As Jews began their Hanukkah celebrations this week, commemorating the recovery of the Holy Land and the Temple from foreign invaders by Judas Maccabeus, and more than a billion Christians prepare for one of the holiest days of the church year, where the doors of Christian churches will be thrown open to anyone willing to hear the good news of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to redeem humanity, millions of Muslims are preparing for their own spiritual journey next week in the annual trek to Mecca to perform the Hajj.
But quite unlike the Jewish and Christian religious celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas, if you are a non-Muslim, don’t plan on investigating the mysteries of Islam by joining your Muslim friends on their trip to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj – you’re not invited.
Perhaps no better contrast between Judaism, Christianity and Islam exists than the treatment of non-believers on the respective holy days of each religion. I recall fondly the many times that I have participated in the Passover seder at the invitation of Jewish friends and have each time been awed at the profound meaning attached to every element of the seder which is designed to illustrate the fascinating historical narrative of the Jewish people over the millennia that is the foundation of both the Christian and Islamic faiths.
I also remember the occasion several years ago when a Chinese friend of mine who was finishing his PhD at Ohio State joined my family and me for our Christmas Eve celebrations. After joining us for worship, he told us with tears in his eyes how that was the first time that he had ever heard the gospel message that Jesus Christ had come into the world to save sinners – a message that had been branded as counter-revolutionary and been outlawed in his own country. Needless to say, we were delighted when he joined us again the following year for Christmas Eve, where he was anxious to tell anyone at church who would listen how he had embraced the free offer of the gospel and become a Christian the previous year. Having returned home to China, my friend is now a leader in the underground Church there.
But if I wanted to join my Muslim friends next week on the Hajj, I would have to bear in mind that my reception would not be as friendly. I would be forbidden to bring my Bible or any Christian literature with me on my trip to Saudi Arabia, and be required to remove anything identifiably Christian from my person (crosses, etc.). There are no Christian churches allowed in the “Land of the Two Mosques”, so there would be no opportunity for me to join with fellow Christians there in our weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day, and I would constantly be under watch by the Wahhabi Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice police to ensure that I didn’t share my Christian faith with anyone else.
Even having arrived in Saudi Arabia and complying with the absolute ban of any expression of my faith, as I approached the holy city of Mecca, I would be denied entry. Despite all of the supposed Quranic endorsements of the “People of the Book” (i.e. Jews and Christians), as a kafir, my presence is not welcome at the Hajj. We should remember that the cardinal offense that prompted Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lackeys to declare war on the “Crusaders and Zionists” in 1996 was the presence of American troops in the Arabian Peninsula, though nowhere near the sacred cities of Mecca or Medina.
For Muslims in the West, they have as much freedom as any other to practice their faith openly and freely without any fear of being molested. The number of mosques popping up all over America is a testament to that freedom.
Such is not the case for Jews and Christians in Islamic lands, however, where people of those faiths are subject to countless acts of intimidation and violence on a daily basis. Even in their synagogues and sanctuaries, believers are not immune from attack. In fact, many are prevented from approaching their own holy sites. In the Holy Land, Muslims occupy the Temple Mount – the historic location of the ancient Jewish Temple – and Jewish worshippers are subject to regular assaults by stone-throwing Muslim crowds at the nearby Wailing Wall and other sacred sites. And it was the mere presence of a Jew – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – near the Temple Mount in September 2000 that sparked the second intifada that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews, Christians and Muslims in recent years. Jews have also been forbidden from visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron – Judaism’s second-most holy site – since it was converted to a mosque in 1266.
And earlier this month Turkish authorities feared that Pope Benedict might take the opportunity while touring the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – one of the greatest churches in the world that was seized by Muslims after 1,000 years of constant use by Christians – that he might actually try to pray there.
It isn’t just the Hagia Sophia that has suffered the inglorious fate of being converted from its original use as a Christian church to be taken over by invading Islamic forces and made into a mosque. In her book, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Bat Ye’or chronicles how innumerable Christian and Jewish holy sites, such as the Church of St. John in Damascus that was demolished by the Islamic Caliph Abd al-Malik in 705 and had the Umayyad Mosque built over it, were taken over for the exclusive use for Islamic worship during the constant waves of Islamic conquest. It is worth noting that even the Kabaa, the central location of worship in Mecca, was seized by Mohammad from non-Muslims.
Getting back to my original point – one of the constant complaints of Muslim apologists is that Westerners just don’t understand Islam. Fair enough; but is that entirely the fault of non-Muslims who are shut out of Islam’s most important rituals? And might it be the case that those of us, Christians and Jews alike, who are angered at the treatment of our brethren in Islamic lands do so not because of our alleged “Islamophobia”, but rather on the basis of real grievances?
As former President Jimmy Carter travels the country promoting his book identifying Israel as an apartheid state because they refuse to capitulate to Palestinian terrorism, perhaps he might take some time and try to join his Wahhabi patrons during the Hajj this year and see what religious apartheid is really all about. While believers and non-believers alike will enjoy the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays, the invitation for Jews and Christians to join their Muslim friends and neighbors for the Hajj this year didn’t get lost in the holiday mail. It was never sent.
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