That remarks made by Jerry Falwell earlier this month describing the Prophet Mohamed as "a terrorist" would raise the ire of Muslims comes as no surprise. However, Falwell, an American Evangelical Christian who heads the right-wing Moral Majority Organisation, can count new enemies this week from among Arab Christians.
Egyptian Coptic intellectuals and leaders of various Christian sects, including Catholic and Evangelical, who were participating in the conference of the Middle East Churches Council held in Beirut last week, reacted with anger to Falwell's remarks and expressed deep concern over what they described as "attempts by deviant Christians who ally themselves with Zionist movements to attack the Arabs".
"We, as Christians, are extremely concerned about the language of enmity and bigotry used by the likes of Falwell. It is racism cloaked in religion. We felt the need to protest against the way the Christian faith is being hijacked by those groups," Milad Hanna, a prominent Coptic thinker told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The resentment was translated into a statement of condemnation signed by 80 Coptic intellectuals, including renowned film directors Youssef Chahine, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and Khairy Bishara, as well as a number of clergymen. The statement described the manner in which Falwell described the prophet of Islam as "an act of sheer racism and intellectual terrorism". It also described as "abhorrent" attempts by the Christian Coalition, a US umbrella organisation of right-wing Christian groups, to defend Israel at the expense of Arab rights in the occupied territories and Jerusalem. The statement accused the US Christian right of "invoking religious texts to serve political purposes by defending Israel". Such movements, said the statement, "promote religious myths that deviate from the true essence of Christianity and reflect the short-sightedness and intolerance of their leaders".
For the past three decades, right-wing Christian groups have wielded influence over US policy. Since George W Bush was elected some two years ago, however, the influence of such movements on US foreign policy -- particularly with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict -- has been on the rise. Evangelical Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have caused a furor in the Islamic world with their inflammatory remarks on Islam and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
During an interview broadcast by CBS television earlier this month, Falwell said, "I think Mohamed was a terrorist. I read enough of the history of his life, written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, [to know] that he was a violent man, a man of war."
Al-Ahram Weekly sought a comment from Falwell via e-mail about the uproar caused by his remarks, but as of press time he had not responded.
"Falwell has crossed all acceptable boundaries," says Samir Mourqus, an expert on the Christian Zionist movement who wrote the Coptic protest statement. "When he chose to slander Islam and its prophet in a mainstream media outlet, he was delivering a dangerous message in an unprecedented manner. Arab Christians felt that they had to respond to this particular incident."
The statement, said an Egyptian Christian source, was an attempt by some Arab Christians to distance themselves from Christian groups in the United States whose rhetoric promotes the notion of a clash between Islam and Christianity. It also reflects Arab Christians' rejection of alliances with groups that have different views on the question of Palestine and Jerusalem.
In the view of Reverend Yohanna Qulta of the Catholic Church, Arab Christians' response to Falwell's comments is highly significant. "It is a defence of Christianity against those who would portray it as a religion of intolerance and disrespect for other peoples' faith and rights." Qulta questioned the impact such statements would have on interfaith dialogue.
The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has historically taken an uncompromising stand on the issue of Palestine and Jerusalem. Pope Shenouda has repeatedly denounced Copts who have gone to Jerusalem for pilgrimage while it remains under occupation. He has been quoted on many occasions saying, "We will enter Jerusalem with our Muslim brethren".
Egypt's Christians during the past decade have been the target of several US attempts to meddle in their affairs under the pretext of defending the rights of religious minorities.
According to Mourqus, politics is at the heart of the matter for extremist US Christian groups. "Part of their agenda targets domestic policies while another deals with foreign issues, and at the top of those is defending Israel's interests. They [right-wing Christian groups] are not just against Islam, they are against anybody who is against Israeli interests, and so they can count Arab Christians among their enemies."
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