In light of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the UAE, let us recall past instances where “interfaith relations” with the Vatican have been used to cover up the crimes of a brutal Arab regime.
Today marks the 37th anniversary of the Hama massacre, where Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar al-Assad) ordered the Syrian army to siege the city of Hama. An estimated forty thousand innocent people were killed in cold blood over a period of twenty seven days.
Much like what we see today, religious authorities of the time were deputized by the murderous regime to whitewash its crimes in the eyes of the country and the larger Muslim world. For Hafez al-Assad, the key religious figure for this task was Sh Ahmad Kuftaro, the Mufti of Syria.
Lending religious legitimacy to a genocidal government is no easy task. Among Kuftaro’s suggestions to Assad was to open dedicated schools for Quranic memorization and name them after Assad in order to show Syrians his care for Islam. What Assad and Kuftaro wanted to project to the Syrian people was that the government was only at war with “Muslim Brotherhood terrorists,” and not Sunni Syrians at large.
Another major Kuftaro/Assad initiative was to engage in interfaith relations with the Vatican. By engaging the Vatican, Assad was showing the world his fundamental interest in peace and brotherhood. That peace and brotherhood did not extend to the victims of the Hama massacre, of course, or any of the other Muslims slaughtered by his regime.
The Vatican Mafia
Sh Ahmad Kuftaro spent a great deal of his career promoting “interfaith dialogue” between Muslims and Christians. He attended numerous Muslim-Christian interfaith conferences held all over the Middle East and Europe. In 1986, Kuftaro participated in one such conference held in Prague. The closing statement of the conference read:
We, the participants in this conference, following two heavenly/divine religions, agree to believing in God the one and only creator of heaven and earth and that there is no God beside Him. We testify as followers of Christ the messenger of God and to Muhammed, the prophet, God’s Messenger. We witness to believing in God and the messages sent from God which carry wisdom, love, and fraternity.
At the time, Muslim scholars around the world denounced interfaith relations of this nature in the strongest of terms, as well as Kuftaro’s activities in particular. For example, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sh Jad al-Haq, issued a fatwa warning against such interfaith events. The fatwa concludes:
These dialogues entail accepting the other religion as true which is not allowed. Rather what is allowed is to invite others to Islam. These dialogues are misguided and deceptive. We should never forget that these missionaries, even when they call themselves spiritual leaders, they are the leaders of military, imperial, and colonial projects and campaigns. [as relayed by Dr. Ibrahim Kilani]
Two other voices that raised objections in the strongest terms were scholars by the name of Hamza Sahnun and Abdullah Bin Mahmoud Bin Mafoudh. Today, they are better known as Sh Hamza Yusuf and Sh Abdullah bin Bayyah.
At the 1986 Maliki Fiqh conference held in Abu Dhabi, Bin Bayyah gave the following opinion regarding Kuftaro’s activities:
I believe Sh Kuftaro is sincere in what he states [regarding his intentions for peaceful dialogue], however we shouldn’t forget Allah’s words “They desire that you compromise so they would too” [Quran 68:9] and His statement, “When they come to you [believers], they say, ‘We believe,’ but they come disbelieving and leave disbelieving. God knows best what they are hiding.” [Quran 5:61]
Also commenting on Kuftaro, Hamza Yusuf was far more direct than his teacher in his reproach of these “peace” conferences:
I believe there are more worthy causes for dialogue than those between Muslims and Christians. IntraMuslim dialogues within Muslim societies where some governments don’t apply Sharia and the scholars are silent and wish to go to Europe and the US to address people whose enmity to Islam is centuries long. They will never be satisfied with Muslims until they leave Islam and follow other religions.
Secondly, I have a very important comment and real life examples. In Spain there are Muslim preachers and one of them is Syrian. The late Nizar Sabbagh. This brother invited many Spaniards to Islam and printed many books. Many responded to him. However, he was killed by Arab secret services. This brother and others like him are targeted in and out of Muslim countries. These attacks have to be studied and the scholars must have clear and blunt stances.
As for the Vatican, it’s association with criminal mafias is confirmed. Europeans view the Vatican as a criminal gang. When we engage them in dialogue we are stooping down to the level of these criminals. Muslims will be viewed in the West’s eyes with criminals. This will only validate for them what needs to change and get fixed.
If Muslims truly wish to invite the West, they have two paths. Firstly to establish Islam and apply it in Muslim societies so they could be a good example to the rest of the world. Secondly, to have clear stances about the problems in the West today like pornography, nuclear threats and to clarify a convincing answer to address modernity.
What is needed is that callers to Islam [Duat] should speak directly to Westerners. As an American and a son of Westerners who is more aware of them than the East, I state that they are foul evil people with never ending plots and conspiracies. They are fully aware of Islam. You all should know that the Pope — that some are engaging with or with his followers — refused to dialogue with Ahmad Deedat. The reason being is that Deedat set a condition that the debate would be in public. They allow secret conferences which produce material that is only distributed in Muslim countries.
I’m a Muslim who lives in Europe and never heard of such Interfaith dialogues.
The More Things Change…
It is truly ironic that Bin Bayyah and Yusuf criticized Mufti Kuftaro for activities that they themselves would be at the forefront of promoting just 33 years later.
Just as Assad used Kuftaro to provide a veneer of religious legitimacy to his crimes, so too has the UAE used religious voices like Bin Bayyah’s and Yusuf’s to run a well-funded but ultimately transparent PR campaign.
Kuftaro’s interfaith activities culminated in a 2001 visit by Pope John Paul II in May 2001 to Damascus. That visit marked the first time a Pope entered a mosque, namely the Umayyad Mosque. With Bashar al-Assad as host, the Pope led mass for forty thousand local Christians.
Assad is still in office eighteen years later, but now he is competing with other criminals for hosting interfaith tolerance events with religious figures from around the world. This year it is Muhammad bin Zayed and the UAE who have the honor (disgrace) in hosting Pope Francis for the largest open mass service in the region with 135 thousand participants in a football stadium.
Although Yusuf and Bin Bayyah have not personally met with the Pope — as the official reception was conducted by Mohammad bin Zayed and al-Azhar head Sh Ahmad Tayyeb — Bin Bayyah spoke highly of the Pope’s visit, saying:
Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE is a visit that falls within the civilizational parameters of the Emirati vision which is centered on the principles of promotion of peace in the world while planting a culture of tolerance and establishing human fraternity as a global concept.
Like Kuftaro before them, Yusuf and Bin Bayyah are among the leading voices today in normalizing relations with all faith traditions except their own coreligionists, whom they label “terrorists” for the sake of their patrons. Today Bin Bayyah and Yusuf are used by tyrants to legitimize the crackdown of Muslims while presenting themselves as exemplars of peace and tolerance.
We should follow the example of the younger Hamza Yusuf and his teacher, Bin Bayyah, in denouncing such Christian religious demonstrations being allowed to take place in the Muslim world. As a younger Hamza Yusuf urged, scholars must have clear and blunt stances against these egregious violations against Allah and the Umma.