The places of worship of all three Abrahamic religions sit peacefully side-by-side in cities where Islam is the dominant religion, including Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and İstanbul, and the followers of these faiths live together in peace, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu has said.
İhsanoğlu’s remarks came after a controversial statement by Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh, who said in a March fatwa that new church building should be banned in the Gulf region and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed.
“I believe this is a personal opinion rather than being the opinion of a state or an official,” İhsanoğlu said in an interview this week with Today’s Zaman. “It is a historically well-known fact that Islam respects the religions of ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) and their houses of worship.”
İhsanoğlu mentioned a treaty that Caliph Omar had signed with Christians in Jerusalem on the protection of churches, creating a model for the Islamic world of how to treat the houses of worship of other religions. According to him, the Ottomans had adopted the principles laid out in this treaty. “This document outlines the legal framework for the issue,” he said, adding that Islam’s respect of all three faiths is also clearly seen in cities with mostly Muslim inhabitants. “We must keep these beautiful examples in mind.”
Turkey’s head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, Mehmet Görmez, also lashed out at the grand mufti’s call against churches in the Gulf region. Görmez told Today’s Zaman earlier this month that the announcement is in total contradiction to the peaceful teachings of Islam, and he cannot accept the fatwa, as it runs contrary to the centuries-old Islamic teachings of tolerance and the sanctity of institutions belonging to other religions.
He emphasized that Islam has always respected religious freedom. “The opinion of the grand mufti also obviously contradicts the agreements that the Prophet of Islam signed with the non-Muslim communities both in Medina and in the region. It also plainly overlooks the right of immunity given by Islam to the holy shrines and temples of other religions on the basis of the rule of law throughout its history,” Görmez explained.
Görmez slammed Abdulaziz, stating, “We strongly believe that this declaration has left dark shadows upon the concept of rights and freedoms in Islam that have always been observed on the basis of its sources, and it will not be recorded as an opinion of Islam.” He also added, “We, therefore, entirely reject the aforementioned opinion and hope that it will be amended as soon as possible.”
İhsanoğlu: Not Arab Spring but autumn when dictatorships have been toppled
OIC head İhsanoğlu also spoke about the wave of democracy flowing through the Middle East. He said the spring will arrive after a hard-fought struggle for democracy. “I have always argued against this word, spring,” he said. “This was rather the autumn of Arab despots. And during this autumn, despots are going one by one. Spring will come later. This is a long autumn. Later will come a long winter. We have already started experiencing this winter in some countries.”
İhsanoğlu underscored that democracy will not be achieved in a day, and the states already enjoying it have a long and agonizing history behind them. He said Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are on the right path, but it will take time to establish a democratic regime in these states. Speaking about Turkey’s role in the ongoing turmoil in Arab nations, he said the leaders of Islamic states agree that Turkey and its active foreign policy has an important role to play in coming up with solutions during the turmoil.
He further noted that the OIC does not believe the tumult in Syria has a sectarian basis but rather can be classified as the demands of citizens for democratization. “It would be the biggest crime to turn this into a sectarian fight. And it would be the biggest blow dealt to the Syrian people, state and the entire region,” he said. İhsanoğlu also said only the United Nations can impose sanctions to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and the OIC has adopted silent diplomacy to contribute efforts to establish peace in the conflict-stricken nation. He added that the OIC is against an external intervention in Syria. “Because the [results of] external interventions show that they don’t bring solutions and instead lead to further calamity.”