Can we apply reciprocity to freedom of religion?

Wednesday, 8. February 2012

Wadiaa Khoury (Photo: Rob Lancaster)The principle of reciprocity, or fair dealing, is well established between nations. Wadiaa Khoury asks whether this could also be applied to the question of freedom of religion.

Nations need and expect their diplomatic and legal relationships with other nations to be based on reciprocity. This is true when it comes to trade as well as situations like the exchange of criminals.

In academic terms, the principle of reciprocity states that in international relations and treaties, favors, benefits, or penalties that are granted by one state to the citizens or legal entities of another, should be returned in kind.

Whether this reciprocity is based on mutual respect or on mutual distrust has been debated in thousands of studies. But all agree that the ultimate goal is nondiscrimination.

What if we apply this principle of reciprocity to the matter of freedom of religious practice?

An article I read this week by the Egyptian Muslim journalist, Fatima Na’ut, as well as discussions with an Indonesian friend made me think about this. It is a hot topic in some European countries as well as within religious ‘minority’ communities in Arab and Islamic parts of the world.

The article was titled: ‘Put yourself in the shoes of the Christians’. It spoke extensively about the generally unnoticed discrimination suffered by Egypt’s Copts. The writer emphasized the lack of any reference to Christian faith and existence in the Egyptian school curriculums, and the increasing derision of Christian symbols in public discourse.

The conversation with my Indonesian friend was about the support his group tried to offer to the Christians of his country on Christmas Eve, as the authorities banned the celebration of mass in churches.

I wrote the word ‘minorities’ in quotation marks because, in almost all cases, these minorities have roots going back thousands of years in the lands where they now feel threatened. Therefore the word ‘minorities’ is felt as an insult, rather than a description of status. In a recent conversation between an Arab Christian Patriarch and a European President, the President advised the Patriarch to consider the possibility of relocating to Europe what he called: ‘the minority made of 17 to 20 million Arab Christians’. This was suggested as a solution to the increasing stress and threats suffered by various minorities as a result of the ‘Arab spring’. This conversation ended with no less tension than one in the 80s, when another diplomat from a more distant country, offered a similar solution to the Lebanese Christians. The Lebanese Patriarch’s answer then was: ‘shut your mouth, this is not the way to speak about a deeply rooted people!’ This conversation was systematically archived in the Patriarchate register of official visits.

Back to reciprocity: I read an increasing number of messages and presentations denouncing the rise of Islamic enculturation in Europe. As a non-European I keep my thoughts to myself.

I may be moved by information on the closing of churches and rejection of visas for Christian clerics to particular Islamic countries, while on the other hand those same countries are financing the construction of big mosques and trips by Muslim clerics advocating for Islam in Europe. I may also agree with the voices asking for the application of the principle of reciprocity between the concerned countries. But my reaction cannot have the same legitimacy as when I get informed about the fate of Christian ‘minorities’ in the Arab and Muslim countries.

Looking for reciprocity between Western and Arab countries may be nowadays as illusionary as the idea that there are just two simple entities representing both – whereas in fact each has its own structures and subdivisions, diverse histories and traditions.

At the same time, the application of non-discrimination inside many Arab and Muslim countries is currently more illusionary than ever.

So, in the present situation, what would be the best strategy to ensure the rights of minorities to be different? For many, there may not be any political gain in answering this question for the Middle East. But could we answer this question by imagining what it would be like to be a European country whose original population has been reduced to a minority?

Wadiaa Khoury was born in Zahle, Lebanon. She studied educational sciences at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut before taking part in Action for Life, a 10 month IofC leadership training programme in Asia. Since then, she has worked as the Community Service Coordinator at the International College in Beirut. While working, she has continued her studies, completing a Bachelor’s in Law and a Master’s in Public Law. She has a keen interest in building trust across the world's divides, particularly for religious and cultural dialogue. Wadiaa enjoys taking long drives to reflect on life, the quiet solitude of walking in nature and working and having conversations deep into the night.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.