Across battlelines of faith in Mideast, acts of harmony

Three prominent leaders – two Shiite ayatollahs and a Palestinian scholar – defy religious intolerance with bold acts of understanding toward the 'enemy.'

AP Photo
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, meets with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered and influential Shiite cleric, in the sacred city of Najaf, Iraq, on July 24.

Keeping harmony between religious groups in the Middle East has never been easy. But with the region now witnessing two wars largely over faith differences, it is worth noting a few individuals bridging this divide with understanding and compassion.

First, in Iraq. The militant Sunni group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has taken over cities and proceeded to kill or expel thousands of religious minorities. Christians have been ordered to convert to Islam; if they don’t, the militants say, “there is nothing to give them but the sword.” Shiites, especially imams who refuse to hand over their mosques, have been summarily executed. The group, which now calls itself Islamic State, threatens to take the rest of Iraq, which is largely Shiite.

To counter this threat, the most respected grand ayatollah on the Shiite side of Islam, Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa last month to all Iraqis – of any faith – to resist Islamic State. He said Sunnis are not only like family to Shiites but the “same as ourselves.”

He has also worked behind the scenes to reform the elected government in Baghdad to make it more inclusive, pluralist, and democratic. He seeks to keep Iraq whole and under secular rule.

In past provocations of violence by Iraqi Sunnis, Mr. Sistani has called for a peaceful response by Shiites. He has kept close ties with Sunni scholars. And he practices what is called “quietism,” or avoiding the kind of clerical rule over government followed by ayatollahs in Iran. Instead, he regards the role of Muslim religious figures as mainly providing spiritual and moral guidance.

Next, to the Palestinian territories.

The missile war begun by the radical Islamic group Hamas in Gaza against Israel has been driven largely by the group’s goal to raise “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” It regards the 1948 creation of Israel as a disaster to both Islam and the Palestinians while it also denies the Holocaust.

Israel has had to respond by force to the rocket attacks. And many Palestinians sympathize with Hamas’s “resistance.” Yet in defiance of these hardened lines between Judaism and radical Islam, one Palestinian scholar in Jerusalem has tried to break each side’s sense of victimhood and tendency to demonize the other.

Mohammed Dajani Daoudi took a group of his Palestinian students at Al-Quds University to Auschwitz this spring to understand the Holocaust and its role in the Zionist project to create Israel. Since 2007, this former Palestinian militant has fostered interfaith understanding and peaceful coexistence by helping Jews and Palestinians see each other as fellow human beings shaped by different histories.

For organizing the trip, Mr. Dajani was forced to resign from the university last month under pressure from Palestinian faculty and students. Now he works mainly as the leader of a group he founded called Wasatia, or moderation in Arabic.

In Iran, too, a prominent person also recently stood up for religious tolerance.

A senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, gave a gift a few months ago to the Baha'i religious minority. It was an act of generosity that sent shock waves among the ruling clerics, who have long suppressed that faith.

The gift, drawn by Mr. Tehrani, was an illuminated work of calligraphy of a passage in the holy book of the Baha'i. He said the work is “a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice.”

All these gestures of interfaith understanding may not seem like much during conflict and brutal suppression. Yet they help create the conditions for a change in thinking, in part because they are so startlingly unthinkable. In the land of origin for the world’s major religions, they remind followers of each faith’s promise of harmony.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial mispelled the name for Baha'i.]

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