CRPME Report on Religious Pluralism in the Middle East | No.3

Institution: Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East (CRPME)

Publication Date: 2017

Executive Summary

The CRPME report is addressing main features and challenges regarding religious pluralism in the Middle East during the second half of 2016. The region of focus includes the countries of Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. The aim of the report is, on the one hand, to pinpoint the challenges related to religious pluralism faces in the region. On the other hand, it strives to highlight positive state and community initiatives that promote religious co-existence and pluralism. The documentation work leading to the report reflects the research already published on the CRPME site, which is being constantly updated with the developments regarding the religious communities in the region. It is, thus, neither exhaustive nor discursive in covering all the relevant events but it focuses on the events that could reveal certain issues, trends, continuities and discontinuities.


There are four kind of challenges confronting religious communities in the region:
  1. The longevity of the Syrian civil war has pushed the sectarian identity aspects of the conflict further to the forefront, effectively hindering each player’s capacity for dialogue.
  2. Jordan has been striving for a more open society, politically, religiously, and culturally. In spite of these efforts, religious radicalism can still be found within the societal fringes.
  3. The religious communities in Turkey have borne the brunt of the ramifications of the failed July coup. With tough security measures in play, their religious rights have been neglected, and even disputed.
  4. The well-publicized developments in the al-Minya region of Egypt during the past summer have brought sectarian-based issues to the fore, while the parliament – approved law on building Coptic houses of worship is limited in its reach by its exclusion of all other non-Abrahamic religions.

In Syria, the high degree of political and geographical fragmentation during the civil war makes the documentation of the religious and ethnic communities more difficult. The different actors involved are gradually seeing each other with a more reluctant and suspicious eye, making a future reconciliation for solving the conflict seem even more demanding. The war in Iraq perplexes the situation even further since the border politics between the two countries is fluid. The politics of ethnic cleansing, in a lesser or a larger degree, is changing the demographic character of certain areas, such as the north of Syria where the Kurds prevail, or the south of the country were mostly rebel Islamist groups are dominant. Nevertheless, amidst this rising level of sectarianisation and in between a real danger of brutal persecution, some examples of interreligious and interethnic endeavours of coexistence are found, such as the ones between Kurds and Arabs. Furthermore, there is a growing trend in community – based militarization that mainly aims to the armed protection of the community members and their geographical space.

The Jordanian government has been struggling to underline the need for a growth in mutual understanding and for a more open and genuine dialogue between Muslims and Christians. There are several institutions in the country working on the subject, such as the Catholic Centre for Studies and Media, while there are also schools promoting coexistence between Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi children, either of Muslim or of Christian faith. The Jordanian leadership is constantly vigilant regarding religious extremism, since there have been incidents of attacks by religious zealots, such as in the case of the murder of Naher Hattar, or by Islamist groups such as during the Karak castle attack. Generally, Jordan has been trying to work in the direction of a more tolerant society, paying much attention to the education realm but also on social and political culture issues.

Following the failed coup of July 15th, the current Turkish administration has issued a number of directives that have hindered the ability of non – Sunni Muslim communities to feel safe in practicing their faith. Conspiracy theories roam freely regarding the communities’ involvement, while, in the meantime, ad hoc security measures are summoned as the “weapon of choice” for disregarding the religious rights of mainly the Alevi, Orthodox Christian, Protestant, and Jewish communities. Effectively, the scapegoating of the religious communities has been used as a stepping stone for the strengthening of the Sunni Muslim identity within Turkish society, and for optimizing the prospects, domestically and abroad, of certain political players.

The Egyptian government seems to be on the verge of losing the support of its Coptic Christian population. The events of the past summer, coupled with the passing of the law on building churches concerning the Coptic Christian community, have gradually created a rift between the Coptic community and President al-Sisi. Additionally, the fact remains that non-Abrahamic religions are not recognized in Egyptian society, and that their religious rights are neither ensured nor protected, as evidenced by the developments regarding the Ashura celebrations of the Shia community, as well as by the lacking efforts in protecting and preserving the religious and cultural history of the now nearly defunct Jewish community.

On the other side of the spectrum, Morocco is promoting its peaceful coexistence of different religious communities as an example for the rest of the Muslim world. Nevertheless, the Kingdom continues its efforts to affirm and institutionalize the value of a pluralistic society, by offering religious training focused on tolerance and openness, launching programs to de-radicalize the extremist elements within the Salafi movement, and to include Salafists in the political life. At the same time, it continues to promote the values of the Marrakesh Declaration abroad as a way to tackle extremism.

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