The grand mufti of Syria, Ahmad Bader al-Din Hassoun, in an interview with Interfax-Religion said that one of the main riches of Russia is its religious variety and spoke of how it is possible to preserve spiritual harmony in Syria, which, like Russia, is home to many religions.
- The summit of religious leaders in Moscow was a unique chance for representatives of various religions to communicate with each other. As a Muslim leader, what have you expected of the forum?
- I am happy that I have visited Russia, a place where representatives of the major world religions live. This multitude of religions is a source of riches for the Russian people; it will lead to a great result. When religions meet in their development, the wealth of human culture grows. Nations that are enclosed upon themselves never develop. However, the encounter of various religions always stimulates national development. Although people who were earlier together in the Soviet Union are now separated from one another by political boundaries, they nevertheless must consolidate on economic and cultural foundations, otherwise they will weaken even further. In this case I believe our meeting of religious leaders was very important. Such meetings began more than fifteen years ago; however, their significance is now especially great if we look at the situation in the world. Today there is a dangerous tendency to propagate extremist religious views among the young who receive false information about the religion they preach. The propagation of extremism under religious slogans is a disease that we have to cure as quickly as possible, and all religious leaders are obliged to discuss at the meetings means of working with the younger generation.
Religion is the way of life, not of murder. Any religion which preaches murder is a human invention and not of God. For God is life. How could God create the human person and then order him to kill others? Religious leaders ought to be aware of the responsibility of having sway over people. High-ranking position ought not to separate us from people. Religious leadership ought to incorporate not political but educational study functions. My call to other religious leaders is the slogan: ‘When you go to the people, open your mosques and churches for life and prayer.’ The churches and mosques must be transformed into schools of love in order not to divide people. Therefore the summit has special meaning: we have to make it clear that religion is not to be used in the international political game. Indeed, those wars you see today in the world conducted under religious slogans are a political struggle for the redistribution of economic resources.
- How would you characterize interreligious dialogue in Syria? How do people communicate in resolving basic tasks between religions in your country, what do the religious minorities feel?
- In Syria we live according to the principle of equal status for all peoples. We have more than thirty religions, yet we live like one family. As one father has several children: one is an engineer, another a priest, another a lawyer - so too each of them plays his spiritual role in the life of Syria. The fundamental axis uniting all is love of God and the human person and the sacred feeling of patriotism. We have to build the state on the foundation of justice so that the rights of all peoples, the representatives of various religions are equally observed before the law. This is Syria, the children of whom live according to just laws. I am the mufti of the Arab Republic of Syria, but not the mufti of only Syrian Muslims. My people are Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics and others, and non-believers. All of them are my children. I consider myself to be their spiritual father and I relate to them all in identical manner. I invite you to Syria so that you may see that my office is open to representatives of all religions. I invited to my place even those who worship Satan - we do have a small cult. I have met also with them and said that I consider them to be my children, and they said they were glad of such recognition on my part.
Wherever one visits the mosque, church or synagogue and wherever one’s rights are observed there is holy land. Yet if I turn your house into a mosque, God will not receive my prayer there in your occupied home. Your home is even more sacred than God’s house. At the beginning of our conversation I said that I would never recognize as a religion that which calls upon people to kill others in the name of Allah. I believe in a religion which regards the other person to be a brother. I consider you to be my sister, whether you are a Christian or a Jew, Russian or Arab, as Allah commands me to do so. We must therefore bolster this idea. When Moses called people, he called all regardless of differences. Christ said that God is love, and that nobody will be saved except through love for one another.
We are also trying to work out a new approach of religions towards upbringing when the building up of the human person is more important than the construction of a mosque or church. I myself would prefer to spend means not on the gilding of the domes of a church or mosque but on the maintenance of clinics, hospitals and schools in order to give an education to the young.
- Are Muslim topics taught in secular schools in Syria and how essential is this in your view?
- In all Syrian schools in the first years one hour a week is set aside for religious subjects. Moreover, every pupil receives knowledge of his faith, no matter who he is - a Muslim, Christian or Jew. This rule is observed in all state schools. The teachers of these subjects are usually qualified university graduates.
- There are significant problems with Islamic education in Russia today. At the same time the profound traditions of Islamic education are well known. Can Syria extend its hand to Russia in this regard, for example, by inviting Russian students to study in its theological schools?
- The direct study of religion takes place upon completing school, that is at the age of seventeen or eighteen when the young person has the chance to choose his future profession. We have adopted the international programme of Islamic education in accordance with which the student is obliged to know the foundations not only of his own faith but also of other religions that exist in the world. Our students ought to say not ‘glory to the God of the Muslims’ but ‘glory to the God of the entire world.’ Once he realizes the fact that his God is the common God for Muslims, Christians and Jews, he will begin to respect others. We have no sources of extremism of our own; those who are the bearers of such ideas studied abroad, not in Syria. However, as soon as we sense that somewhere in youth groups extremist tendencies are growing, we talk to them and forestall the problems that have arisen.
Today we have a lot of young people from China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, from various European countries and from Russia, and they all come to receive a religious education. Yet my personal opinion is that it would be better to send students to you in Russia than for your students to come to Syria. I believe that it is better for the student to receive knowledge in his natural environment, in the setting which he is accustomed to, among his own people. And then after completing studies we can send the young specialists for training in various countries.
- How do you view the current position of Islam in Russia? Which aspects of life of the Russian umma do you find positive and which do you find negative? How do you view the policy of Russia towards Muslims?
- It seems to me that after the collapse of the Soviet Union two stages have occurred in Russian life: first of all there was disorder, then came the stability which we now see. President Putin wants to return to Russia her place in the world. My wish is that Russia and its people become aware that the multitude of its religions is a source of strength for Russia. The mayor of Moscow, I hear, has decided to build an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue on the same square. How beautiful! Let us call upon all to build peace together and build up our relationship.
At the same time, in my opinion, Russia ought not to look upon all Muslims as potential extremists because of extremist actions that have occurred. The extremists’ position will only gain strength from this approach. It is essential that Russian Muslims take advantage of all their rights lest they feel guilty and a Muslim woman can cover her head without fear.
It is probable that outside Russia there are those who are working towards undermining the religious multiplicity and peace in your country by committing various provocations in the name of Islam. To this day I do not believe that it was Muslims who murdered the Russian diplomats in Iraq. There were third persons attempting to provoke a clash between the Russian government and Muslims inside Russia. The Iraqi people love Russia as do the Syrian people, and all the other Islamic countries today love Russia for its policy on Iran. The announcements of the Russian government on Iran are quite correct. Such provocations from third persons we recently saw in the cartoon scandal. The author of the cartoons immediately apologized and admitted that he had been paid for these drawings. Yet the scandal occurred only six months afterwards and this provocation was organized on purpose with the intention of starting a scandal between Denmark and Muslims. I very much hope that the death of your diplomats will not become a cause for the development of conflict in Russia between her authorities and Muslims.