Can Christianity and Islam co-exist?

Published September 1, 1998

News of the murder of three Roman Catholic nuns in an Islamic nation, Yemen, prompted an unexpected moment of silence at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference’s plenary session on Christian-Muslim relations.

As he began his address, Bishop Nazir-Ali of Rochester, England, formerly of Pakistan, told the session, “We have just had news that three nuns, Missionaries of Charity, have been killed in Yemen, so before we begin, let us be silent for a moment.” Mother Teresa founded the order, which is based in India.

The deaths formed a harsh backdrop to the opening of the plenary session, designed to outline some of the challenges, but also the successes in Christian-Islam relations.

Bishop Nazir-Ali told the plenary Anglicans are interested in interfaith issues because “Islam and Christianity are both missionary faiths and they find themselves in the same place and at the same time, and that means they are sometimes in competition with one another particularly in Africa, and in East Asia, but in nearly every part of the world,” said Bishop Nazir-Ali.

He reminded the plenary of the long history of Christian-Islamic relations. “The Prophet himself had very close relationships with Christians and Jews. Some were among his closest friends and colleagues.” Given “such a long history of co-existence and co-operation in culture and learning and political life, what then has gone wrong?” he asked.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism was a key factor, he said. Fundamentalism had grown, he suggested, as a reaction to colonialism, corrupt leaders, the failure of capitalism and civil wars.

The plenary then heard stories of inter-faith tension and co-operation from Africa, Britain and the Middle East. Bishop Tilewa Johnson of Gambia described his overwhelmingly Muslim country – 95 per cent Muslim – three per cent Christian. Bishop Johnson described his country as a secular state “with freedom of religion enshrined in the constitution,” where “Christians and Muslims attend each other’s weddings and funerals.” Intermarriage occurs, and “within the extended family there can be both religous communities,” he said. “All state functions are preceded with prayers by leaders of both religious communities.”

In Nigeria, it’s a different story. Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna Diocese in Nigeria said in the middle region and in the north of his country, “Christians have no rights.”

“Provision is not made for Christian education in the state schools. The public propagation of the Gospel by the media is prohibited, he said.

“There is serious enmity or hatred, deep hatred, between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, especially in the middle part of the country … We’ve lost more than 10,000 lives in the name of religion and more thousands have been displaced … and millions of dollars of property lost in the name of religion.”

A bishop from the Middle East told a somewhat more encouraging story. The 2,000-year presence of Arab Christians in the Holy Land is “nothing less than an awesome achievement,” Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal of Jerusalem told the plenary. But after 150 years of living under “a superimposed Western veneer,” Arab Christians number barely 1.5 per cent of the population of Palestine and Israel.

“Our mere physical presence is at stake,” he said, a situation that demands the attention of the Anglican Communion, “lest the Holy Land become a museum of holy stones.”

During 1,300 years of “daily living dialogue” with Muslims, there have been instances of discrimination and persecution, but despite these difficulties, “we became accustomed to living with them, and they learned to appreciate our presence among them.”

Muslims in Palestine, he noted, historically were “more tolerant of religious pluralism than their European counterparts,” and enabled a more lasting peace during their dominance of the Mediterranean basin than was the case under Christian or Jewish rule. In Pakistan, Bishop Alexander John Malik of Lahore pointed out that religious pluralism is not a welcome concept in most Muslim circles.

While a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman, the reverse is out of the question. It’s okay for a Christian to convert to Islam, but not for a Muslim to become a Christian. “Apostasy in Islam is a grave sin and an apostate is liable to be killed,” said Bishop Malik. “There is no freedom of religion/conversion in Islam.”

Anglican leaders from Egypt and England told how Christianity can co-operate with Islam despite the best efforts of extremists.

President Bishop Ghais Malik of Egypt told “how the Christian minority live among the Muslim majority” in Egypt and the Middle East. He stressed that “through the centuries Christians and Muslims have lived together, during times of joy and times of trouble. They faced wars together, and so fought together, died together and survived together.”

Bishop Malik went on to address the issue of persecution. He drew attention to events of the past few years when “churches were burnt down, Christians were killed, Christian shops were raided and burgled,” when claims of persecution were made. But, he said, “this was not a direct attack against Christians for their own sake, but an attempt by the terrorists to shake the stability of the country, hoping thereby to bring down the government and rule themselves.”

Referring to these situations, Bishop Malik remarked that “these terrorists convince themselves and try to convince others that they are following the Koran.”

The final speaker of the plenary was English Bishop David Smith of Bradford. He expressed his hope that the story of his central English diocese would “encourage and offer opportunity for challenge to others.”

Bishop Smith told how Muslims in Bradford “look to the bishop as a spiritual leader, since it is his responsibility to ensure people’s rights.” This focus comes out of the Muslims’ sense that they are “in a strange land.”

Bishop Smith identified several policies established “to develop and foster good relations.” These are “to encourage people to meet, to build up a sense of trust and respect for those who are different, and to fight against “Islamophobia” where Islam is misrepresented.”


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