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The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) aims to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews is available in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Indonesian and Urdu. To subscribe, click here. For an archive of past CGNews articles, please visit our website at www.commongroundnews.org.
Inside this edition  
19 - 25 January 2010
Brussels needs its own train to Bosnia
by Amir Telibečirović Lunjo
As a new train line reconnecting Sarajevo with Belgrade reopens, journalist and city guide Amir Telibečirović Lunjo examines how previously warring religious communities in Bosnia are coming together amidst some not-so-promising geo-political developments.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 January 2010)
Not so bad for non-Muslims in Morocco
by Mohsine El Ahmadi
In this second article on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities, Georgetown University's Visiting Scholar Mohsine El Ahmadi examines the extent to which Moroccan law and the government's effort to promote multiculturalism is informed by shari'a.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 January 2010)
A lesson on race and religion for Malaysians
by Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Idris
In light of the recent spate of violence in Malaysia over the Christian community's use of the word "Allah", Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Idris, Royal Fellow at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics at the National University of Malaysia, provides examples of more appropriate behaviour from the Prophet Muhammad's own treatment of non-Muslims.
(Source: Sunday Star, 10 January 2010)
Making twins out of synagogues and mosques
by The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organisation dedicated to promoting racial and religious harmony, explains how a unique project connects Jews and Muslims around the world.
(Source: Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, 29 December 2010)
Prophet Muhammad's promise to Christians
by Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan, Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware, takes a step toward Muslim-Christian harmony by telling the story of the Promise to St. Catherine, an "eternal and universal" promise made by Muslims to Christians.
(Source: Altmuslim, 1 January 2010)
Brussels needs its own train to Bosnia
Amir Telibečirović Lunjo
Sarajevo - A previously divided region has a new symbol of hope: the recently reopened train line between Sarajevo and Belgrade. Many young Serbs, Croats and Bosnians who don't remember the Bosnian war of the early 1990s hope to travel on this train, which serves as a physical link between Serbia and Bosnia.

Ironically called the "Dayton Disagreement" by locals, the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the Bosnian War in 1995 encourages the international community, local governments and non-governmental organisations to promote reconciliation between the previously warring communities. The European Union is supposed to take a leading role in the process.

But lately, Bosnians feel that the EU is acting poorly, and that local institutions and individuals are contributing more toward re-integration and reconciliation than the EU. Bosnians' primary concern is the EU's decision in December 2009 to do away with visa requirements for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro visiting other EU countries. This decision excludes Bosnia and Albania, the only countries in the Balkans whose citizens still require visas for EU travel.

While the new rules apply to Albania as well, post-war Bosnia will be more negatively affected. After all, Albania does not have ethnically segregated areas, and its citizens have a common ethnic identity. Regardless of their religion, the majority of the country's citizens declare themselves to be simply Albanians. Furthermore, such a decision by the EU might not seriously affect relations between the Balkan states, but it certainly does not aid in the reconciliation and the re-integration of Bosnia itself, because the country's ethnic and religious composition is much more diverse than Albania's and because Bosnian Muslims see the decision as discriminatory.

The reason is that this new visa rule also allows Bosnian Serbs to have dual citizenship-Serbian and Bosnian, so that they will be able to travel to EU countries without visas. Similarly, Bosnian Croats, who have had the right to dual citizenship for years-Croatian and Bosnian-can already travel across Europe freely.

But Bosnian Muslims, ethnically identified as Bosniaks, and other minority groups in Bosnia who can only carry Bosnian passports, now feel isolated and even frustrated by such rules.

Some local politicians are even afraid this might lead to more tensions in some already divided areas of Bosnia. What many people may not know is that the Croats, Serbs and Muslims of Bosnia are basically one folk. We have the same language, same race and, essentially, the same country of origin. Only our religion is distinct. But even religious distinctions in Bosnia are based more on cultural differences rather than spiritual, dogmatic or theological aspects.

EU politicians in Brussels claim their decision was made based on the levels of corruption in the Bosnian and Albanian governments, although rumours and accusations of corruption in Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia's governments are just as rife. They also claim that Bosnia did not fulfil all the conditions for becoming a visa-free regime, such as the introduction of biometric travel documents, better border controls and stronger enforcement against organised crime and corruption. But according to the Slovenian representatives in the EU council, the other three did not fulfil all these conditions either.

While there is fear that the new law will heighten tensions between the various religious groups in Bosnia, due to what many Bosniaks feel is religious discrimination toward them and preferential treatment for others, there are some surprising and positive examples of cooperation that are emerging in light of these new regulations: many pro-Bosnian Serbs and Croats who feel solidarity with Bosniaks and with Bosnia are openly criticising the EU's new regulation as an act of discrimination and calling for its reassessment.

Thankfully, in this post-war region, it is this kind of action that demonstrates that we can stand together in the face of adversity. And, as we make our way through this struggle for equal recognition of all Bosnians, that is what we need to remind us that inside, we are basically all the same.


* Amir Telibecirovic Lunjo is a journalist for the Sarajevo-based weekly magazine Start BiH, and a local city guide. This article first appeared in North Carolina's News Observer and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Not so bad for non-Muslims in Morocco
Mohsine El Ahmadi
Washington, DC - Many people wonder what relevance shari'a-Islamic principles- has in the modern world. In Morocco it has influenced national laws, especially the civil code and family law, primarily in a positive sense. Coupled with the country's tradition of tolerance and openness, this has provided the Moroccan government with a foundation for protecting the rights of religious minorities within its borders.

King Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999, made a strategic decision to introduce democratic reforms and restructure the legal system so that Morocco can move toward becoming an inclusive, multi-religious society, one which better adheres to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is partly dedicated to progress on religious freedom.

This decision resulted in the adoption of an official agenda known as the "Reformation of [the] Religious Field" in 2004 by the King, who then delegated carrying out this reform to the Minister of Endowment and Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Tawfik.

The goal of this new policy was expressed in the King's address to the nation on 31 July 2009 in which he distinguished between Islam and politics.

An exception is made, however, for his own role as both the head of state and Commander of Faithful, a religious title inherited from the earlier days of Islam and which makes the Moroccan king the eminent representative for both Muslims and religious minorities living in Morocco. Accordingly, Articles 6 and 19 of the Constitution state that the King's role is to protect the Muslim identity of the Moroccan people, while respecting the rights of religious minorities.

Morocco has a long tradition of religious freedom, evident by its longstanding Jewish community. Today, this community exists alongside a nascent Christian one. Continuing his efforts to affirm the value of a pluralistic society, King Mohammed VI encouraged those of all faiths in Morocco to draw on this tradition at a September 2009 conference called "Seeking Enlightened Islam: the Golden Age of Monotheism".

Precise information on the religious makeup of Morocco is difficult to find, but according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Muslims represent nearly 99 per cent of the population. Estimates put Christians at under one per cent and Jews at about 0.2 per cent. Most of the Christians are Europeans or Sub-Saharan African students working and living in big cities like Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakesh. Analysts estimate that about 5,000 Moroccans have converted to Christianity in the past five years, due to evangelical Christians' increased proselytising and their outreach to the young and the poor.

However, there is no official Moroccan data on this issue since the government does not gather data on religious affiliation in its census.

In accordance with Article 18 of the UDHR, which states that everyone has the right to publicly practice his or her religion, Morocco has 10 functional synagogues and 16 churches in which Jews and Christians can publicly practice their faith without any interference. Hindus and Buddhists also have holy shrines in Rabat and Casablanca.

The law protects these religious spaces from violence. Most importantly, laws allowing freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the ability to worship both privately and publicly, are clearly stated in the Constitution and the Penal Code, both of which were written shortly after Morocco's independence in 1956.

Morocco's approximately 3,000 Shi'ites generally assemble freely, and have established organisations like the Organisation of Moroccan Shi'ites, Attawassoul Association in the city of al Housseima, Al Inbiaat Association in Tangier, and Al Ghadir Association in Meknes. Nor have they experienced any problems with holding their rituals publicly.

And for many years, Jews have been practicing their faith safely in synagogues and during regular pilgrimages to local Jewish saints' shrines all over Morocco. The Christian community has established churches, schools, hospitals and orphanages without interference from the government.

The Catholic Archbishop of Rabat, Vincent Landel, says: "Muslims and Christians coexist and live in peace and fraternity." Although active proselytising to Muslims is illegal-a law based on Islamic principles-Archbishop Landel notes that Christians in the country can practice their faith freely. Furthermore, interfaith marriage is allowed, though only for Muslim men: Muslim women's future spouses are expected to convert to Islam before marriage.

The government tries to maintain and promote positive attitudes regarding religious freedom. It is this peaceful co-existence between religious communities that Morocco hopes to perpetuate in order to be a positive example to the rest of the Muslim world.


* Dr. Mohsine El Ahmadi is Professor of Sociology at the Cadi Ayyad University of Marrakech and currently a Visiting Scholar at Prince AlWaleed Bin Talal for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. This article is part of a series on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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A lesson on race and religion for Malaysians
Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Idris
Kuala Lumpur - A new year begins, but last year's "1Malaysia" campaign, which promotes multiculturalism and understanding between religious and ethnic communities throughout Malaysia, is still going strong.

The mere need for this kind of public campaign for unity and the recent violence marking the beginning of this year both suggest that something is seriously wrong in Malaysia: we have become obsessed with petty issues regarding race and religion.

Last year, Muslims brought a cow's severed head to a mosque to show their anger over the building of a nearby Hindu temple. And a few weeks ago, incendiary devices were thrown into churches-the Metro Tabernacle Church in Kuala Lumpur, the Assumption Church, the Life Chapel Church and The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church-all in Petaling Jaya, a small town near Kuala Lumpur, following the controversy over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians in Malaysia.

It seems as though we are facing a solid wall of bigotry that stems from ignorance, intolerance, suspicion, a shunning of our own neighbours and, yes, even hatred.

And yet, it is written in the Qur'an: "And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender." (29:46).

In his own lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad dealt with Christians justly. He ordered two of his followers-Abu Musa Al-Ash'aree and Mu'aadh ibn Jabal-to go to Najran (part of present-day Yemen) to speak to the Christians there. This is recorded in the following hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad: "Facilitate things for the people, and do not make things difficult for them, and give them glad tidings, and let them not have aversion and you should both work in cooperation and mutual understanding; obey each other."

After the Prophet Muhammad's death, Caliph Omar bin Khattab signed a peace treaty with the Christians of Jerusalem, which stated: "This is the protection which the servant of God, Omar, the Ruler of the Believers has granted to the people of Jerusalem. The protection is for their lives and properties, their churches and crosses, their sick and healthy and for all their co-religionists. Their churches shall not be used for habitation, nor shall they be demolished, nor shall any injury be done to them or to their compounds, or to their crosses, nor shall their properties be injured in any way. There shall be no compulsion for these people in the matter of religion, nor shall any of them suffer any injury on account of religion."

But with so many problems arising between Malaysia's religious communities, it seems that we have forgotten the high status afforded to non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, by our Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Ironically, in an age when there is so much information available to us via television and the Internet that could serve to break down barriers, we have become more paranoid than ever.

As fellow citizens, we can choose to see what we have in common or we can just focus on the differences. We can choose to remain ignorant about others or we can ask for guidance from our religious leaders and officials to help us broaden our perspective.

We have a lot to be thankful for. Our country is not at war. There are no air raids, no missiles, no bombs showering down on us. Most families have enough to eat decent meals. We have no shortage of petrol. Our homes remain intact. Is it because we do not have a common enemy that we have the time and energy to destroy places of worship?

Our country is not at war, and our people should not be either. Let us remind ourselves and each other that the Muslim greeting, or salam, is short for "May Peace Be Upon You".


* Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Idris is Royal Fellow at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics at the National University of Malaysia and Chairperson of the Community Services Committee of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at thestar.com.my.

Source: Sunday Star, 10 January 2010, thestar.com.my
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Making twins out of synagogues and mosques
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding
Paris - At a time when many have despaired of hope for Jewish-Muslim understanding due to the ongoing impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nearly 200 Muslims and Jews gathered in Paris recently to say: "Now is the time to build ties of friendship and understanding between our faiths for the sake of our children and children's children."

A mixed audience of rabbis, imams and Muslim and Jewish activists from around Europe and the United States gathered on the evening of 8 December at the glittering City Hall of the 16th Arondissement to hear this inspiring message of hope at the first annual dinner gala of the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Society of France (AJMF).

The keynote speaker at the event was Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), which is working to create a worldwide movement of Muslims and Jews committed to communication, reconciliation and cooperation. He praised the pioneering work of Rabbi Michel Serfaty of the AJMF, which last month brought together 30 mosques and 30 synagogues in France to take part in the FFEU-sponsored 2nd Annual Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues Across North America and Europe.

The programme, which began on 13 November 2009 and continued through the end of December, involved 120 one-on-one "twinning" events between mosques and synagogues in the United States, Canada, and eight European countries.

Rabbi Schneier spoke of the efforts of Rabbi Serfaty and AJMF, which for the past five years have sent a coterie of activists on a "Tour de France" bus trip to communities across France and nearby countries where Muslims and Jews live in uneasy proximity and where many attacks against Jews have taken place, in order to open lines of communication and combat fear.

He said, "At a time when the conventional wisdom says that our two peoples must live in perpetual conflict, Rabbi Serfaty and the AJMF are showing that there is another, much better way. We are gratified that this is happening not only in France, where conflict between Muslims and Jews has been especially intense, but across North America and Europe as well. In the spirit of Chanukah [better known as Hanukkah], let us keep aglow the light of caring and understanding and allow that light to guide the reconciliation and cooperation of Muslims and Jews worldwide, including [in] the Middle East."

The gala was co-sponsored by the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF, an umbrella body of French Jewish organisations), the Great Mosque of Paris and the Rabbinate of Greater Paris. Attending the gathering were top leaders of the European Jewish Congress and European imams and rabbis from France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Belgium, who previously held successful Weekend of Twinning events in their respective countries.

The event was both a celebration of what FFEU and its European partners have accomplished together during the past year and an opportunity to chart future FFEU work with Jewish and Muslim leaders in the years ahead.

Rabbi Schneier sees Europe as a vital region in the global initiative by Muslims and Jews dedicated to communication, reconciliation and cooperation: "We have begun a process that defies some common stereotypes yet represents a rising tide of grass roots sentiments in both the Muslim and Jewish communities worldwide."

Noting that FFEU's outreach has helped to trigger a significant warming of Jewish-Muslim relations in France, which had deteriorated to a dangerous degree in the wake of the 2009 Gaza War, Rabbi Schneier said, "We hope to be able to achieve similar results in other important European countries like Britain, Germany and Italy in 2010".


* The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (www.ffeu.org), a non-profit organisation under the leadership of Rabbi Marc Schneier, President, and Russell Simmons, Chairman, is dedicated to promoting racial harmony and strengthening inter-group and inter-religious relations. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Source: Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, 29 December 2010, www.ffeu.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Prophet Muhammad's promise to Christians
Muqtedar Khan
Newark, Delaware - Muslims and Christians together constitute over 50 percent of the world. If they lived in peace, we would be halfway to world peace. One small step we can take towards fostering Muslim-Christian harmony is to tell and retell positive stories and abstain from mutual demonisation.

I propose to remind both Muslims and Christians about a promise that the Prophet Muhammad made to Christians. The knowledge of this promise can have enormous impact on Muslim conduct towards Christians. Muslims generally respect the precedent of their prophet and try to practice it in their lives.

In 628 AD, a delegation from St. Catherine's Monastery came to the Prophet and requested his protection. He responded by granting them a charter of rights, which I reproduce below in its entirety. St. Catherine's Monastery is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai in modern-day Egypt and is the world's oldest monastery. It possesses a huge collection of Christian manuscripts, second only to the Vatican, and is a world heritage site. It also boasts the oldest collection of Christian icons. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1,400 years under Muslim protection.

The Promise to St. Catherine:

"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed 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 are 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. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."

The first and the final sentence of the charter are critical. They make the promise eternal and universal. Muhammad asserts that Muslims are with Christians near and far, straight away rejecting any future attempts to limit the promise to St. Catherine alone. By ordering Muslims to obey it until the Day of Judgment the charter again undermines any future attempts to revoke the privileges.

These rights are inalienable.

Muhammad declared Christians, all of them, as his allies and he equated ill treatment of Christians with violating God's covenant.

A remarkable aspect of the charter is that it imposes no conditions on Christians for enjoying its privileges. It is enough that they are Christians. They are not required to alter their beliefs, they do not have to make any payments and they do not have any obligations. This is a charter of rights without any duties.

The document is not a modern human rights treaty but, even though it was penned in 628 AD, it clearly protects the right to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work, and security of the person.

I know most readers must be thinking, "So what?"

Well the answer is simple: those who seek to foster discord among Muslims and Christians focus on issues that divide and emphasise areas of conflict. But when resources such as Muhammad's promise to Christians is invoked and highlighted, it builds bridges.

It inspires Muslims to rise above communal intolerance and engenders goodwill in Christians who might be nursing fear of Islam or Muslims.

When I look at Islamic sources, I find in them unprecedented examples of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. They make me want to become a better person. I think the capacity to seek good and do good is inherent in all of us. When we subdue this predisposition towards the good, we deny our fundamental humanity.

Following this holiday season, I hope all of us can find time to look for something positive and worthy of appreciation in the values, cultures and histories of other peoples.


* Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Altmuslim.com.

Source: Altmuslim.com, 1 January 2010, www.altmuslim.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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