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Exclusive Interview
By David W. Virtue
The Rev. Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo is the international director of the Barnabas Fund based in England. The Fund is a ministry which assists Christian minorities in the Islamic world and in other areas where Christians undergo persecution. Dr. Sookhdeo was recently in the United States where he spoke with David W. Virtue of VirtueOnline. Dr. Sookhdeo is a leading world authority on Islam, author of several books on Islam including “Understanding Islamic Terrorism” and “A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Islam”. He was born in Guyana, South America, of Pakistani-Indian parentage he converted to Christianity while a student in London in the early 60s.
VirtueOnline: How are you viewed by leaders in the Anglican Church? I gather there has been some correspondence between you and Colin Chapman in which Colin Chapman is critical of an article on Islam which you wrote for the British magazine “The Spectator”.
Sookhdeo: Not only the hierarchy of the Anglican Church but also other Christian leaders are divided because some are deeply unhappy with the work of Barnabas Fund. This is due to their interfaith agenda. As a result some are seeking to discredit what we are doing. Furthermore, I myself have personally experienced considerable racial harassment from white missionaries who are opposed to the work of the Fund.
VirtueOnline: In the interfaith dialogue of the Abrahamic faiths, it is often suggested that as there is One God for all these faiths, that we should be more understanding and accommodationist in our thinking and less exclusive in our demands as Christians. Do you agree with this?
Sookhdeo: Much of contemporary interfaith dialogue assumes that we all have the same understanding as to the nature of God. So when we speak of the Abrahamic covenant, we assume that the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim understanding of God are the same. I would argue they are not. Whilst Jews and Christians have a common understanding of God, I would argue that Muslims do not. This naturally has repercussions in other areas – in the field of justice, in the understanding of our common humanity in the areas of human rights and religious tolerance. Much interfaith dialogue has to do with the lowest common denominator. Discussions often negate that which is essential to each religion. The result is it focuses on the lowest common denominator and what I call “cocktail dialogue” or “dialogical syncretism.”
VirtueOnline: Can you give examples?
Sookhdeo: Some illustrations of this would be the understanding of how Jesus Christ is understood. This is deliberately underplayed because it is deemed offensive to speak of his deity and his uniqueness to followers of Islam. Furthermore, issues of the persecution of Christians by Muslims are deliberately left out. The discriminatory nature of Islamic law is not discussed and the death penalty for apostates which is still central to Islamic Shari’a is a ‘no go’ subject.
VirtueOnline: Does this mean that Christians and Muslims can never talk to each other about peace?
Sookhdeo: I believe that conversations between and amongst both religions are vital. We live in societies where religious and ethnic tensions are increasingly common. Sometimes this spills over into armed conflict. As such I passionately believe that there is no place in the modern world for wars of religion. Therefore we should strive for peace. The difficulty I have is with the word ‘dialogue’. There are a number of meanings for this word dialogue. In New Testament Greek when St. Paul uses the word “dialogue” it is dialogomai which means to argue with a purpose of persuading a person. As such it is not a neutral term; it does not have to do with the sharing of experiences of other religions. When the Apostle Paul was on Mars Hill he did not call for a meeting of the different religions to engage in an interfaith dialogical process. He preached the gospel and engaged in dialogue. It was a form of evangelism. This is why I use the word “conversation” in respect to different faiths meeting with each other. In this conversation there must be honesty, integrity, transparency and truth. It must deal with society as it is and to [delete to] seek ways of developing understanding, living together and address the treatment of minorities. If it fails to do this, then this process has failed.
VirtueOnline: The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to hold the view that Islam can coexist peacefully with Christianity.
Sookhdeo: I would suggest that he listen to the voices of Christians within the Muslim world and in particular the voices coming from southern Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan and other countries. In these situations Christians experience discrimination, outright persecution and increasingly violence, being directed against them. If Islam is going to be a religion of peace and to coexist alongside Christianity then it must relinquish its theology of violence based on the revelations in the Koran. It must change its Shari’a Law and allow for full equality of Christians. It must allow Muslims the freedom to choose that is, to reject Islam if they so choose or embrace another religion if they so desire. It must give full freedom to women. Unless it can do these things how can there be co-existence? While the intention of the archbishop in seeking co-existence is good, whether Islam the religion will ever embrace his vision of society is another matter.
VirtueOnline: Are there any other difficulties?
Sookhdeo: There is a further difficulty. Many Christians in the Islamic world believe that some Christians in the West have betrayed them, that they have been sacrificed on the altar of interfaith, race and community relations. In their desire to make peace with Islam at any cost, they have sacrificed their brothers and sisters in this process. They also feel that it is patronizing and racist for white people to dialogue with Muslims on their behalf, as if non-Westerners were not capable of doing dialogue should they so desire.
VirtueOnline: A Communique for the Anglican/al-Azhar dialogue committee met recently. The thrust of the meeting was for religious minorities, both Christian and Muslim, to be able to live in peace and security, and as full participants in the political and social life of the country of which they were citizens.
Sookhdeo: The majority religious community has the duty to facilitate this, both as a religious obligation and for the well-being of society. It is equally important that religious minorities should seek to abide by the law of the country where they are resident, or of which they are citizens.
VirtueOnline: We noted specifically that Islam calls for Muslims to abide by and respect the laws and regulations of the non-Islamic countries where they live. There was also a particular concern for freedom of religion and the right to worship. From this communiqué it would appear that you are both on the same side?
Sookhdeo: Statements are easy to write and make; but what of the reality on the ground. Al-Azhar is the foremost Islamic institution in the Islamic world based in Cairo. In October in Alexandria churches were attacked by mass demonstrations. Muslim radicals have declared that it is halal (permissible) to kill the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda has had a fatwa put on him calling for him to be killed. The persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt by government and security forces abetted by religious institutions is a reality. Numerous Christian girls are being kidnapped and raped and forcibly converted to Islam. Again religions institutions and security services were involved in this process. Why was this not addressed? Last week in Washington the Coptic community called on the Egyptian government to stop the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt. A Coptic bishop in Australia, Bishop Daniel has writte
n to the Egyptian Ambassador in Australia again calling for the cessation of violence against the Coptic Church in Egypt. Why is Lambeth and this group silent when the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is experiencing such severe persecution? Furthermore converts from Islam to Christianity in Egypt currently experience abduction, imprisonment, torture and even death. Why has Al-Azhar not stopped this process? There are those who argue that it has even assisted this process. The Coptic Orthodox Church leaders are questioning the role of the Anglican Church in this whole process. They are asking for justice and for freedom.
VirtueOnline: I understand from my sources that the leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church is very unhappy with the role which the Anglican Church is playing in this process. Is this true?
Sookhdeo: Yes, they are unhappy. What unfortunately is not often understood is that the senior leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church is very closely monitored by the government. What they say in private cannot be said in public and they will only say in private what they think to those whom they fully trust. This applies to Christian persecution within Egypt (which some Anglican leaders deny) as well as to their opinion on Anglican involvement in dialogue. Most of the dialogue taking place involves westerners whom they mistrust. They also say that large sums of money enter into the country.
VirtueOnline: Is this true?
Sookhdeo: A lot of money is coming from the west to assist this process of dialogue. A further difficulty arises in relation to some of the participants. Dr. Zaki Badawi is perhaps the most prominent Islamic cleric in the UK and the most widely respected and a moderate voice in Islam. He wrote a paper recently on the Apostasy law in Islam and violence in the Islamic tradition. This paper was presented at Clarence House where Prince Charles chaired a meeting that brought together senior Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss the issue of Christian minorities under Islam. Dr Badawi confirmed in his paper the violence and persecution being directed against Christian minorities in the Muslim world; the danger of killing converts from Islam to Christianity and the discriminatory and oppressive nature of Shari’a Law when applied to Christian minorities. This position was acknowledged and confirmed by the other Muslim participants. When asked by the senior Anglican bishops present when the persecution would end, the Muslim scholar stated that they could not see this occurring in the foreseeable future. They argued that Shari’a can’t be changed although Christians present disputed that. When Prince Charles suggested making a public statement about this, the Muslims said he was not to do this, but should confine himself to statements and speeches on civilization. When the bishops stated that this whole issue should be made public, the Muslim leaders said it should not, “it has to remain quiet.” Unfortunately this story was leaked and no one knows who did the leaking. It surfaced in The Daily Telegraph at the end of last year. I can address the issue as I addressed it then, that I did not leak the story and because it is in the public domain I can now address it.
VirtueOnline: Were you at the meeting?
Sookhdeo: Yes. The Barnabas Fund throughout last year ran a campaign against the Apostasy Law of Islam. It called on the British Government, Muslim authorities and Prince Charles to intervene in this matter. The Apostasy Law calls for the killing of any Muslim who converts to Christianity. Many Christians wrote to Prince Charles urging him to intervene in this process. He very graciously and generously agreed to convene a small meeting at Clarence House where senior Muslim leaders would meet senior Christian leaders to discuss this issue. I, as international director of the Barnabas Fund and the one who was instrumental in bringing the matter to his attention was involved in this process. The prince had asked that something practical be done to address the persecution of Christian minorities in Muslim countries. He has also stated he did not see the need for more statements on the subject. In this he is to be commended.
VirtueOnline: Do you see any parallels between the gay issue in the Church and the interfaith issue, and in particular the way in which Islam is being approached?
Sookhdeo: Yes, very much. Good theology leads to good ethics, bad theology leads to bad ethics. Those in pursuit of an interfaith and pro-Islam policy are seeking to shape the agenda and to neutralize anyone who does not agree with them. When you have a church leader who is patron of a mosque, and others who embrace Islam as if it did not deny the heart of the Christian faith, and encourage their churches to support Islamic charities, you have to ask what kind of theology they have. On the other hand, many ordinary church members are deeply conservative in theology and support organizations like Barnabas Fund.
VirtueOnline: What form is contemporary persecution taking?
Sookhdeo: In the Islamic world we have a variety of situations. Since 9/11 the US and the UK with other countries have been involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the “war on terror”. These all involve Islam. There are those in the Muslim world who believe that the West, in particular Christianity is launching a new crusade against them. Unable to strike effectively against the West they direct their attacks against vulnerable Christian targets. For example in Iraq we see the bombing of churches and the kidnapping and murder of Christians who are caught in the middle. Over the past 25 years we have seen the rise of radical Islamic groups. These are essentially terrorist organizations determined to attack Christians and to rid their counties of the Christian presence. Attacks such as these occur in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan. Increasingly Islamic law is being called for and in some countries being applied with adverse affects on Christian minorities. For example in the south of Sudan (which thankfully now has a peace accord) and northern Nigeria. The Shari’a Law debate is a pertinent one because of its discriminatory nature. The position of evangelists and Muslim converts is acute. During the past year there has been a growing number of national evangelists and converts martyred through beheading. Beheading as a method of execution goes back to the Koran where it speaks of striking the neck. This is much in vogue. The kidnapping and rape of Christian girls is on the increase in Pakistan, Egypt, the Holy Land, and in other places where this is occurring.
VirtueOnline: What else do you see?
Sookhdeo: Finally the increasing marginalization of Christian minorities in the Christian world makes them vulnerable to the pressures of Islam either to convert to Islam or to live with oppression. Sadly those Christians that have the ability to do so are fleeing to the safety of the West.
VirtueOnline: Where else do you see persecution taking place?
Sookhdeo: In Western countries, for example. In England we have cases of growing persecution. In south London Muslim gangs armed with guns have targeted Christians saying if they do not convert they will be killed. In Bradford, a Christian a family converted from Islam have had their lives threatened. Their car has been arsoned and they have been threatened with violence. When a meeting was arranged the response of Christians to such persecution has not always been helpful. The Bishop of Bradford met this family with his interfaith advisor. At this meeting he stated that the Diocese of the Anglican Church would not welcome such converts into it. That story has now gone public. He did not want Muslim converts into the Anglican Church. The convert was extremely disappointed and deeply saddened by the stance of the bishop. He felt that the bishop was more concerned with his relationship with the Muslim leaders in Bradford than with his plight with him [delete with him] as a convert. He felt deeply betrayed.
VirtueOnline: I gather that Islam is gaining ground rapidly in
the UK and Europe. What is the story on this?
Sookhdeo: Islam has developed a process of major Islamization, which includes the re-writing of history and the shaping of the agenda at every level.
VirtueOnline: What should Anglicans do in their approach to Muslims?
Sookhdeo: We need to recognize that there is not a single approach but a number of strands which need to be addressed. These strands include the spiritual, the missiological, the theological, the social and political, because Islam is a system which does not separate the sacred from the secular, the spiritual from the social. It must be approached from an integrated basis. Spiritually, we must recognize that there is a spiritual conflict between Islam and Christianity. Missiologically it is appropriate to find common ground as a way of presenting the Gospel, as the Apostle Paul did in his Areopagus speech. Theologically we must focus on that which separates us, because unless we can recognize that wherever Christianity is distinctive and unique we face the real difficulty of confusion leading to syncretism. On the social level Islam has an agenda for how society is to be constructed. On the political level Islam has an agenda for the control of its own community and ultimately for society itself. Unless we recognize these different lines we will not be able to develop a coherent approach or for that matter strategy. For me the approach to Islam is founded on some basic principles.
First there must be the compassion of Christ, we are dealing with Muslims as human beings who have emotions and feelings and who must be loved with the total love of Christ.
Secondly, we must be scholarly accurate in our approach to Islam. We must recognize Islam – the ideological – in what it teaches. To impute our Christian understanding on to Islam and to Christianize it is to do it a disservice. We must understand it and accept in its own terms for what it is. That means having the scholastic ability to comprehend it.
Thirdly, we must be faithful to Christ. No matter how much we love the Muslims or analyze Islam the religion, we must ensure that we do not lose sight of Jesus Christ, his deity, his death and resurrection and his coming again as supreme judge. Jesus Christ is the only Savior.