By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad
I was seated not far from President Donald Trump as he gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast conference in Washington DC. “We are creating a culture that protects freedom, and that includes religious freedom,” said President Trump.
For two days, Washington DC hosted renowned religious leaders and influential political figures from all parts of the world. I attended the conference representing the Syrian Democratic Council, with Bassam Ishak, co-chief of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council.
Many speakers at the conference emphasized the need for reconciliation between the world’s religions, for religious diversity and ethno-cultural plurality. Religious freedom includes freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, including the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, as well as the freedom to change faith. These are the ideals that the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) were founded upon. These are the ideals that beat in the hearts of our Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the brave warriors who fought and died to protect the world from ISIS terrorism and religious extremism.
As part of the conference, the US Department of State launched its International Religious Freedom Alliance, through a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. This alliance promises to expand the mission of international religious freedom in the world. The Syrian Democratic Council supports these valuable efforts.
The Middle East needs religious freedom more than ever right now. Our Syrian Democratic Forces spilled their blood to defeat ISIS so that the children of Syria might someday have a chance at freedom. They fought so that the Yezidi people would not be destroyed by religious extremists. They fought so that Syriac Christian children might have a chance to learn Aramaic, the language of their ancestors and the language of Jesus Christ, in schools. They fought to protect the Kurdish identity from forced assimilation with hardline Islam. They fought so that women would not have the black veils of oppression thrown over them, forced to survive under the crushing weight of ISIS extremism.
Religious freedom isn’t a new concept. All of the major religions of the world actually include religious tolerance and plurality in their teachings.
The Holy Quran has many verses on religious tolerance and plurality: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (Quran 109: 6). As it is written in the Quran, Allah has said, “There is no compulsion in religion…” (Quran 2: 256). In addition, the story of the Bedouin who urinated in the mosque is a story of religious tolerance. In the story, the Prophet Mohammed showed tolerance and patience toward one who did not understand the teachings and practices of Islam. It must be concluded that anyone who persecutes another based on their faith is violating the word of the Quran, and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.
The teachings of Christianity also come back many times to religious tolerance. In Christianity, the “Golden Rule” is considered the most important commandment. Jesus spoke of the Golden Rule, and it was written in many places in the Bible, including all four New Testament gospels. The rule is to love God, and also to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When someone asked Jesus to clarify who your neighbor is, Jesus told a story about a stranger and a “Good Samaritan.” This meant that neighbors were people of different ethnic and religious groups. This “Golden Rule” calls not only for religious tolerance and plurality, but love for those who are from different groups.
The Dalai Lama, the head figure in Tibetan Buddhism, has said, “I appreciate any organization or individual people who sincerely make an effort to promote harmony among humanity, and particularly harmony among the various religions. I consider it very sacred work and very important work.” This demonstrates that the teachings of Buddhism promote harmony among people of different faiths.
Judaism teaches that all people of all nations have a relationship with God. The Torah says, “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:1; Sanhedrin 105a; also Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4). It teaches that “righteous people” can come from any faith or ethnicity.
There are a wide variety of deities and cultural practices in Hinduism, so it can be difficult to point to a single authoritative source of teachings. However, there is a very popular teaching of modern Hindu temples, the metaphor of the mountain. Hindu faith leaders say that the goal of spirituality is to get up “the mountain.” “There are many paths up the mountain,” they say. This is widely interpreted as meaning that all religions are the same, as all represent a different path up the mountain.
Despite the teachings of the major religions, we know that religious intolerance has spread its darkness over the world time and time again, causing war, death, and oppression. Religion has been used by politicians, kings, emperors to wage destruction since the beginning of history.
Only when all the world’s people can join together in harmony, and build systems of religious tolerance and plurality, will we achieve peace. Religious freedom is in the heart of the Syrian Democratic Council. It is professed by President Donald Trump and by the brand new International Religious Freedom Alliance. These efforts toward international religious freedom promise to transform the world. Religious freedom is what the Middle East needs, and what the world needs.