Jew.”
Allegations of Islamophobia enabled Islamic communities in different western countries to transmit their own culture, including their own ideology, with little resistance. This is despite that fact that the ideology is sometimes not in consistency with the concept of coexistence and integration, acknowledged by European and western values. On the other hand, the historically rooted Christian values and its contribution to establishing the European values of freedom are being suppressed by the very same values because there’s no fear of any Christian or political reaction.. Within this context, we may ask, if it was a mosque instead of the destroyed building of the Orthodox Church in New York, would the government have the same reaction and prefer building a “bomb-proof parking” instead?
Popular frustration and confusion as to how to deal with such cultural challenges has been manifested in the debate for and against the Islamic centre planned to be built two blocks from ground zero. I believe that the problem is that the whole issue is guided by political calculations without a real theological understanding of the ideological, cultural and aims of the different religious communities. Consequently, western societies are unable to understand it or to establish a society that has the capacity of different religious and cultural affiliation without threatening the original identity and principles of the state.
In Russian:Между храмом и мечетью: культура релятивизма