BEIRUT: Four of Lebanon’s top Muslim religious leaders will meet at a June 2 summit to discuss tolerance within Islam and the importance of counterterrorism efforts, said Mohammad Sammak, the secretary-general of the Islamic Summit and the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue.
Sammak explained that dialogue is needed now more than ever before in order to confront the rise of interfaith violence in the region.
During an interview at his Beirut office, Sammak told The Daily Star that Christian-Muslim dialogue in particular was vital for combating rising religious extremism in the region, a phenomenon he referred to as a “tsunami” and “implosion within Islam.”
“We are going to have a meeting of the four Islamic religious leaders, the Grand Mufti [Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian], the [Druze] Sheikh al-Akel [Sheikh Naim Hasan], Deputy President of the Higher Shiite Council [Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan] and the [head of the] Alawite Council Sheikh Assad Assi,” Sammak said.
In the Islamic calendar, the meeting will take place on the 15th of Shaaban – a Muslim holiday.
Hundreds of Sunni and Shiite scholars will take part in the meeting, according to Sammak.
“We are going to meet in Dar al-Fatwa and make a statement ... about Islamic brotherhood, counterterrorism, counter-takfir, cooperation against extremism, and promoting a culture of accepting differences within the framework of one religion.”
Sammak believes that the June 2 meeting could benefit Sunni-Shiite relations in other countries, particularly in Iraq and the Gulf.
Sunni-Shiite tensions have skyrocketed in recent years, in some places degenerating into sectarian violence, which has killed tens of thousands of people.
The situation has worsened with the rise of ISIS. The militant group took over large swaths of northern Iraq last June, displacing Christians and Yazidis who had lived there for hundreds of years.
Minority communities have also fallen victim to ISIS’ brutality in Syria, whose civil war has now entered its fifth year.
Sammak, 76, holds a PhD in political science from the University of Sheffield and a degree in Islamic Thought from Cairo University.
He has written 28 books, 14 on Christian-Muslims relations, and has been secretary-general of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue since its formation at a 1993 summit at Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate.
“What we mean by dialogue is, as I always say ... the art of searching for the truth in the point of view of the other,” Sammak said.
He contends that religious incidents can no longer remain local in a globalized world. “We cannot avoid the repercussions of a problem in Pakistan, or in Indonesia, or in Nigeria – Boko Haram’s [violence] rings in the mountains of Lebanon when they attack Christians.”
Sammak acknowledged that Sunni-Shiite tensions are at a peak, and said their subsiding depends on how long religion continues to be misused in politics.
“The problem is not that there are different confessions and different religions, but ... in the use of these confessions and religions in politics.”
Sammak argues that a Christian-Muslim dialogue is what’s needed most, saying it could also help improve relations between Sunnis and Shiites.
“There is no other way but a dialogue with the Christians to convince them not to migrate. Christian migration [represents] a surrender to the brutality of this ISIS movement and the disintegration of the oriental tapestry of the Middle East.”
He said that he had put forth this point earlier this week in Beirut, at a meeting on Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East organized by the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.
“We had an Iraqi scholar, a sheikh, who was speaking about Sunni and Shiite problems in Iraq and ... complaining about the relations there,” Sammak said.
“My [response] was this: I said it is impossible for Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq to come to a mutual understanding without taking into consideration ... the rights of other groups, especially the Christians of Iraq.”
“We cannot face it [except] together; I believe it is impossible for Muslims alone to face this tsunami. It’s only Christian-Muslim cooperation, understanding through dialogue, and working together [that can] stop this tsunami and overcome its negative consequences,” Sammak said.
But he conceded that dialogue in times of such crisis is not easy. Sammak admits that the Islamic reaction to the persecution of the region’s Christians has been slow in coming, but said there have been a number of positive Islamic initiatives to support Christians in the Middle East, including one at a conference at Al-Azhar in Cairo.
“Al-Azhar said two things mainly ... one, that we Muslims should reconsider and correct certain Islamic principles that are misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused – like jihad.”
“[Two], announcing in the name of Al-Azhar that any [crime] that targets a Christian for being a Christian is a [crime] that targets Islam as well, whether a person, or a church or [something else]. That’s something new.”
Al-Azhar, in Cairo, represents the highest Sunni religious authority in the world.
Sammak said that at a second conference held in Amman two months ago, Muslim scholars stressed that the existence of a civil state did not contradict Islam.
“A third conference was held in Mecca earlier this month, bringing together around 750 Muslim scholars from across the world.”
“In this conference there was ... self-criticism [among scholars] for not raising their voices at the proper time against terror. The [focus] of the conference was on how to work together – all Muslims [and] Islamic institutions – against terror, from an Islamic perspective. That was a new step forward.”
“So when we say that we have to recreate a new Middle East that respects plurality and religious freedom, based on a national civil state with equality between its citizens, we mean it. This has been proved by these Islamic declarations: Al-Azhar, Mecca, Amman,” Sammak said.
In recognition of his personal and professional achievements, last month Italy decorated Sammak with the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
“Well, actually I was surprised when I was informed,” he said.
“I wasn’t aware of it but I actually participated in many conferences in Italy besides the Vatican – maybe I am the only Muslim who had the chance to participate and to speak to two synods in the Vatican,” Sammak added.
Sammak said he had often lectured at Italian universities, and expressed his gratitude for the support of the Italian government.
He has worked to bring Muslims and Christians together since the 1980s, when then-Speaker Hussein Husseini tasked Sammak with carrying proposals between Husseini and Christian leaders, in a bid to end Lebanon’s Civil War.
“More than 80 percent of Taif had already been prepared by the Lebanese themselves,” Sammak said. “We learned that through dialogue we can solve our problems, not through conflict.”
Sammak was referring to the 1989 Taif Agreement which ended Lebanon’s civil war.
Asked whether he was optimistic that dialogue could eventually triumph across the region, he said he remained confident.
“In the end yes, for sure. This is, as I said, a tsunami – and it is a devastating tsunami, it is a horrible one we are facing – but like any other tsunami it will pass.”