Vladimir Isayev, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Oriental Studies, in his interview to Interfax-Religion, reviewed the interreligious dialogue in the Middle East and defined as positive the prospects for relations between the Hamas and Christians in the Palestinian Autonomy.
- Can religious dialogue play a certain role in the Middle East settlement?
- Interreligious dialogue not only can but must play an important role in this process. It is another matter that it is not actually conducted. In the Middle East there are three world religions, but interreligious dialogue between them is actually absent, though various confessions maintain cooperation with one another.
The point is that religious confessions in the Arab countries of the Middle East have traditionally been subordinate to the secular authorities. This natural situation, in general, has taken there forms somewhat unusual for us. In many countries the predominant religion, though separated from state, is very attentive to the stand taken by the central authorities. Therefore, if the authorities, say, in Iran, take a negative attitude to Judaism or Christianity, the Muslim hierarchy would support their governments in this attitude. This pattern can be seen in almost all the states of the Middle East. You will seldom see a country in which Muslims and Christians would conduct dialogue on a permanent basis, not to mention any forums, say, on an inter-Arab platform, where church hierarchs would conduct a fruitful dialogue with the aim to settle the same Middle East problem.
- Is it possible to say that it is the position of the authorities and their reluctance to promote dialogue that presents an obstacle for an effective dialogue?
- The authorities often appeal first of all to the Muslims and pay little attention to the Christians. For instance, the so-called 'cartoon war' has led to serious attacks on Christian neighborhoods in Lebanon. On the other hand, in Syria there were very serious manifestations against the Danish and French embassies, but the attempts of their participants, who were mostly Muslims, to break through to the Christian quarters were very strongly rebuffed by the police. Thus, an explosion similar to that in Lebanon was prevented. That is to say, it depends in many ways on how rigidly the authorities control and suppresses the main part of its predominantly Muslim population.
True, it depends also on the current conjuncture. If it is of avail for the central authorities to control the Islamic part of the population they will do it. If it is of no avail they will let things take their course. The situation, I would say, is ambiguous, considering also the fact that Islam in itself is not homogeneous. In some countries, such as some states in Arabia, the Shiites complain against the oppression on the part of the Sunni authorities, while particular Christian communities feel well protected. In Iraq however, they are attacked by both the Shiites and the Sunnis. Therefore, the situation in many ways depends on the power of the authorities and the considerations of the moment.
- What future, in your view, awaits the Palestinian Christians in the light of the Hamas takeover?
- It is difficult for me, and not only for me, to speak about it as yet. The Hamas has on its agenda quite different aims and it is not concerned with religious problems at the moment. They have been caught in isolation; they need to transform their movement into a party and seek support and subsidies from various countries, considering the fact that the United States and the European Union have already denied it support as a terrorist movement. Therefore, the Hamas is busy first of all with a search for its own place in the Middle East process and ways of ensuring the internal consolidation of society. Take a recent example - hardly had they assembled for the first session of the parliament as a fight occurred between the proponents of the Hamas and Fath.
It should not be forgotten of course that in the territory of the Palestinian Autonomy there are very important Christian monuments. Look at Bethlehem alone! It is possible to predict therefore that the Hamas will pay attention to the Christian part of the population, not to persecute Christians, but most probably to try to derive maximum benefit from tourism, which will get right after the tension in the region is relieved. It is clear to all that pilgrimage to Bethlehem will never stop. Therefore, to restrict it is senseless for any power if it is not taken by some arch fanatics who would begin prosecution. Besides, as far is I know a considerable part of the economic elite in these territories is made up of Palestinian Christians.
Most probably, the Hamas will have conflicts with Jews on religious grounds, as representatives of the movement themselves have stated openly.
- What Islamic authorities have weight with the Hamas leaders?
- First of all, their religious leader, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yasin who was killed in an operation organized by the Israelis. No figure similar to him can be discerned at the moment. Most probably, someone will appear. They say nature abhors vacuum.
- Is it possible to draw a line, on the basis of the Sharia, between a guerilla liberation war and ordinary terrorism?
- This is a question we all have always faced. The point is what quotations are drawn out of holy scriptures. For instance, I draw out from the New Testament the phrase 'There is no God' - yes, this is what is written in it! But actually this phrase is 'and only a fool will say that there is no God'. In the same way, if I take an ayat or a surah from the Koran out of context, I can use it as I please.
The point, of course, is what forces, with what intentions and in whose interests use Holy Scriptures. Let us remember that only a few centuries ago it was used to draw out certain phrases from it to justify the Inquisition. In this respect, religious education is very important, so that explanations could be given to believers as to what was written one or two thousand years ago. Indeed, the realities, in which these works, sacred for all religious people, were created, have become antiquated to a certain degree, and some slogans should be lifted. One of the commandments of the Koran is 'let us stone an unfaithful wife'. Excuse me, this is a medieval barbarity, which you may see today only among the fanatics in a god-forsaken place. Such things are condemned today by both the secular and religious authorities. On the other hand, it is the Word of God, and there is no getting away from it.