There are five types of challenges confronting religious communities in the region:
- The post-ISIS future of the religious communities living in Syria and Iraq
- The deeper integration, or lack thereof, of religious communities within society
- The matter of recognition of religious faiths aside from the Judaic, Christian and Muslim ones
- The preservation of the religious communities’ cultural heritage
- The Gordian knot between the State and the officially recognized State religion
Within the Maghreb region, the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya have been largely preoccupied with combatting religious extremism, with the notion of religious pluralism being more prevalent in Morocco. The latter’s efforts in promoting religious pluralism can be seen as an antidote to extremism. On the one hand, it is aggressively combating extremism and, on the other hand, it is actively conducting good practices towards coexistence and pluralism.
In Syria, the dismantlement of the “Islamic State” has created an institutional challenge in regard to bringing the newly-liberated areas within the government’s administrative control. However, the continuation of the Syrian conflict has generated additional trends and challenges to the institutional configuration of post-war Syria, particularly in the field of sectarian balances and religious coexistence. At the same time, Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria and its impact on Kurdish self-rule, Assad’s (and his allies) effort to set the foundations of future Syria and the challenge of bringing back to normal large swaths of east Syria, constitute the driving forces of the post-war future.
Iraq, following the “ISIS parenthesis”, has witnessed a number of shifts all the more evident by the record low turnout during the recent electoral process as well as a newly-found will for inter-community collaboration in electoral lists and beyond. In addition, over three and half million displaced Iraqis have returned home, most of them to the Nineweh province, which is host to several religious communities and was the most affected region in Iraq. However, more than two million Iraqis remain displaced.
Saudi Arabia and its religious establishment enjoy a healthy relationship, one maintained by the promotion of their shared political interests. However, it is noteworthy that there is still no official framework for religious freedom. Only mosques are allowed, and non-Muslim religious services are not officially permitted. Nonetheless, the State continues its efforts to promote tolerance and mutual understanding between Shi’as and Sunnis. Despite efforts for change in domestic policies and via interfaith initiatives, the Wahhabi character of the State still stands strong, especially in relation to law and order. The promotion of “moderate” Islam in Saudi Arabia still has its limitations, with the need for reformation of the education system being considered as a prime example.
In Iran, aside from Muslims, only Iranian Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are free to practice their religion, within the limits of the law. Conversion to Christianity is not allowed and its converts, as well as members of religions that the State does not recognize, such as Baha’is or Yarsanis, cannot be registered, are not entitled to the same rights, and are subjected to repression and imprisonment for exercising their religion. Despite these measures, Christians live in relative peace with the regime and have three representatives in the Iranian parliament. Christianity is growing in Iran, being one of the fastest growing Christian communities in the world.
Since 2016, vandalism attacks in Turkey against non-Muslim houses of worship have multiplied. The State’s push for the predominance of Sunni Islam is quite evident, as Islamic schools have been granted larger budgets in an effort to raise a “pious generation”. At the same time, the South of Turkey has borne the brunt of the conflict between security forces and the militants of the PKK and has had its cultural and religious icons damaged or destroyed, effectively erasing thousands of years of the living communities’ history. In addition, a number of Byzantine churches previously turned into museums are still in the process of being converted into mosques, with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul being the most alarming example. The Muslim predominance over non-Muslim communities in all aspects of society is heavily underlined through the use of iconic symbols such as the Hagia Sophia, which seems to perennially represent the disparity in the everyday life of all Turkish citizens.
In Egypt, an ongoing debate is growing over whether the religious head of the Coptic community should represent it in State matters. It seems as if part of the Coptic community is not in agreement with Pope Tawandros’ policies and his representation of their rights. Nevertheless, the law on building and normalizing Coptic churches stands as a positive example of the church’s relationship with the State as well as for the promotion of Coptic religious rights. In regard to the disdain of religion law, a number of draft reform bills were submitted to the parliament but failed to make a lasting impression, paving the way instead for initiatives for criminalizing atheism. Nonetheless, the calls for a “religious revolution” by the Egyptian President have been answered by the Al-Azhar University against the rise of religious extremism through the promotion of pro-active initiatives.
In Israel, a heated debate on the status of Jerusalem as a “holy city” for the Judaic, Christian and Muslim religions seems underway. This issue is seen as an interaction of private and State actors in Israel’s society, with the intent to transform the multi-religious character of the city. Nonetheless, a number of American and Israeli organizations have been sponsoring interfaith conferences pertaining to issues such as forgiveness and ecology. Furthermore, the project “The People of the Book” was launched in late 2017, which aims at explaining the common ground and the differences between Judaism and Islam, and at achieving mutual understanding and consolidating respectful coexistence.
In Lebanon, the confessional system by default mixes religion and politics, giving political and institutional power to confessional communities. Lebanon’s religious leadership role is not limited to promoting interfaith dialogue and discouraging extremism. Although the role of “public spokesman” has given them the power to be viewed as as mediators in facilitating the political tensions among the political parties of the country, it has not been without shortfalls, as pertaining to the issue of social cohesion in Lebanon. Yet, the role of religious leadership and the institutionalisation of religious pluralism and coexistence has acted as a buffer-zone to sectarianism. Overall, the institutionalisation of religious pluralism and coexistence demonstrates a certain level of maturity not only of the leadership, be it religious or political, but also of the society that extremism has been banging on its door from the beginning of the Syrian crisis.
Finally, in Jordan, the livelihood and safety of the thousands of refugees of many religious denominations who found shelter in the country seems to be one of the main challenges at hand. The Kingdom has repeatedly been trying to export a religiously liberal facet of its policies, at times achieving a pluralist profile, but not always succeeding. It should be noted that religious freedom still seems to be narrowed down to the two monotheistic religions, due to the rigid religious framework of Jordan. Nevertheless, close attention is being paid to the gradual increase in religious tourism, with a focus on pluralism, religious tolerance and interfaith interaction via the close proximity of various holy sites.